TIME 2014 Election

The Super PAC Wars Have Come to Alaska, And It’s Not Pretty

A close race for Sen. Mark Begich's seat has gotten into the mud

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) is one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the country and a key target for Republicans trying to take over the Senate this year. Conservatives have hit him with ads since at least last April, before former Alaska Attorney General Dan Sullivan even jumped in the race, surged to the top of the Republican money leader-board and received the endorsement of the influential conservative group Club for Growth. But over the past two weeks, Begich and an outside group have hit back with two ads bashing Sullivan and the wealthy industrialist Koch brothers.

In his campaign’s first TV ad, Begich tells the Koch brothers to “go home,” noting that they hired a Washington-area actress for their latest anti-Obamacare spot, misled the public on his carbon tax position (according to PolitiFact.com and FactCheck.org), and that they shut down an Alaska oil refinery. The ad mimics a spot last December by the pro-Begich super PAC Put Alaska First, which rips the actress in the Koch ad and supports Begich’s attempts to “fix” the health care law. A few days ago, the same group put up another spot attacking Sullivan for claiming to be Alaskan even though he purchased a non-residential fishing license in 2009.

Despite the railing against money from outside Alaska, Begich’s campaign, like those of his competitors, is fueled by these dollars. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Begich, Tea Party candidate Joe Miller, and Sullivan all received more than 75% of their contributions from outside of Alaska last year. Mead Treadwell, the state’s Republican lieutenant governor who is also running, has raised only about 40% of Sullivan’s $1.2 million, but still got 45% of his contributions from outside Alaska. One reason why outsiders might want to look to Alaska as fertile ground for political spending is that it’s cheap: A general manager for an NBC affiliate in Fairbanks told TIME that a prime-time 30 second spot can cost up to $2,000, while an ABC account executive in New York said a comparable spot starts at $40,000 and can cost as much as $200,000.

The early mudslinging is typical of what’s sure to be an extremely close race, and one that’s critical to the overall battle for the Senate in 2014. And Begich’s latest on-air protests aside, the ads run by his supporters omit some key facts, too. Sullivan didn’t qualify for the in-state license because he was working in Washington in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, and before that in the Marines and the White House. Sullivan has spent the past five years working for the Alaskan government, and he moved to the state about 16 years ago.

The Alaska race is bound to get dirtier, as Democratic polls show a Begich lead and Republican polls show higher support for Sullivan and Treadwell. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report calls the race a “toss-up,” one of seven in the country, and with Republicans needing to pick up a net of six seats to seize control of the Senate, one can expect more misleading—and yes, fishy—ads to come.

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