TIME 2014 midterm elections

Alaska Voters Get Ready for the Polar Primary

Alaska Senate Republicans
From left, U.S. Senate Republican candidates Joe Miller, Dan Sullivan and Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell take part in a debate in Eagle River, Alaska on Aug. 4, 2014. Mark Thiessen—AP

Alaskans vote to pick which Republican will take on Democratic Sen. Mark Begich

Alaskans go to the polls Tuesday to decide the match up for the last big Senate race of the 2014 cycle. Voters there will pick which Republican will challenge Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, a former Anchorage mayor seeking a second Senate term.

The GOP primary has already been messy. Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell entered the race as the establishment favorite and 11 points up in at least one poll a year ago. However, Treadwell faltered on fundraising and organization, giving a window to Dan Sullivan, the former Natural Resources commissioner under once-governor Sarah Palin. Sullivan quickly cemented himself as the frontrunner, garnering the support of the likes of Karl Rove, and has lead in polls since.

That said, don’t discount the 49th state’s ability to surprise politically. The third candidate on the ballot is a living example of that: Joe Miller, a Tea Partier who beat Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary in 2010 but lost the general election to Murkowski, who waged a rare write-in campaign. Sullivan generally garners 30-40% in polls, with Treadwell pulling 20-25% and Miller coming in with 15%-20%. Polls, though, are notoriously unreliable in this state.

The nasty primary, replete with one Miller mailer depicting illegal aliens as gang thugs, has been expensive for Republicans, with Sullivan spending more than $3 million of the $4 million he raised by the end of July. Treadwell spent more than $1 million and Miller nearly $600,000. Begich enters the general election with more than $2 million cash on hand, having spent a whopping $5.2 million in ads promoting himself or attacking his would-be rivals, mostly focusing his fire on Sullivan.

And what Alaska primary would be complete without a bit of confusion? There’s also a Dan Sullivan running for lieutenant governor, which could addle some voters unsure of which Sullivan to vote for in which race.

Begich, who has carefully tended to Alaska’s needs anticipating a tough reelection, enters the general election slightly ahead of Treadwell and Sullivan in hypothetical head-to-head match ups and with a commanding lead over Miller. He will also likely benefit from a spate of third party candidates already on the ballot, including two Libertarians likely to draw votes from the GOP candidate.

The national winds run against Begich these midterms. Six in ten Alaskan voters disapprove of President Barack Obama, to whom Republicans are tying Begich. “Mark Begich has been a champion for [Obama’s] agenda in the Senate, voting with him a staggering 97% of the time leaving even Vermont Socialist Bernie Sanders—94% of the time—in the dust,” says Brad Dayspring, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which works to elect Republicans to the Senate. “Think about that, Mark Begich votes with President Obama more than socialist Bernie Sanders no matter the issue—costly energy taxes, spending increases, and of course, Obamacare.”

Every race is local, though, and given GOP infighting and Begich’s surprising polling resilience, most independent observers rate this seat as lean Democratic.

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