In considering “how big a wave” might wash ashore during the 2014 midterms, University of Virginia Professor Larry Sabato identified the Alaska Senate race as the tipping point. His rankings suggest that a win by Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Begich would likely translate into the Democrats keeping control of the Senate by virtue of Vice President Joseph Biden’s tie-breaking vote, whereas a Republican win would flip the chamber’s control to the GOP.
It appears Sabato is not alone in his thinking. Despite historically significant poll numbers showing that anti-incumbent sentiment is running strong this cycle and President Barack Obama’s job approval in Alaska ranking as his eighth lowest in the country (33.5 percent), Democrats and liberal-leaning outside groups have already made $7.5 million worth of television advertising reservations in support of Begich for this fall. As National Journal reporter Andrea Drusch explains, that is “a huge amount of money for a state where media comes relatively cheap.”
Are the Democrats wasting their money? Should they, perhaps, be more focused on Louisiana? The incumbent there, Sen. Mary Landrieu, has a deep connection to her state (she was first elected senator in 1996; her father was governor of Louisiana and mayor of New Orleans, and her brother is the current mayor of New Orleans) and has the electoral advantage of her race possibly ending up in a December runoff that could spur both national coverage and higher Democratic turnout.
Surprisingly, the answer is probably not.
The logic is as follows: Democrats believe that if they can prevent Louisiana’s Senate runoff from being the decisive contest by winning another competitive race in November, then they may be able to avoid Biden becoming their majority tie-breaker. In Sabato’s language, the “wave” turns out to be only some “small breakers.”
Interestingly, Alaska appears to be the Democrats’ best hope for that November win.
Aside from Begich currently leading “all of his potential Republican opponents” in the latest Public Policy Polling survey, he’s likely to benefit from the fact that Alaska’s primary does not take place until August 19. This contrasts with North Carolina, which settled on Sen. Kay Hagan’s opponent, Thom Tillis, last week, and Arkansas, whose Republicans long-ago coalesced around Rep. Tom Cotton as the candidate to take on Sen. Mark Pryor. And even though Alaska’s former Attorney General Dan Sullivan has recently pulled ahead and become the Republican’s front-runner, it seems unlikely that his opponents, Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell and tea party activist Joe Miller, will go quietly into the night.
Further, inaction by the Republican-controlled state legislature has meant that three left-leaning initiatives (legalizing marijuana, increasing the minimum wage and protecting Bristol Bay) will now be on Alaska’s November ballot, and may end up helping Begich turn out his voters. For as political science research has shown, “states with initiatives on the ballot in midterms have higher turnout than states that do not.” Surely, those national Republicans observing their fellow Alaskans are thinking with “friends like these…”
Whether or not the coming wave swamps Begich remains uncertain, but what we do know is that Alaska’s contest will be critical in determining the Senate’s majority party in 2015. In short, if there’s one Senate election to closely follow this year, it’s the race in the 49th state.