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With Election Night now almost a week away, there is only one certainty in Alaska’s U.S. Senate contest: the outcome will likely be close, late and unpredictable.
Over the past decade, the Last Frontier State has sported a series of tight, nasty – and sometimes downright strange – U.S. Senate races.
It also happens that whichever party wins those close Alaska races that year has gone on to snatch-up a number of other Senate seats across the nation.
This year, the Republican Party sees Alaska as a prime pick-up opportunity. Incumbent Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, is fighting for his political life, with most (though not all) polls showing the Democrat trailing Republican nominee Dan Sullivan in this traditionally Republican state.
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Two factors are likely to play a major role in who win this contest: Whether voters lash out against the party of the unpopular president, and whether Alaskans’ focus is on local or national issues.
“It seems pretty clear that Begich has carved out more of a niche for himself as the local- issues candidate,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a non-partisan political analysis website run by the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“The problem is it is not clear if this race will be decided on local issues.”
Given that the final polling places close in Alaska at 1:00 am ET, the political world likely won’t know the Begich-vs.-Sullivan outcome until very late in the evening.
The story of Alaska’s recent series of interesting U.S. Senate dates back to 2002, when newly elected Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski appointed his daughter, Lisa, to fill his vacated Alaska Senate seat (caused by his own resignation). The state’s Republican legislature saw to it that Gov. Murkowski, and not outgoing Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles, would select the successor.
Lisa Murkowski’s Senate seat was up in 2004, and she faced off against the popular Knowles. Ultimately, Murkowski won by a narrow 49-to-46 percent margin. And elsewhere across the country, Republicans ran the table on Election Day, winning the presidency and bringing their majority in the Senate to 55.
Then came the 2008 Senate race, which pitted 40-year Republican incumbent Ted Stevens against Democrat Mark Begich. Stevens limped through much of the race due to an indictment on corruption charges. But Stevens’ conviction on all seven counts a week before Election Day provided the opening Begich needed. And he edged out Stevens, 48 percent to 47 percent, becoming the state’s first Democratic senator since 1974.
Stevens remained adamant about his innocence following the election, and the Department of Justice eventually dismissed his conviction in 2009 – after it discovered prosecutors had withheld key evidence from Stevens’ lawyers. (Stevens was later tragically killed in a small plane crash in Aug. 2010.)
That 2008 election, of course, was a huge Democratic year, with the party winning the White House and picking up additional Senate and House seats.
Alaska’s odd Senate race trend continued into 2010, when Sen. Murkowski – up for her second full term – lost her Republican primary but staged an incredible comeback in the form of a write-in candidacy to save her seat. And the GOP went on to big gains that election season.
So if the trend continues this election cycle, whichever way Alaska goes could provide some hints about the way the other races go.