Everyone in the Alaska politisphere jointly gasped yesterday at 4:50 p.m., when former Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan strolled nonchalantly into the Anchorage branch of the State of Alaska Division of Elections office and filed to run against U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski.
Every remnant of the Joe Miller rebellion passed out from utter joy, caused by visions of a Murkowski defeat dancing in their heads. Lisa loyalists busted out in flop sweat at the idea of facing a credible primary threat they hadn’t anticipated. The rest of us were simply at a loss for thought, let alone words.
Let’s all take a deep breath, have a glass of water, and think about this… rationally.
Can Mayor–not Senator–Dan Sullivan beat Lisa Murkowski in this primary?
The short answer is, “Yes… but.”
Okay. That isn’t entirely fair of me to do to you, so let’s start with why Mayor Dan Sullivan (Mayor Dan) is a threat to Senator Lisa Murkowski (Lisa).
Mayor Dan is in many ways the perfect candidate to take Lisa on. To start with, he has solid street cred with business, fiscal, and social conservatives from a track record as Mayor of Anchorage marked by tightly managing the Muni’s budget and taxes, fighting pro-LGBT legislation, as well as taking on public employee unions with legislation of his own.
As one political insider told me yesterday, “Dan is conservative enough to get the Republican base excited, but not so far to the right he scares business and industry people.” To translate that a bit, Mayor Dan is acceptable to both Republican voters and Republican money.
As a two-time mayor of the Muni with 40.5% of the state’s population, Mayor Dan is also a known quantity and a proven vote-getter. He won with 57% and 58% of the vote in his two mayoral races, two of the largest margins of victory in Anchorage voting history. In 2014, he ran for the Republican nomination for Lt. Governor and easily sailed to victory in that primary.
Then there is the interesting issue of name recognition. Mayor Dan, as you have probably heard a thousand times by now, shares a name with Alaska’s Junior Senator Dan Sullivan (Senator Dan). It’s clear from talking to Mayor Dan that he feels Senator Dan benefited greatly from his (Mayor Dan’s) name recognition when he beat Senator Mark Begich just two years ago.
Mayor Dan openly commented while filing his paperwork to run for Senate that he felt the same twist-of-fate-name-recognition-voodoo that helped Senator Dan could swing back and similarly help him this year. Senator Dan remains popular with the Republican base in Alaska two years into office, so Mayor Dan may very well be correct.
From all of this, it is an easy conclusion to draw that Republican voters really like Mayor Dan. Given that Lisa lost her last race for the Republican nomination for Senate in 2010, it’s fair to say there was a broad swath of Republican voters that didn’t particularly like her then, and I don’t think anyone would deny that is still true today.
So, yes–Mayor Dan can be a threat to Lisa.
But that is just the tip of the analytical iceberg. The more pertinent question is, “Will Mayor Dan be a threat to Lisa?” Early indications are the answer to that is “No.”
As with anything in politics, it all starts with money. Lisa is sitting on a pile of over $3 million in campaign cash and as Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, she can easily and quickly raise millions upon millions more.
Mayor Dan, on the other hand, has no money, and it’s not clear where he would get any. The truth is, there isn’t much campaign money in Alaska, so federal candidates have to find it somewhere Outside if they want to be real contenders.
The Tea Party Express-type groups that fueled Joe Miller’s run seem to have petered out. Other national Republican groups are focused on helping the party maintain control of the Senate by putting their money in hotbed places like Ohio, New Hampshire, and Florida. It’s unlikely they will divert money from those efforts to send to Alaska to go after an incumbent Republican.
Even if Republican groups were willing to do that, they likely wouldn’t in this case. If Mayor Dan were to beat Lisa in the primary, it would probably set up a four-way race in the general election between him and Democrat Edgar Blatchford, Independent Margaret Stock, and Libertarian Cean Stevens. Mayor Dan would be the favorite in that race, but not the “lock” the more broadly popular Lisa would be.<
To Outside money, backing Mayor Dan represents increased risk of a non-Republican winning the race, and I just don’t see those donors signing up for that.
For full disclosure and for those who don’t know, I worked for Mayor Dan for several months as the only full-time staffer on his mayoral transition team in 2009. Later, as a local radio host, I drew the ire of Mayor Dan for questioning some of his policy assertions, so I have direct knowledge of how he works and politically thinks from time spent as both political friend and foe.
With that said, the main reason I believe Mayor Dan won’t seriously challenge Lisa comes from watching and talking to him at his filing. He made it clear in an impromptu media availability that broke out while he was filing for office that he has made no effort to raise any campaign money, secured no campaign staff, and only decided to launch his run against Lisa in the last few days.
Many might cynically question these assertions, but I believe them to be 100% sincere.
He also said he has no plans to attack or in any way try to tear Lisa down during the coming campaign. Again, I believe this to be true from his perspective.
What Mayor Dan appears to be thinking is that he can run as a conservative-but-loyal Republican alternative to Lisa. In Dan’s mind, he thinks he can play nice with Lisa and her campaign while civilly pointing out where his conservative values differ from hers. In doing so, he sees himself as providing Alaska Republicans a fair choice.
It may be a bit “Pollyanna” to say, but I think Mayor Dan views this as a win-win for everyone involved: conservative voters get a real alternative to Lisa; Lisa gets an unthreatening and civil opponent rather than a nasty, far-right primary hater; the Alaska Republican Party gets a Lisa vs. “X” primary that doesn’t melt down the party.
Of course not! Dan is too much of a threat for Lisa’s team just to ignore, and as anyone who knows Mayor Dan very well is aware, he is not one to let insults just roll off his back. This race is destined for a disaster, and sooner rather than later.
So, why would Mayor Dan do this? What does he get out of it?
I honestly think a few things are going on here. First, as I have been telling people since he left the Mayor’s office last year, I think Mayor Dan fully intends to run again for that spot after his legally mandated post-Mayoral one-term hiatus is up. I also believe he has his eyes on a potential gubernatorial bid in two years.
For him, then, this race is about staying in the public eye, refreshing his political brand, and selling a narrative that he ran the city far better than current Mayor Ethan Berkowitz. Those are all political assets, in his mind, that he can bank toward a future run without costing himself any political capital or putting out that much time or effort over the next few months.
Now, will Lisa and her people sit back and play that game with Mayor Dan? Will he be able to stick to his “I’m not going to attack Lisa” pledge? Will Lisa supporters really not hold it against him if he tries to run for something in the future? Those are all very real and unanswered questions at this point.
For now, though, everyone should calm down about his filing. Until he starts acting like a real candidate really interested in beating Lisa, we need to accept the possibility that he really isn’t.