The Senate Democrats’ decision to issue a national wake-up call on climate change didn’t exactly come at a great time for Democrats like Sen. Mark Begich.
Mr. Begich, who is seeking re-election in deep-red Alaska, was a no-show at last week’s climate change all-nighter on the Senate floor, but that didn’t stop his would-be Republican opponents from weighing in on his party’s call for tougher regulations on carbon dioxide emissions.
“Last night, Senator Begich missed his chance to explain to his fellow Alaskans why he supports policies like cap-and-trade that will increase the price of energy, weaken job creation, and harm our state,” said former Attorney General Dan Sullivan, who is seeking the Republican nomination for Senate.
“Unsurprisingly, this is par for the course for his tenure in the Senate,” Mr. Sullivan said in the statement.
He also described the Democrat as “a loyal follower of President Obama’s climate change agenda.”
Mr. Begich’s absence didn’t come as a surprise. Other Democrats who skipped the all-night talkathon included Sens. Kay R. Hagan of North Carolina, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark L. Pryor of Arkansas, who also face tough re-election bids in conservative states.
COVERAGE: Energy & Environment
It was one more reminder of the troubles a Democratic president and the national party can inflict — intentionally or unintentionally — on a centrist candidate trying to save an endangered seat far from Washington.
Anchorage pollster Marc Hellenthal said that in oil-rich Alaska, which depends on energy development for its economic lifeblood, climate change is far from a winning issue.
“We’re very much pro-development,” said Mr. Hellenthal. “Begich won’t be on the standard Democratic side on that one. That’s kind of like the same thing with the NRA/gun control. He cannot possibly come out for gun control.”
Mr. Begich’s re-election campaign emphasizes his independence, his Alaskan roots and his support for economic development, including energy. He took a swipe at the Environmental Protection Agency this month while introducing a bill on reducing the “unreasonable patchwork of EPA rules” for owners of ships and boats.
He is not getting much help from the Obama administration.
After Interior Secretary Sally Jewell nixed a land-exchange plan in December to help build a road to the remote Aleutian village King Cove, Mr. Begich came under fire from Republicans, even though he supported the road.
Mr. Begich took a shot at the Interior Department a month later by introducing legislation to mandate the land swap.
“Even after visiting King Cove and being stranded in inclement weather themselves, DOI bureaucrats have failed to recognize Alaska’s unique needs,” he said in a Jan. 15 statement.
Mr. Begich doesn’t have an official Republican opponent — the primary isn’t until August — but environmental issues already are moving to forefront of the Senate race. Americans for Prosperity launched a television ad campaign three weeks ago criticizing the Democratic incumbent for supporting a carbon tax.
The Begich team hit back with an ad campaign attacking the Koch brothers, the conservative donors who supported the founding of Americans for Prosperity and have become the go-to villains for Democrats. The ad denies that the senator supports a carbon tax and blasted Koch Industries for shutting down a refinery in Fairbanks.
“It’s another typical Washington ad that tries to fool Alaskans. And who’s behind the ads? Two billionaire outsiders. The Koch brothers,” the ad says.
Americans for Prosperity spokesman Levi Russell pointed to a 2010 letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, signed by Mr. Begich and others calling for “a comprehensive solution that includes making polluters pay through a price on greenhouse gas emissions.”
“In our view, that is the very definition of a carbon tax. Only other instrument being thrown around that would do that is cap and trade,” Mr. Russell said.
Mr. Begich himself has taken Koch brothers money, both directly and via the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Mr. Begich’s Great Land leadership PAC received a $5,000 donation from the Koch Industries PAC, and the DSCC has been bankrolled by the Kochs to the tune of $60,000 since 2008.
A Public Policy Polling survey released Feb. 4 shows Mr. Begich with a single-digit edge in hypothetical matchups with the two leading Republican candidates: Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and Mr. Sullivan, who was endorsed Wednesday by the Club for Growth and has raised the most money. The incumbent held a 20-point lead over 2010 U.S. Senate nominee Joe Miller in the same poll.
Mr. Hellenthal said a disciplined candidate like Mr. Begich likely will avoid self-inflicted wounds such as turning up at climate change talkfests in an election year.
“Being a Democrat does not help him at all in Alaska,” the Anchorage pollster said. “He has to definitely be a conservative Democrat and, to a certain extent, almost out-conservative the Republicans.”