In the hyper-partisan world of Washington politics, it’s not surprising that there are two competing narratives about Mark Begich’s four-plus years in office as a first-term senator.
One narrative belongs to Begich and his backers: He’s “an Alaska Democrat,” a pragmatic, results-oriented centrist with a wide independent streak worthy of the nation’s last frontier state.
“I think I’ve been in some ways a thorn in the side of Democrats and the president at times,” Begich said earlier this month in his Capitol Hill office – which, fitting his self-image as a lunch-bucket lawmaker, has a view of a brick wall an arm’s reach from the window behind his desk. “But I came here not to follow the status quo.”
Begich ousted longtime incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Stevens in November 2008, winning by fewer than 4,000 votes just eight days after Stevens was convicted on federal corruption charges. The conviction was overturned in April 2009, and Stevens died 16 months later in a plane crash near Dillingham, Alaska.
The second narrative comes from the former Anchorage mayor’s foes in the decidedly red state: He’s a typical liberal who’s supported President Barack Obama’s big-government agenda and has done the bidding of Senate Democratic leaders.
“I don’t really want to get in a tit-for-tat with Mark on a bunch of issues,” Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who’s weighing a run against Begich next year, said last month. “But I don’t believe his core votes in the Senate reflect the electorate who put him in it.”
There’s evidence to support both narratives.
Begich, 50, is a strong Second Amendment advocate who breaks with most Democrats in opposing a renewal of the assault-weapons ban that lapsed in 2004. Instead, he and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina introduced legislation March 6 to prevent mentally ill people from getting guns.
Begich said he’s owned a handgun since he was 16, though he admits he doesn’t hunt and is only a marginal marksman. “Good enough,” he said. “You rob my house, you won’t make it out.”
In another breach of party protocol, Begich promotes expanded oil and natural gas drilling on federal lands, starting with opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration.
Begich also has strayed from Democratic dogma in voting multiple times against ending or reducing federal tax subsidies to oil and gas companies, helping to convince Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to drop such a move from the Nevadan’s budget proposal, and in voting for development of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas.
And in a throwback to how things used to work routinely in Congress but now rarely do, Begich has crossed the aisle to partner with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski on a slew of Alaska-centric issues, often joining forces with Rep. Don Young, also a Republican and Alaska’s sole House representative.
But then there is the second narrative.
In this version of Begich’s senatorial tenure, he’s backed Obama’s most important initiatives, led by the $840 billion economic stimulus package in 2009 and the landmark mandatory health insurance law the next year.
Republicans say those two measures increased the deficit and added to the government’s already record $16.7 trillion debt, contradicting Begich’s claim that he is a fiscal moderate who vets federal spending closely and is committed to cutting the debt.
The senator’s political foes also point to his votes to increase income taxes on well-to-do Americans and to implement the Dodd-Frank system of stiffened regulation of banks and other financial firms; his support for climate change legislation; and his votes to confirm dozens of Obama’s judicial and Cabinet nominees, among them the recent controversial choice of former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel as defense secretary.
Which of these narratives takes the strongest hold will go a long way toward determining whether Begich next year can become the first Alaska Democrat to win re-election to the Senate since Mike Gravel in 1980.
Jennifer Duffy, who tracks the Senate for the Cook Political Report in Washington, rates Begich’s re-election bid as leaning in his favor, but she predicts that the race will be a tossup come next fall after a single Republican foe emerges.
“Against a good candidate, he’s going to have a very competitive race,” Duffy said. “It’s up to the Republicans to produce a good candidate.”
Gov. Sean Parnell is waiting until the legislative session ends next month before deciding whether to challenge Begich, but a number of people across the political spectrum in Alaska expect him to eschew a Senate run.
That would leave the field open for Treadwell, who is viewed by some as the leading contender, but he says he won’t jump in if Parnell runs.
Three other possible GOP candidates – Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, state Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan and 2010 Senate Republican nominee Joe Miller – declined to speak with McClatchy. Former Lt. Gov. Loren Leman said he, too, is weighing a run against Begich.
The 2008 Stevens race wasn’t the first strange election involving a Begich.
In November 1972, Nick Begich, the senator’s father and Alaska’s U.S. House representative, defeated then-state Sen. Don Young – three weeks after Begich’s plane disappeared without a trace during a campaign flight from Anchorage to Juneau with U.S. House Majority Leader Hal Boggs of Louisiana.
A massive 39-day air search for the two congressmen, along with a Begich aide and the pilot, was called off Nov. 24; they were declared dead Dec. 29 and Young won a subsequent special election to assume the House seat he has held since the tragedy.
Mark Begich was 10 at the time. Young has known him almost from his birth.
Begich is one of the few senators who gives reporters his cellphone number and then exchanges texts with them directly. He often chats with journalists while walking between the Capitol and his office across Independence Avenue in the Senate Russell Building.
Begich is also among a handful of Democratic senators who regularly appears on Fox News, providing him an important conduit to more conservative voters back home.
Belying his frequent descriptions of having an arms-length relationship with “national Democrats” while being focused on Alaska’s idiosyncratic needs, Begich accepted a post as chairman of the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee, which reaches out to diverse populations on behalf of the party.
While it’s a feat for a first-term senator to get a leadership spot, Begich’s aides urged him to turn it down, fearing it would make him look like a Washington insider. He rejected their advice.
“Why would I give up a chance to sit in the room with our party leaders and tell them how a moderate Democrat thinks?” Begich explained.
Begich has taken newly elected Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana under his wing. Both ran as centrists in red states, and the three see themselves as forming an unofficial self-described Senate caucus of centrists.
As Alaska’s junior senator, Begich treads a narrow line between representing constituents who oppose big government and following Stevens’ path of bringing home billions of dollars in federal aid for the giant state’s wilderness areas, Native peoples, military bases, oil and gas companies, tourism firms and other recipients.
Begich admits that his job is harder since Congress banned earmarks two years ago over his and Murkowski’s objections; Stevens’ “bridge to nowhere” had drawn national ridicule for Stevens’ efforts to fund the span from Ketchikan to its airport on Gravina Island.
“In Alaska and the Arctic, earmarks were not about wasteful spending,” Begich said. “They were about spending money that met community needs.”