Politics & Policy

Mark Begich’s Third-Party Hail Mary

(Win McNamee/Getty Images)
He’s boosting a Libertarian candidate to try to peel off liberty voters from Dan Sullivan.

Democrats don’t often align themselves with libertarians, but Mark Begich is hoping an unlikely alliance can help him keep his Senate seat in today’s election.

Begich, Alaska’s incumbent Democratic senator, is boosting Libertarian candidate Mark Fish as the former tries to hold on against Republican challenger Dan Sullivan. By boosting Fish’s stock, Begich hopes to pry votes from Sullivan’s column in a tough year for Democrats.

Begich has prominently included Fish in a new ad and publicly supported including him in a recent debate even though he didn’t meet the standard for participants. In a tight race — Sullivan leads by an average of just two and a half points — the performance of a third-party candidate could mean the difference between victory and defeat.

Fish initially found Begich’s enthusiasm for his libertarian message “surprising,” and “disturbing,” he tells NRO. Ultimately, though, the candidate, who has run no ads of his own, says he made his peace with the free publicity. “The whole reason I’m in the race is to present the libertarian message, and bring it to the mainstream,” he says.

The state’s governor’s race has seen its own third-party shenanigans. When Democrat Byron Mallott and independent Bill Walker merged their campaigns against Republican incumbent Sean Parnell, they instantly made the Alaska race a dead heat. And Democrats have tried third-party political maneuvering elsewhere this year, too: In the Kansas Senate race, Democratic nominee Chad Taylor’s surprising withdrawal instantly made independent Greg Orman the favorite to unseat Republican senator Pat Roberts. In South Dakota, Democrats briefly thought independent Larry Pressler (a former Republican senator) might prove a potential wild card in their quest to upset the Republican favorite, former governor Mike Rounds (though that possibility seems to have faded quickly).

Begich’s coziness with the libertarian Fish takes a slightly more subtle page from the Democratic playbook. For instance, Fish, a National Guard veteran, received some air time in a recent Begich ad that highlights their mutual opposition to government surveillance of private communications. “That’s Mark Begich and libertarian Mark Fish: True Alaskans fighting the Dan Sullivan surveillance state,” a narrator says.

In 2012, struggling Montana Democratic senator Jon Tester benefited from a similar strategy against Republican Denny Rehberg. A $500,000 ad buy by the Montana Hunters and Anglers Leadership Fund, a Democrat-aligned group funded by the environmentalist League of Conservation Voters, encouraged residents to vote for libertarian candidate Dan Cox, whom the ad called the “real conservative” in the race. Cox’s reasonably strong showing likely swung the election: Tester defeated Rehberg by three points, with Cox gaining almost 7 percent of the vote.

Fish is a little squeamish about the support. Begich isn’t a better champion of liberty than Sullivan, he says, “both parties pick and choose what freedoms that they support.”

Despite Begich’s efforts, Fish didn’t get to say that on a debate stage. The Democrat tried and failed to help Fish, who failed to file basic FEC paperwork, qualify for a Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce debate last month.

The Democratic campaign has tried to characterize the relationship as a benevolent one. “Since many of the debate hosts won’t include Mr. Fish, Senator Begich believes it is only fair to give Alaska voters all the information,” a Begich spokesman told the Alaska Dispatch News regarding Begich’s pro-Fish ads.

While Fish isn’t a political newcomer, the 2014 Senate race has already shaped up to be more eventful than his previous runs for elected office. He fell short in a 2003 bid for the Anchorage city assembly and in a 2008 run, as a Republican, for a seat in the state house. He’s been active in Republican politics and served as a volunteer coordinator on former GOP Senate candidate Joe Miller’s 2010 campaign, which Miller lost to write-in candidate Lisa Murkowski. Fish now calls his involvement in the GOP “a misguided idea that libertarians could work within the Republican party.”

Now, he says, though he’s been under “intense pressure” to denounce Begich’s ads, he doesn’t feel like he owes the GOP any favors.

If Mark Begich ekes on a victory on Tuesday, Fish may have inadvertently gotten even more payback against the GOP than he ever anticipated.

— Andrew Johnson is an editorial associate at National Review Online.

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