5 things to watch for in Alaska's GOP Senate primary

Alaska Republican Senate candidates (L-R) Dan Sullivan, Mead Treadwell and Joe Miller.

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

On Tuesday, Alaska Republicans will head to the polls to select a U.S. Senate nominee to run against Mark Begich, the Democratic incumbent.

Begich won his seat in 2008 under unusual circumstances. His Republican opponent that year, the legendary Sen. Ted Stevens, was found guilty of federal corruption charges eight days before the general election -- a conviction that was voided a year before his death in a 2010 plane crash.

But even though he was running against a convicted felon in a strong year for Democrats, Begich won the race by fewer than 4,000 votes -- demonstrating the extent of Republicans' built-in advantage in the 49th state.

Begich is a top target of the national GOP this year but has proven himself a strong competitor by emphasizing what he has done for Alaska residents and distancing himself from national Democrats.

Here are five questions that loom over Tuesday's Republican Primary as former Alaska Attorney General and Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and Fairbanks attorney Joe Miller vie for the nomination.

1. Money and Organization vs. Alaska Ties?

With past stints in the George W. Bush White House and in the State Department under Condoleezza Rice, Sullivan has by far the deepest ties to the national GOP establishment of the three candidates.

Karl Rove's American Crossroads and Club for Growth have provided additional resources to Sullivan--whose campaign already had a big financial advantage--which allowed him to flood the inexpensive Alaska airwaves with advertisements.

Sullivan also has at his disposal an experienced team of national Republican operatives organizing on his behalf and a purportedly top-notch get-out-the-vote operation in place for Tuesday.

But the Ohio-born Sullivan has also faced sustained challenges from both of his opponents over the depth of his ties to Alaska -- a criticism that could prove salient in a state where the rest of the world is referred to collectively as "Outside."

Treadwell, in particular, has a more extensive background in Alaska Republican politics, having cut his teeth as an aide to Wally Hickel during his unsuccessful 1978 gubernatorial campaign and serving in Hickel's administration after he ascended to the governor's office in Juneau in 1990.

Alaska political observers agree that Treadwell had a significant head start over Sullivan in on-the-ground organizing. The question now is whether Sullivan's big cash advantage was enough to neutralize that edge.

2. How Reliable Is the Polling?

Republicans in Washington have been buoyed by polls showing Sullivan with a consistent lead over Treadwell and Miller.

But attempting to poll accurately a Republican primary in this state can be about as difficult as acquiring a suntan there in November.

Case in point: the 2010 Republican primary, when a late-July survey conducted by a respected Alaska pollster showed Lisa Murkowski beating Joe Miller by 32 points. A month later, Miller stunned the political world by defeating the incumbent, who nonetheless went on to win the general election as a write-in candidate.

Though the polls this time around have pointed to a two-man race between Sullivan and Treadwell (Miller's unfavorability ratings have soared over the last four years), Begich is among the state's political observers who aren't counting out Miller.

"People everywhere in this town write him off -- I don't," Begich said of Miller in an interview with RealClearPolitics last spring. "Everyone's a player right now in that race. The pundits will always say the guy with the cash is the winner. Alaska politics is always about knowing and meeting and greeting the voters."

3. Will Late Endorsements Matter?

In the 2010 race, Sarah Palin's backing of Joe Miller was widely credited with pushing him past Murkowski in the primary.

Asked in a May interview whether he was seeking the former governor's support, Dan Sullivan told RCP that he had "a lot of respect" for Palin and that "I'm seeking everybody's endorsement."

But instead, the 2008 vice presidential nominee announced Friday on her Facebook page that she is again backing Miller.

Palin's influence in Alaska has waned significantly since 2010, but as the state's most famous resident and a continuing presence in national Republican politics, her late backing of Miller this time around figures to be a factor -- though the question is how much of one.

Miller, who has struggled mightily with fundraising, could have used that endorsement much earlier in the game. Nonetheless, the late nod might help him to reactivate some of the Tea Party supporters who propelled him to victory in the 2010 primary.

An equally intriguing endorsement for Miller came Monday morning in the form of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

"I am proud to endorse Joe Miller for United States Senate in Alaska, because Joe embodies the kind of values our country so desperately needs. He is unequivocally pro-life, pro-family, and pro-traditional marriage. And above all, he understands that life and liberty come from God," Huckabee said in a statement released by Miller's campaign.

Huckabee, who also endorsed Miller in 2010, is said to be mulling a 2016 presidential run. His last-minute backing of Miller appears to confirm Huckabee's belief that the Fairbanks attorney still has clout among the Tea Party set.

4. Will Voters Back Higher Oil Taxes?

Choosing the Republican standard-bearer to put up against Begich won't be the only big decision that Alaska voters make on Tuesday.

Also on the ballot is a referendum measure that, if passed, would repeal the current system by which the state's powerful oil industry is taxed. It would also reinstall the higher tax regime that was a signature achievement of the Palin administration in 2007 and that was in effect until the state legislature passed a new structure of incentives and tax breaks last year.

The state's oil resources -- which the Alaska constitution stipulates are owned collectively by residents of the state -- largely fund the government in Juneau, and the debate over how the industry should be managed makes for some unlikely alliances in the capital.

For instance, it is mostly state Democrats who have come to the defense of Palin's oil taxes program, which was known as ACES.

Proponents of keeping the current tax regime, led by the oil companies, have vastly outspent those who want a return to the Palin-instituted system, which featured a more progressive tax structure.

Sullivan, Treadwell and Miller all oppose the referendum measure, but public support for it has been difficult to handicap.

5. Will the "Other" Dan Sullivan Confuse Voters?

As someone who was already well-known in state politics when he ran for mayor of Alaska's largest city in 2007, longtime Anchorage Assemblyman Dan Sullivan didn't have to worry much about people confusing him with someone else.

But that was before "the other" Dan Sullivan made his return to Alaska and was appointed the state's attorney general in 2009.

The first Dan Sullivan has now been mayor of Anchorage for five years and is the presumptive Republican nominee for lieutenant governor.

But with the second Dan Sullivan also on the statewide ballot Tuesday -- and with neither man choosing to differentiate himself by adding a middle initial to his name -- the potential for confusion is clear.

The Senate primary will appear first on the ballot, so the man who is attempting to win a seat in Washington probably has to worry less about GOP voters believing that their work is done after they vote for one Dan Sullivan.

But he also has offered some advice to voters to try to simplify the matter.

"The mayor's a good Republican with a good record," the Senate candidate told the Wall Street Journal of the lieutenant governor hopeful. "As I've told people, if there's any remaining confusion, there's a simple answer: Just fill in the oval wherever you see the name Sullivan on the ballot."

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics.

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