Why Mark Begich’s attack ad did plenty of damage — to Begich


Senator Mark Begich answers questions at a public meeting in Barrow, Alaska on July 6, 2014. (Photo by Richard J. Murphy for The Washington Post)

For the past five days, a single story has dominated the Alaska Senate race. Sen. Mark Begich's decision to run a TV ad holding former attorney general Dan Sullivan (R) partly culpable for releasing a man from prison who later allegedly killed an elderly couple and sexually assaulted their grandchild has been front page news in local papers and a focal point in the national media.

An attorney for the victims' family asked Begich (D) to remove the ad, which he's done. Sullivan also stopped airing a response ad, in accordance with the family's wishes. (You can read about all of the details from the past few days in this post from The Fix's Philip Bump.) For the first time since Begich launched his ad on Friday, the firestorm appears to be quieting.

But the damage was done. And for Begich, it was self-inflicted. Here are the three biggest reasons why:

1. The story became about process. The point of Begich releasing the ad was to define Sullivan in a very specific way, but the story quickly became about more about and his campaign than anything else. The front pages of today's Alaska Dispatch News and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, for instance, feature stories about the removal of the ads, and the controversy set off by Begich's decision. When voters look back on this incident, what are they going to remember more? The details of Begich's ad, which only aired briefly before it was pulled? Or the resulting criticism from the family's attorney and the Sullivan campaign, which received days of coverage?

2. Things were running smoothly. Then this happened. Begich is one of four Democratic senators running nationwide in states Mitt Romney won in 2012. Of the four, he had arguably put himself in the best position headed into the fall. He's run effective ads produced by red state expert Mark Putnam that have sought remind voters of his deep Alaska roots, including a memorable one about the death of his father, who was a congressman. He's done as good a job keeping President Obama at arm's length as any other vulnerable Democrat. He hadn't committed a major gaffe or been hit with a devastating revaluation of his past record. The most negative story about him up to this point had probably been fellow Sen. Lisa Murkowski's (R) rejection of his efforts to link the two of them together. Not anymore.

3. Begich wants the election to be about local issues. But not like this. If Begich allows the campaign to be dominated by talk of Obama's agenda or national Democrats, he will almost certainly lose. If he can make it about Alaska issues and values, he has a decent chance of winning a second term. But now comes a local issue which he'd certainly like to avoid discussing -- one on which he's now most decidedly on defense. Begich will have enough battles to fight with Republicans trying to link him to Obama and national Democratic policies. He can ill-afford to be on the losing side of local debates, too.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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