In 2008, the GOP in Alaska, hobbled by the trial of incumbent Sen. Ted Stevens, lost the Senate seat to Democrat Mark Begich, who like so many Democrats sold himself as an independent-minded moderate. Then in 2010, tea party candidate Joe Miller failed to oust incumbent Lisa Murkowski, who kept her seat by running as a write-in candidate. This year Miller is back, but GOP enthusiasm for him is much dampened. Defeat makes voters more discerning.
Initially, the frontrunner in Alaska was thought to be Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell. However, as one GOP insider put it, “Treadwell seems incapable of raising money.” By contrast, former Marine and Bush-era foreign policy official Dan Sullivan has been a surprisingly adept campaigner and fundraiser. Recently attacked for spending time out of the state, he brought in a political heavyweight to vouch for him. In a rare move into electoral politics Condi Rice produced a TV ad on Sullivan’s behalf.
There are a few takeaways from all this. First, in races such as this one, the “establishment” is proving to be fleet-footed and adaptable based on the relative merits of the candidates. (Tea party groups who pick and then stick with losers should pay attention.) Second, being in Washington and serving one’s country can now be seen as a plus in contrast to the halcyon days of the tea party when anyone who stepped foot inside the Beltway was suspect. Third, Begich didn’t get in trouble because of foreign policy but because of his support for Obamacare, the Obama agenda and his party’s identification with the environmental, anti-energy development set. That said, the president’s foreign policy fiascos put a premium on candidates who know something about foreign policy and can stress their desire to reassert America’s place in the world. Sullivan can rightly claim that his party is the one to pump oil and natural gas, send it around the world and undermine Vladimir Putin; Begich is saddled with anti-XL Pipeline colleagues who talk all night — about climate change.
But the real head-turner here may be Condi Rice. She’s hugely popular in many quarters in the GOP and delivered an impressive performance at the Republican National Convention in 2012. To be blunt, she is a charming and elegant figure, a personality which Republicans are badly in need of featuring. Instead of Sarah Palin as kingmaker, what if Rice became the new go-to Republican with the chops to fundraise and elevate pro-defense Republicans? (In addition to foreign policy, she’s an articulate and impassioned advocate for education reform.) Should she take up that role, she’d have an impact not only in 2014 but in 2016. The more strong-on-defense conservatives (like John Bolton) get into the arena and the more incumbent Republicans understand there are both policy and political reasons to support a forward-leaning foreign policy, the faster the isolationist impulses on the right will evaporate. And let’s be honest: Brainy, articulate women with appeal beyond the base are going to be more effective in enhancing the party’s appeal than a figure like Palin, who animates the hardcore base and turns off most everyone else.
Rice has said many times she does not intend to be a candidate. But she nevertheless can be an effective critic of the administration (something she’s doing more of) and senior stateswoman in her party. She’d do her party and country a favor by continuing make the case for engagement in the world and, when the time comes, providing a searing critique of the Obama-Clinton-Kerry foreign policy debacles. In the meantime, she might be the decisive factor in Alaska, helping to bring a pro-national security vet (Rep. Tom Cotton from Arkansas would be a second) to the Senate.