QUINHAGAK, Alaska — One of the Alaskans who might save Democrat Mark Begich’s Senate seat had just returned home from a moose hunt.
Jackie Cleveland is a third-generation resident of Quinhagak, a coastal village of 700 so remote that no roads lead to this bleak patch of frigid tundra. Cleveland and the other Alaska Natives here speak the indigenous language Yup’ik, brave unforgiving winds along the Bering Sea and proudly hunt, fish and gather their own food.
On the gravel lanes and mucky yards of Quinhagak, this fall’s urgent fight for control of the U.S. Senate feels a world away. Yet this is where you’ll find Cleveland, 35, stepping into one living room after another to register her neighbors to vote and make the case for Begich.
Cleveland is part of Begich’s secret weapon: an expensive, sophisticated political field operation that reaches into tiny villages along rivers and in mountain ranges throughout the vast Last Frontier. The Begich ground game — which the senator and his campaign detailed for the first time to The Washington Post — is on a scale far beyond anything that has been tried here before.
On a crisp evening last week, Cleveland showed up at the home of Louie Johnson, 42. She knew Johnson — she knows just about everybody in Quinhagak — and cut to the chase: “Do you want some information about Mark Begich?”
“The most important issue for me in rural Alaska is survival,” Johnson said. Cleveland explained Begich’s work to protect subsistence rights to hunt moose and caribou on federal and state lands. She handed him a glossy handout with the title: “Mark Begich, True Alaska.” Then she turned to Johnson’s nephew, Jonathan Hunter, 19, who had been on the couch watching television, and helped him fill out his voter registration form.
“Quyana,” Cleveland said, using the Yup’ik word for “thanks,” before quickly moving along. There were more houses to visit before sundown.
In the Republican-leaning state of Alaska, in a Republican-leaning midterm election year, it would be easy to conclude that Begich is doomed. GOP nominee Dan Sullivan and his allies have been attacking Begich as a loyal foot soldier to President Obama whose voting record does not match Alaska’s more conservative values. In an interview, Sullivan said Begich “went to Washington and forgot who he represented.”
But Begich believes his ground game can help him withstand the unfavorable political climate. He is not alone: In competitive Senate races nationwide, Democratic candidates have invested heavily in surgical turnout operations to drive people who traditionally vote only in presidential elections to the polls in November.
The Democrats’ showcase is Alaska, where neither party previously had much grass-roots infrastructure because of its Republican tilt and the logistical obstacles of traveling between rural villages.
A system to mobilize voters is particularly important this year because Alaska is dramatically expanding opportunities for early voting, which begins Oct. 20.
In 2012, Alaska had 82 early voting locations, mostly in urban and suburban areas. But after Alaska Native leaders demanded better access in rural villages, the state is opening 208 early voting locations this month — 161 of them in rural Alaska. This means that the campaigns have a full two weeks to marshal voters to the polls.
Sullivan has five field offices in the state’s most-populated areas, just as Begich did during his 2008 campaign. But this year, Begich opened 16 offices, many in far-flung communities.
Whereas Sullivan and the Republican Party have 14 field staffers on the payroll, Begich and the Democratic Party have 90. Nearly half of them are based in rural Alaska and are responsible for on-the-ground organizing in the state’s 198 Native villages such as Quinhagak.
“We have knocked on every single door in rural Alaska,” Begich said in an interview. “This is unbelievable. No one’s ever done it like this — ever.”
Only about 250,000 of Alaska’s 500,000 registered voters are expected to vote this year, meaning the hotly contested Senate race could be decided by a couple thousand votes. Polling is notoriously unreliable here, but Sullivan has led in recent public surveys, and nonpartisan forecasting models give the Republican an edge.
Still, Begich said, “I don’t care if we’re up or down. We’re winning on the ground because we will turn out more voters.”
Most of Alaska’s 735,000 residents live in the Railbelt, which extends from the interior city of Fairbanks south to Anchorage and the coastal cities beyond. Voter participation historically has been the lowest among the roughly 20 percent of the population scattered elsewhere, many of them Alaska Natives.
Begich sees an opportunity: “We know in a village, if we make contact with all the folks, the odds if we show them what we’re doing and what our opponent is doing, we will win that vote.”
Alaska Natives are considered part of Begich’s base, but historically they are loyal to neither party. In 2008, they backed Begich over longtime Sen. Ted Stevens (R), who had been revered in the villages as “Uncle Ted” for steering federal money here until he got into legal trouble. In 2010, Alaska Natives helped propel Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s reelection as a write-in candidate.
Even without a deep network on the ground, Sullivan is fighting for the rural vote. “Mark Begich has been telling people, ‘I have the Native vote locked up,’ ” Sullivan said. “It’s a bit of a cocky thing to say. . . . It borders on insulting to a group of Alaskans who are very diverse, and it smacks of taking them for granted.”
Sullivan’s wife is the daughter of prominent Athabaskan leaders. Sullivan said he is raising their three daughters to honor indigenous traditions, and that he regularly works at her family’s Yukon River fish camp. “I go to fish camp to work, not like Mark Begich to get photo ops,” he said.
Begich’s campaign tells villagers that Sullivan is against subsistence rights because, as the state’s attorney general, he reopened a high-profile case against Katie John, a Native elder who was subsistence fishing on state lands. But Sullivan said he is “110 percent committed” to subsistence as the highest-priority use of federal and state land.
Across the country, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, through its Bannock Street project, is trying to build on the grass-roots network that gave Obama an edge in 2008 and 2012 and replicate those tactics in non-swing states such as Arkansas and Louisiana.
In Iowa, for example, Democrats say they have 200 paid staffers in 33 field offices and are focused on early voting already underway and absentee ballots. Of the 209,138 voters who requested absentee ballots as of Thursday, about 50 percent are Democrats and about 30 percent are Republicans, according to the Iowa secretary of state’s office.
Of those who have requested ballots, 30 percent of registered Democrats and 47 percent of unaffiliated voters did not vote in 2010, according to Matt Canter, the DSCC’s deputy executive director. That’s an indication that the party has expanded the off-year electorate.
In Alaska, Begich made an early decision to focus on the ground. Retail politics is in his blood. Begich’s father, Nick, served as Alaska’s lone congressman and made frequent rural visits before disappearing in a 1972 plane crash — an accident that still resonates in Native villages. The senator’s siblings travel throughout rural Alaska for their work, as do his mother, Pegge, and wife, Deborah Bonito.
Begich’s outreach extends into urban precincts as well. Andrew Halcro, president of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce and a former Republican state legislator and gubernatorial candidate, said there is “no comparison” to the Begich operation.
“I have never seen 20-
somethings roaming my neighborhood with iPads with the data they have,” Halcro said. “There’s never been this organized, concerted, backbone effort before.”
The unique challenge for Begich has been to build a modern campaign in faraway places with severe logistical and communications obstacles. Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, who oversaw Obama’s 2012 field organization as his deputy campaign manager, made several trips to Alaska this year to help the Begich team adapt modern techniques in rural outposts.
“We had to think about how we can get the most out of these data programs and understand what’s happening when not everyone has an address and not everyone has Internet access, where a lot of people are on CB radios, where many of these communities empty out as people are fishing,” O’Malley Dillon said.
One of those places is Kotzebue, a gritty town north of the Arctic Circle where 3,200 people live on a peninsula in the Chukchi Sea, just across from Russia. Last week, with the darkness of winter approaching, 25-year-old Myles Creed canvassed the muddy streets of Kotzebue wearing a sweatshirt that read “Alaska Grown” and carrying a clipboard stacked with voter data. Creed is Begich’s man on the ground.
“Paglagivsi to the Kotzebue branch of the Alaska Democratic Party,” reads a sign, using the Iñupiaq word for “welcome,” taped to the side door of Creed’s parents’ house. The door opens to a 200-square-foot storage room that Creed has turned into his bedroom and a makeshift Begich headquarters. On the wall above Creed’s small desk is a town map showing every house, with marks designating who has registered to vote and who has not. Creed has sorted canvassing packets for volunteers on a wooden step ladder.
Raised in Kotzebue, Creed went away to college in Oregon but moved home this summer. Creed, who is white, is passionate about linguistics and studies Iñupiaq with a Rosetta Stone program on his Apple laptop. (He’s learned to say, “Are you registered to vote?”)
On weekday afternoons from 5 to 7, Creed hosts office hours. Some nights, Begich’s two other paid field staffers turn Creed’s bedroom into a call center, dialing out to nearby villages for votes. They organize small events where — to emphasize Begich’s embrace of indigenous customs — traditional foods such as muktuk (whale blubber) are served.
“There’s that history of a Begich presence,” said Siikauraq Whiting, a former Northwest Arctic Borough mayor and Begich supporter. “We have politicians fly in and fly out, but we don’t have active people here. To have a young person like Myles here, it could make a monumental difference.”
One afternoon last week, Creed and Chloe Naylor, 18, a high school intern, visited the homes of registered voters asking them to fill out a “commit to vote” card. They plan to mail them back to voters as a personal reminder.
“This is the definition of grass roots,” Creed said as he roamed the town. “There aren’t these data matrices. It’s just going around and talking to people about the election.”
Meanwhile, over at the general store, field staffer Suzanne Evans spent the afternoon behind a folding table greeting familiar faces and registering them to vote. For Evans, 47, born and raised in Kotzebue, it was easy to get people’s attention. “I’m Auntie Sue or Cousin Sue to everybody,” she said, only half-joking.
It’s the personal connection between organizers and villagers that Democrats believe can tilt the balance in the Senate race. Begich said his staffers are not “shipped in from someplace out of state.”
In Quinhagak, Cleveland was raised in the Yup’ik tradition. She hunts moose and caribou to fill the freezer through winter. She picks medicine plants and tea from the tundra for her grandfather. Yup’ik is her first language, and although she went away to film school in Montana, she missed speaking it every day and moved back home.
Cleveland is Quinhagak’s director of natural resources. But once she gets off work at 5 p.m., she toils away for Begich. Her dusty old Ford pickup, with a pair of mini moccasins handmade from fish skin hanging from the rearview mirror, is her office. She keeps a box of Begich “True Alaska” flyers in the back seat.
Cleveland sees herself as a protector of Quinhagak’s traditions, and that’s what she said drew her to Begich. “We have it all — the salmon, the land mammals, the sea mammals, fruits and berries,” she said. “The biggest seller I think is that he supports subsistence rights.”
That night in Quinhagak, Cleveland headed toward another home to make another pitch: Mark Begich, subsistence rights, “True Alaska.” She paused for a moment. “I’m naturally oblivious to politics,” she said, “but here I am.”