BARROW, Alaska — When Sen. Mark Begich talks about his role in American politics, he describes himself as a sharp object, sent to Washington to jab at President Obama.
“I’ll be a thorn in his [posterior],” Begich (D-Alaska) said in an interview. “There’s times when I’m a total thorn, you know, and he doesn’t appreciate it.”
That metaphor is at the heart of Begich’s political self-image — and, now, his reelection campaign. Begich is running in an age of congressional weakness. Earmarks are dead. The Hill is gridlocked. So Begich has little hope of doing what Alaska always expects its politicians to do: bring home boatloads of money through legislation.
Instead, Begich is running on his power to nag.
Begich tells voters that, as a Democrat holding a Senate seat in a red state, he is a man the president has to listen to. And he says he uses that access to badger the administration for things that benefit Alaska, such as more permits for oil and gas drilling.
In recent days, Begich tested that message on a campaign trip through Alaska’s hinterlands. He had a meeting with Santa Claus. He served his supporters sliced whale. And he tried to convince people of his gift for small favors — in a state used to big ones.
“People that want to say no to me, I just tell them they spelled ‘yes’ wrong,” he told a group of high school students here, explaining his relationship with the administration.
Begich, 52, is a first-term senator known for being pro-gun and pro-oil. But he is not actually that well known for anything. In the Senate, Begich is a junior figure, moving through the chamber’s power structure at the speed of a mastodon trapped in a glacier. Over five years, just one of his bills has been passed into law. It renamed a courthouse in Anchorage.
But now, thanks to the midterm elections, Begich is temporarily one of the most important politicians in the country.
He is one of six sitting Democrats, all running for their political lives, whose losses could hand control of the Senate to the Republicans. The others are Mark Pryor (Ark.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Mark Udall (Colo.), Kay Hagan (N.C.) and John Walsh (Mont.).
In Alaska, the good news for Begich is that Republicans have not picked his opponent. The GOP primary is not until Aug. 19, and there are three major candidates running.
The bad news is that, even running against a Republican to be named later, Begich does not seem to be pulling ahead. Republican groups have poured $10 million into advertising in this race, trying to tie Begich to Obama and the Affordable Care Act, which Begich voted for.
“What Alaska needs again is a fighter in the U.S. Senate, and Mark Begich has not been that fighter,” said Dan Sullivan, a former state attorney general and the apparent front-runner in the GOP primary.
How can Begich win? His answer has two parts.
The first is to emphasize, again and again, that he is a lifelong Alaskan, born and raised in Anchorage. The three Republicans all moved in from “outside,” as Alaskans call the rest of the United States.
To underline the point, Begich has filmed TV ads that show him snowmobiling in temperatures of 20 degrees below zero. On the campaign trail, Begich likes to point things out and exclaim “Only in Alaska!” — even when that’s probably not true. Campaigning in Fairbanks, for instance, Begich saw two people standing under a tree to escape the summer sun. “Only in Alaska!” Begich said. The same day, Begich told a story about a snowstorm in the District of Columbia — he wound up walking through the Capitol carrying a snow shovel.
“Only in Alaska!” Begich said about that, too.
The other big message of Begich’s campaign: He knows how to get tough with the Obama administration.
At a meeting with Fairbanks-area officials, for instance, Begich told a story about how he blocked the promotion of a three-star general, to pressure the Pentagon to give more details about a decision to move F-16 fighter jets from a local base.
“I held his fourth star until we had a little better information flow,” Begich said.
Eventually, Begich said, his side won the fight. The planes stayed, although the Pentagon said that decision was about the “pivot to Asia.” Now, Begich is pressuring the Pentagon to bring a new squadron of F-35 fighters, and the jobs and money that come with it, to Alaska.
“It’s a good thing for North Pole, of course, Santa Claus,” Begich said then, looking across the conference table at a man with a long white beard and a twinkle in his eye.
North Pole already knew what Begich was capable of. In 2009, the senator helped lobby the Postal Service to keep a program that allows volunteers in North Pole to answer children’s letters to Santa.
This time, Santa Claus offered to help Begich. He would tell his 293,000 Facebook connections about Alaska’s need for the F-35 squadron.
“Social media is unbelievable,” Begich said, amazed at the number.
“I know,” Santa Claus said. “It’s crazy.”
As Begich travels across Alaska, he tells other stories about victories won through applying pressure. He held up another official’s promotion to get Alaskan hospitals federal money they were owed. He badgered the White House to allow new drilling off the Alaskan coast and to approve a road that will help expand drilling on land.
“Sooner or later, Washington will figure out that I don’t take no for an answer,” Begich says in one ad. In person, he also says he is moving up through the Senate’s hierarchy — all the way up to 63rd. If he wins this time, Begich says, he could move into the 50s.
Republicans have accused Begich of claiming too much credit, as Alaska’s entire congressional delegation has pushed for many of the same things he has. Still, former White House officials said Begich’s badgering did help move those oil projects along more quickly.
Obama “has a lot of respect for what he was trying to accomplish, which is running in a state with challenging politics,” said Heather Zichal, a former Obama administration staffer who worked on Alaskan oil issues. She said Begich was relentless in calling and prodding federal officials toward his point of view, which “helped make the difference between yes and no.”
Still, for those who know Alaska politics, the scale of these arguments makes them a little bit tragic. Used to be, Alaska politicians did not go to Washington to poke at power. They were the power.
The senator who preceded Begich, 40-year veteran Ted Stevens (R), sent so many earmarked billions to Alaska that people came to call him “Uncle Ted,” a benefactor as close as family. Stevens used to wear an Incredible Hulk tie to show his might in Congress.
In 2008, Begich, then the mayor of Anchorage, decided to run against Stevens anyway. He won narrowly, helped by a corruption case against Stevens that was later dropped. Stevens died in a plane crash in 2010.
For Begich, that election was the culmination of a long, difficult life spent around Alaskan politics. His father, Rep. Nick Begich (D), was elected to the House in 1970. Two years later, Mark Begich’s mother woke her children with terrible news.
“She made us sit together,” said Tom Begich, the senator’s brother. “She said, ‘Your father’s plane is missing. You don’t have to go to school today.’ ”
The plane, with Nick Begich and Rep. Hale Boggs (D-La.) aboard, had disappeared during a flight from Anchorage to Juneau, a treacherous trip through fog and over glaciers, mountains and the sea. Despite a massive 39-day search, the wreckage was never found.
At first, Mark Begich recoiled from politics — “It took my dad away,” he said recently — and plunged into business. As a high-schooler, he helped open a teens-only disco in Anchorage called the Motherlode. (It had a gold-mining theme, with fake ore on the walls and a mine car at the entrance.) Begich supervised the bartenders and security guards and showed off “Saturday Night Fever”-era moves.
“He’s probably the best dancer I’ve ever known,” his brother Tom said.
But Mark Begich eventually drifted back to politics. He ran for the city council, then ran for mayor three times before he won.
Now, at the peak of that career, he is facing an enormous political test.
On July 6, Begich visited Barrow, the northernmost town in the United States, so close to the icy Arctic Ocean that parents worry about prowling polar bears. The town is dominated by the Inupiat people, Alaskan natives — part of a demographic Begich desperately needs to win. He set up a meeting with local veterans. Most didn’t show. Word came back that they were cutting up a seal that someone had killed.
Later, at another meeting, a whaling captain told the story of a favor Begich had done for him, a lobbying campaign that ended with local whalers being allowed to maintain their quota of bowhead whales under an international treaty.
“We had to play a little hardball with the State Department” on that one, Begich said.
But that still seems small, in contrast with what Stevens did for the same town. Stevens helped provide money for a new hospital and an arctic research center, paid to fight coastal erosion and helped open up valuable oil exploration.
“Everybody thought, after Stevens left us, that everything stopped,” said Charlotte Brower, mayor of the surrounding North Slope Borough. She was eating the snack that Begich’s campaign had provided, little chewy slivers of whale skin and blubber called muktuk. Now, although she said Begich has fought hard for her community, “we’re not going to see big appropriations. We’re not going to see any type of big special funding.”
Brower supports Begich. But things are different than they were with Stevens.
“I just call him ‘Uncle Ted,’ ” she said, still grateful. So what does she call the new senator? “Well, Senator Begich.”
Reid Wilson in Washington contributed to this report.