Senate candidates stake ground in unconventional first debate

(Photo by Alexandra Gutierrez/APRN)

(Photo by Alexandra Gutierrez/APRN)

The prelude music to the first Senate debate of the season was a Bach cantata commonly played at weddings. It was the most harmonious moment of a night where the two candidates disagreed on nearly everything save the spelling of the Alaska state bird.

The debate was held in Anchorage on Wednesday, and it was hosted by the conservative umbrella group United for Liberty. It began conventionally enough. The candidates were asked about fisheries management, and Democratic incumbent Mark Begich used the question to cast himself as a practical lawmaker focused on Alaska-specific policies.

“I chair the committee that deals with the fisheries and Coast Guard. We are now looking at electronic monitoring, [and at] more observers that need to be funded properly. We need to ensure new technologies and innovations are available to go after bycatch. And we just passed four treaties to go after these people who I consider pirates.”

Republican challenger and former natural resources commissioner Dan Sullivan explained he wanted more management decisions made at the state level instead of by federal regulators.

Both hit on those respective messages through the night, with Begich emphasizing his experience as someone who knows how Congress operates with regard to Alaska and Sullivan presenting himself as an outsider who wants to take Washington on.

Later, when Sullivan was asked about immigration, he again signaled distrust of Congress. Where Begich called for compromise, Sullivan critically compared immigration reform efforts to the Affordable Care Act process. He said he did not want another case of “legislative malpractice.”

“I think immigration reform should not be comprehensive — it should be piecemeal,” Sullivan explained.

And later, Sullivan said the Consumer Protection Bureau should be nullified because he believes it is unconstitutional.

Occasionally, avoidance of some questions created more tension than the direct answers. Sullivan dodged a question from Begich on whether he supported the Patriot Act, an anti-terrorism surveillance law that was expanded while Sullivan worked for the George W. Bush administration. And during a lightning round where candidates were asked to write their answers on a whiteboard, Jeopardy-style, Begich refused to say how he voted on the oil tax referendum that narrowly failed last week. He instead wrote “private.”

“The public has spoken,” Begich said in an interview after the debate. “It is irrelevant to the issues that we are facing. That issue is not a congressional issue.”

Sullivan, who advocated for the new capped-tax system while directing the Department of Natural Resources, wrote that he voted to keep that regime.

On top of the non-answers, the lightning round resulted in some wrong ones, too. The candidates were asked a number of Alaska trivia questions, like what’s the size of the state relative to Texas. Begich couldn’t identify Lake Iliamna as the largest body of freshwater in the state, and Sullivan guessed that the Salty Dawg Saloon, a Homer landmark, was in Juneau.

United for Liberty took a straw poll after the debate, but the name of the winner has not yet been announced. Both candidates had healthy crowds there to support them, and they offered plenty of applause and occasional commentary. But one audience member, who came with anti-abortion protest signs, broke decorum toward the end of the debate. When Begich gave his closing remarks and made a reference to women’s health care plans, the heckler stood up and began shouting “What about the babies?” for one minute before the debate organizer, UFL chair Michael Chambers, escorted him from the auditorium.

Debate schedules are still being finalized, but at least a dozen more events have been proposed between now and the November 4 general election.