Friday, October 31st, 2014

The Alaska U.S. Senate race: the fact-checks so far

A Put Alaska First ad attacks Republican Senate candidate Dan Sullivan for his involvement in a controversial state bill.

Editor's note: Today we look at the race for U.S. Senate in Alaska. It's the second in a series of stories about our fact-checks in closely contested Senate races. Our first installment looked at the race in Arkansas.

In some states, sparring between Senate candidates is fairly generic -- following party playbooks with attacks that could be applied to any candidate in any congressional race.

That’s not the case in Alaska, one of the races that could decide who controls the Senate come November. Much of the debate between incumbent Democrat Sen. Mark Begich and Republican challenger Dan Sullivan has focused on Alaska-specific issues.

The latest polls show Begich with a slight lead against Sullivan, who beat two other Republicans by a large margin in the Aug. 19 primary. Begich, who is running for his second term, was born and raised in Anchorage and served as its mayor. Sullivan first moved to Alaska in 1997 after completing active duty in the Marine Corps, and he has served in various high-ranking administrative positions in both Alaska and Washington. (Adding some confusion is the fact that the current mayor of Anchorage is also named Dan Sullivan.)

We’ve looked at many claims that show the candidates trying to demonstrate their devotion (and their opponent’s apathy) toward Alaska values -- like guns, oil and fishing. They also address each other’s record on leadership in Alaska, rather than Washington.

For example, Begich received the first Pants on Fire of the Alaska Senate race last week. He said Sullivan, as Alaska’s attorney general, approved a "light sentence" to a sex offender, who was released from prison and is now charged with a gruesome murder and sexual assault.

We found the accused criminal received a shorter sentence than he was supposed to, but the mistake that led to it happened before Sullivan became attorney general. To suggest that he actively approved the sentence was a fabrication.

Sullivan has touted his gun record in Alaska, saying he "successfully fought to protect our Second Amendment rights and passed ‘stand your ground.’" We couldn’t find any public proof of his support for "stand your ground" while he was attorney general, and multiple attorneys under him spoke out against the law. Even if he had publicly shown support for "stand your ground," he wasn’t in a position to push the legislation forward when it finally passed in 2013. We rated that claim False.

On tapping into Alaska’s oil wealth, Begich claimed that "he forced Washington to open up the Arctic Ocean to oil drilling." By multiple accounts, Begich played a key role in pushing the administration to authorize Shell to drill in 2012 -- the first activity in that region in decades. So Begich can rightfully take credit for helping advancing Shell’s oil-drilling permits in the Arctic Ocean, but there’s currently no drilling taking place. We rated his claim Mostly True.

As Alaska’s commissioner of natural resources, Sullivan wasn’t in tune with his constituents, said Democratic political action committee Put Alaska First. They said Sullivan "wrote a bill to cut Alaskans out of" decisions about where they can hunt and fish. Sullivan did indeed push legislation to limit the public's ability to review and comment on development proposals. However, the ad glosses over a few complicating issues, including the stated goal of the proposal -- to streamline the process. We rated this claim Half True.

One of the more interesting elements of the race is Begich’s assertion that he and fellow Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, are on the same team. But Murkowski doesn’t see it that way and has tried to downplay their relationship. We looked at a Begich ad that said the two of them "vote as much as 80 percent of the time together."

We found they had voted together 80 percent of the time -- but only over a period of six months, and they have served together since 2009. But the pair does have a history of voting together more often than not -- about 60 percent of all votes since 2009. We rated this claim Mostly True.

Sullivan made the opposite assertion -- that Begich is not so middle-of-the-road. He turned to a claim similar to ones we’ve seen leveled against Democrats in other races: that Begich supports President Barack Obama’s economic policies 97 percent of the time. However, Sullivan’s campaign looked at all Senate legislation, not just economic policy. In another vote analysis that ranked Democrats according to party loyalty, Begich ranked only 45th. Notably, he’s crossed his party on economic issues like yearly budgeting and oil taxes. We rated Sullivan’s claim Mostly False.

In another somewhat generic claim, Republican political action committee Americans for Prosperity, said  "Begich is on record supporting a carbon tax, even pushing Harry Reid to make it a priority." We found many examples where Begich addressed some sort of price on greenhouse gas emissions. But there’s no straightforward example of his support for a carbon tax. We rated the statement Mostly False.

There’s been some debate between Begich and Sullivan on how to keep outside money out of their election -- they both see it as a problem. Sullivan said Begich "has taken campaign cash from the Kochs" but that Sullivan "hasn’t taken a dime."

In 2010, KochPAC donated $5,000 to a Begich-affiliated PAC. But that's a modest amount by campaign-finance standards. While Sullivan hadn’t received money directly from the Kochs, he and Begich’s other Republican challengers benefit from Koch-affiliated groups -- such as Americans For Prosperity, which has spent nearly $1 million in Alaska. Because the Koch spending in the race has opposed Begich to such a degree, we rated this claim Mostly False.

On the subject of the Kochs, we looked at a Begich ad that said the conservative campaign-backer brothers ran an Alaskan oil refinery "into the ground." Koch Industries bought the Flint Hill Resources refinery in North Pole, Alaska in 2004. But the refinery closed in February, because of high operating costs, crude oil costs and a chemical spill on the grounds, the company said. It’s the chemical spill that makes it hard to know what really happened at the refinery. Flint Hills blames the previous owner and has taken them to court over it. Because of the litigation and uncertainties surrounding the spill, we chose not to rate this on our Truth-O-Meter.