JUNEAU, Alaska — Democratic Sen. Mark Begich probably couldn't ask for a better start in his re-election campaign, with the state Republican Party emerging from a chaotic year and gearing up for a divisive primary as it hunts for a strong challenger to run against him.
Even so, the freshman senator — who has a political pedigree, a wad of campaign cash and a reputation as a scrappy campaigner — brushes off the notion of anything short of a tough race even as he casts himself as a moderate in hopes of attracting voters from across the political spectrum.
"We're going to continue doing what I have been doing the last four-plus years, working hard for Alaska on many fronts," Begich says. "And at the end of the day voters will decide on have we done a good job and have we delivered for Alaska."
He adds: "Obviously, I'm biased; I think the answer is yes."
Republicans, who need to gain six seats to win Senate control, will try to spend the next year and a half arguing that the answer is actually "no."
Not that their job will be easy.
Infighting has rocked the state GOP over the past year. First, Ron Paul supporters took control of the organization, with a huge showing at the state convention. Then, establishment-backed Republicans ousted the chairman and vice chairman amid accusations of anemic fundraising.
The state's new GOP chairman, Peter Goldberg, says the turmoil is "behind us now." But he also acknowledges that the party is expecting a primary fight as it searches for a strong challenger to take on Begich, and he expresses confidence that Republicans will rally around their eventual nominee.
The question is who will it be?
Republican Gov. Sean Parnell has decided to seek re-election rather than run for the Senate. And it seems highly unlikely that the state's most high-profile Republican, 2008 vice presidential candidate and former Gov. Sarah Palin, who resigned during her first term, will acquiesce to the demands of a national conservative group that wants her to run. She recently returned to Fox News as a paid commentator.
That leaves Republicans with two candidates so far, neither of whom Republicans in Washington think are ideal.
Joe Miller is running. Fueled by the tea party, he won the 2010 GOP primary against Sen. Lisa Murkowski only to lose to her in the general election as she mounted a historic write-in campaign. He faces a challenge from Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who is not well-known among voters in the state. A heated primary is expected.
Brook Hougesen, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said she expects the GOP to field a strong candidate.
So far, Republicans have sought to paint Begich, who has risen in the ranks of the Senate Democratic leadership and is on the Senate Appropriations Committee, as a liberal in lockstep with President Barack Obama and other top Democrats. He supported Obama's signature health care overhaul and has defended it repeatedly.
Begich, the son of the late Rep. Nick Begich, D-Alaska, narrowly defeated Sen. Ted Stevens in 2008 shortly after Stevens, a fixture in the Senate for 40 years and revered in Alaska for bringing home money and projects, was convicted on corruption charges. The conviction was later overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct and opponents have sought to cast Begich's win as an aberration.
The senator, meanwhile, has painted himself as a Democrat who votes how he wants and isn't afraid of working with the other party. He joins Murkowski and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, on many issues, including protecting the state's military bases, supporting oil and gas drilling in Alaska's Arctic waters, pushing to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling and opposing genetically modified salmon.
And Begich broke with his party by voting against an Obama-backed gun-safety bill that included expanded background checks for firearms purchases.