When Dan Sullivan won the Republican primary for Senate in Alaska early Wednesday, as polling suggested he would, national Republicans heralded the outcome as a triumph over Democratic attempts to take Sullivan down.
"Despite the millions in TV ads funded by [Sen. Mark] Begich's liberal Washington allies to try to influence this Republican primary, Dan Sullivan was able to withstand these false attacks and is now a battle-tested candidate who can and will win in November,” said American Crossroads President and CEO Steven Law.
Sullivan won with roughly 40 percent of the vote, while Tea Party favorite Joe Miller pulled in a surprising 32 percent and Mead Treadwell, a veteran who polls suggested would be most competitive with Sullivan, drew 25 percent. Sullivan will face Begich, the Democratic incumbent, in what is expected to be one of the marquee races this year.
Democrats were indeed active during the primary, ferociously attacking Sullivan with $4 million of advertising, in addition to more than $200,000 against Treadwell and scarcely any money against Miller, according to Open Secrets.
But, contrary to what national Republicans have boasted, Democrats’ aim was not to boost Miller to victory, which seemed an outlandish and unlikely outcome; had that been the goal, Democratic-funded ads labeling him as a "true conservative" might have hit the airwaves, as Democrats have tried to do in other Senate primary contests before.
Instead, Democrats were resigned to Sullivan winning and hoped to define him as an Alaska transplant with fragile roots in the state, before Republicans could make a more flattering brand stick — and to position themselves optimally for the general election.
"We never thought Miller had a chance and expected Sullivan to do far better than losing roughly 60 percent of the vote in a Republican primary," said one Democratic strategist. "The early spending against Sullivan was simply because outside groups were spending heavily for him, and Democrats didn't want to allow him to define himself without responding in kind in case he won.
“Had Treadwell gone up big early like Sullivan did, Democrats would have done the same to him," the strategist added.
But Treadwell, who on paper seemed formidable, did not have nearly the money behind him that Sullivan did, having been endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce and the Club for Growth, among other major GOP groups.
Still, as Treadwell gained some traction in some polls during the final weeks of the Republican primary, Democrats covered their bases by concurrently attacking Sullivan and Treadwell, whereas before they had only gone after Sullivan.
“Sullivan and Treadwell: more government, less privacy,” a narrator said in an ad released last week by Put Alaska First, a group funded by the pro-Democratic Senate Majority PAC, which orchestrated most of the attacks on Sullivan.
Had Treadwell won, he might have been a more imposing foe for Democrats than Sullivan. Sullivan and Treadwell both polled at parity with Begich, but in the final weeks Treadwell occasionally ranked even more competitive in a head-to-head matchup with Begich.
Treadwell also might have neutralized Democrats’ most potent selling point: Begich’s ties to Alaska, which he has touted in his memorable "True Alaska" ad campaign.
The theme implicitly invokes the chief Democratic attack on Sullivan as an Alaska transplant. Put Alaska First used that line of attack frequently, such as in a radio ad in February, “Out of State Interests.” The ad described Sullivan as “born and raised in Ohio, who lived in Maryland and worked in Washington, D.C., while claiming to be an Alaskan.”
On Wednesday, Republicans celebrated Sullivan’s victory, declaring that the party’s strongest candidate triumphed. But Democrats took heart, too — because the millions of dollars they have spent against Sullivan so far weren’t for nothing.