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Farm Team: Absence of Opportunity Means Long Alaska Pipeline

Its state capital is the second farthest from Capitol Hill, but there are plenty of ambitious politicians ready to jump at the chance for federal office in Alaska.

That’s because in the Last Frontier, the problem for both parties isn’t the lack of political talent; it’s the absence of opportunity.

Congressional hopefuls can only vie for three federal seats, including the state’s at-large House district. Plus, when Alaskans get elected to Congress, they typically stay a long time, accruing seniority to fight for the state’s interests and federal funds.

“You’ve got to be running in the right decade,” one Republican consultant in the state said of prospective congressional candidates.

Just one of Alaska’s five former senators left Capitol Hill on his own terms, and only one has ever been defeated in a general election. Both events took place in the past decade.

In 2008, Democratic Sen. Mark Begich defeated 40-year Republican Sen. Ted Stevens. Six year earlier, Republican Sen. Frank H. Murkowski was elected governor before appointing his daughter, Lisa Murkowski, to his former seat.

Alaska has only elected four people to the House since the state was admitted to the union in 1959. That includes Begich’s father, former Democratic Rep. Nick Begich, who died in a plane crash in 1972. Republican Rep. Don Young has held that seat ever since the special election to replace him.

There are several elected officials already taking a serious look at challenging Begich, including 2010 Senate nominee Joe Miller and Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell. GOP insiders added to the list state Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan, who has a solid state Senate résumé and boasts time as a former state attorney general and senior adviser to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

There are several other Republicans in this heavily GOP state who insiders believe could be attractive candidates in future bids for federal office. The other Dan Sullivan, the mayor of Anchorage, and former Lt. Gov. Loren Leman top that list.

Republicans also mention the following potential candidates for federal office: state Senate Rules Chairwoman Lesil McGuire; Shane Langland, a businessman and former Anchorage Chamber of Commerce chairman; and Gloria O’Neill, president and CEO of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council. Stevens was a mentor to O’Neill, but sources note she could also run as an independent.

Other potential Republican candidates include Anchorage-based state Sens. Kevin Meyer and Cathy Giessel, as well as state Rep. Eric Feige, a West Point graduate and former Army captain, and Mia Costello, a young lawmaker on the state House Finance Committee.

“The structural problem is very few people have run on a statewide basis, so how do you be ready as the guy when it comes up?” the GOP consultant said. “If you have any aspirations, wait for the House seat to come open. To me that’s the best opportunity.”

Young, who turns 80 in June, has given no indication that he’s close to retirement. His most recent scare came in 2008, under the cloud of an ethics investigation. Young defeated now-Gov. Sean Parnell in the GOP primary by some 300 votes, and he beat then-House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz in the general by 5 points.

In the following years, the House Ethics Committee cleared Young of any wrongdoing and federal investigators dropped their probe.

Not surprisingly, the Democratic bench is smaller. Democrats account for less than 15 percent of the electorate and one-third of the state Legislature.

But there are some Democrats who, like Begich, boast a political family pedigree and who state insiders believe could seek higher office some day.

Alaska insiders named state Sen. Dennis Egan, a former Juneau mayor whose father was the first governor of Alaska, and freshman state Rep. Andy Josephson, whose grandfather was the first president of American Federation of State and Municipal Employees and whose father was a state legislator.

Democrats also named state Sen. Bill Wielechowski, state Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis and Hollis French, who ran for governor in 2010, as legislators to watch.

Although Democrats haven’t had much recent success at the federal level, Joe Rothstein, a Democratic consultant and former editor of the Anchorage Daily News, said a Democrat could certainly win statewide in Alaska, especially with a little help from a nasty GOP primary.

“Alaska is a little more libertarian than right-wing Republican,” Rothstein said.

Farm Team is a state-by-state look at the up-and-coming politicos who may eventually run for Congress. The column runs on Thursdays.

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