A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

FactChecking the Alaska Senate Race


Sen. Mark Begich has portrayed his Republican opponent, Dan Sullivan, as soft on sex offenders and tough on women’s rights. Sullivan has accused the Democrat of hurting taxpayers and ignoring veterans. Both candidates and their allies have twisted the facts.

The Alaska Senate race remains a toss-up that could help decide control of the U.S. Senate. Here are some of the questionable claims that have been made in TV ads by the candidates and on their behalf.

 

Claim: Begich “voted against President Obama’s trillion-dollar tax increase.”

Facts: Begich voted against a GOP-sponsored budget resolution that Republicans called “the president’s budget.” But it wasn’t his budget. It contained Obama’s fiscal year 2013 budget figures, but not his policy language. It failed 0-99.

That’s right. Everybody who cast a vote that day opposed it, including Begich. Democrats dismissed the vote as a political stunt — “not even serious,” as Sen. Tom Harkin put it.

senatebattleThat vote came in May 2012. Less than eight months later, Congress passed the American Taxpayer Relief Act to address the so-called fiscal cliff. It was a bipartisan bill, but it contained some of the same tax hikes proposed in Obama’s fiscal year 2013 budget. The administration said the bill — which Begich supported — raised taxes on high-income taxpayers by $618 billion over 10 years.

Full story: “Begich’s Bogus Tax Boast,” Oct. 9

 

Claim: Sullivan “would make abortion a crime even if a woman’s health is threatened.”

Facts: Actually, Sullivan has said he’d allow abortions to save a mother’s life, and he has been silent on an exemption for lesser health threats.

Put Alaska First, a liberal super PAC primarily funded by the Senate Majority PAC, makes this claim in a TV ad. Its evidence is a questionnaire Sullivan filled out that asked respondents to choose which statement “most closely reflects” their view. Sullivan checked off a statement saying “abortion should be illegal except when necessary to save the life of the mother, or when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest.” None of the choices included an exemption for non-life-threatening “health” reasons.

It’s easy to speculate that Sullivan might oppose such a “health” exemption in cases where a mother’s life was not at risk. But the ad is wrong to pass off such speculation as fact, and could well lead some viewers to think — incorrectly — that he wouldn’t allow abortion in the case of a life-threatening health situation.

Full story:Abortion Distortions 2014,” Sept. 26

 

Claim: Sullivan stood up for “every Alaska teacher” by “forcing a Wall Street firm to pay for their malpractice.” 

Counterclaim: Sullivan “sold Alaska’s teachers out.”

Facts: Ads from both Begich and Sullivan exaggerate the impact of a $500 million settlement that Sullivan reached in 2010 while serving as state attorney general. The settlement was reached after the Alaska Retirement Management Board sued its actuarial firm for underestimating state pension contributions, allegedly causing a $2.8 billion pension shortfall.

Sullivan’s ad features a teacher who boasts that Sullivan stood up for “every Alaska teacher” by forcing the firm to return “almost half a billion dollars into the retirement fund for Alaskans.” But the Teachers’ Retirement System received only $44 million of the $500 million.

Begich’s ad says Sullivan’s settlement is “putting the permanent fund at risk,” suggesting every resident who receives a dividend from the Alaska Permanent Fund may have to pay for Sullivan’s actions. But that’s unlikely. The state this year added $3 billion to its pension system without tapping into the permanent fund. Also, there are other factors — not just the actuarial errors — that caused a pension shortfall that had reached $12 billion.

Full story: Alaska’s Pension Fight,” Sept. 19

 

Claim: As state attorney general in 2010, Sullivan allowed a “light” sentence for a sex offender who now stands accused of a rape and double homicide.

Facts: The “light” sentence was not by choice. It was because the Alaska Public Safety Information Network (APSIN) provided prosecutors with an incomplete criminal history of the accused murderer when he was charged in an earlier assault in 2009.

Begich’s ad says Sullivan let “a lot of sex offenders get off with light sentences,” telling the horrific tale of the 2013 murders of an elderly couple and the rape of their granddaughter. Police allege Jerry Andrew Active committed the rape and murders on the day he was released from prison for the crimes he committed in 2009. The Begich ad suggests Sullivan is to blame, because Active received a “light” sentence in 2010 and was free to commit more crimes.

Active did receive a lesser sentenced than he could have. He was sentenced to four years in the 2009 case for the attempted sexual abuse of a minor in the second degree, because the APSIN database used to conduct a criminal history check on Active did not include a 2007 felony conviction. If it had, Active would have been subject to a sentence of eight to 15 years, rather than two to 12 years, and presumably he would have been given a longer prison term.

An argument could be made that Sullivan’s office did not do its due diligence. But there is no evidence that Sullivan had any direct involvement in the case, and he had no responsibility for the incomplete database maintained by APSIN, which was not part of Sullivan’s department. Sullivan also did not have responsibility for the probation officer at the Department of Corrections who wrote a confidential pre-sentencing report in 2010 that apparently failed to include Active’s complete criminal history.

Full story: “The Rest of Alaska’s Crime Story,” Sept. 5

 

Claim: Begich doesn’t believe the VA scandal is a problem.

Facts: This bogus claim was made in a TV ad that misused a Begich quote to insinuate something the senator didn’t say.

Crossroads GPS’ TV ad focused on news reports that some veterans died while waiting for VA medical appointments. The ad quotes Begich as saying, “If there’s a problem, they need to fix it,” and the ad’s narrator asks incredulously, “if there is a problem?” to suggest that Begich doesn’t believe there is one.

Begich was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying the administration should learn from the disastrous rollout of HealthCare.gov and quickly correct any problems at the Veterans Administration. ‘They should have learned from that — if there’s a problem, they need to fix it,” he said. But three weeks before he made that remark, Begich condemned reports of mismanagement at the VA as a “disgrace” and called for an immediate investigation. He also urged that the VA adopt a national policy to allow veterans to get medical care at non-VA health facilities.

Full story: “Twisting Begich’s Response to VA Scandal,” June 4

 

Claim: Begich should have known about problems at the VA “four years ago.”

Facts: The same Crossroads GPS ad conflates the newly discovered national problem of long wait times for medical appointments with years-old problems at a VA hospital in Alaska that had nothing to do with medical appointments.

The ad says, “If there’s a problem? Four years ago the VA inspector general failed the Anchorage VA office in 13 of 14 areas.” But that inspector general report had nothing to do with wait lists for care or veterans dying while waiting for appointments.

Instead the Anchorage Veterans Administration Regional Office got poor marks for processing disability claims for service-related disabilities including post-traumatic stress disorder, diabetes and traumatic brain injury. The same Anchorage Daily News report cited in the Crossroads GPS ad said Begich immediately had asked then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to address the issue and had scheduled a committee field hearing in Anchorage. Begich acted on the local problems four years ago.

Full story: “Twisting Begich’s Response to VA Scandal,” June 4

 

Claim: Sullivan “remained silent about jobs being lost” at an oil refinery owned by Koch Industries.

Facts: Not exactly. Sullivan’s campaign declined to respond to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s criticism of Koch Industries and a group founded by David Koch that has been airing attack ads in the Alaska Senate race.

Koch Industries owns Flint Hills Resources, which announced in February that it was closing its North Pole refinery and laying off 81 employees by Nov. 1. An ad by the liberal super PAC Put Alaska First says that Sullivan “remained silent about jobs being lost here,” while on screen viewers see: “Sullivan’s campaign has declined comment.” Sullivan declined to comment on a campaign by the DSCC called “GOP addicted to Koch,” which highlights the refinery closing and Americans for Prosperity’s spending on ads attacking Begich. David Koch founded AFP. A political blogger in Alaska wrote about the DSCC campaign. “Sullivan’s campaign has declined comment,” the blogger wrote.

According to his campaign, Sullivan “worked hard to keep the Flint Hills refinery open while he was our [Department of Natural Resources] commissioner.”

Full story: ” ‘Outright Lies’ in Alaska,” May 2

 

Claim: Begich “was unconcerned” about the 80 jobs that will be lost at the Flint Hills oil refinery.

Facts: This claim twists Begich’s words and distorts their meaning.

A Sullivan TV ad quotes Begich as saying, “It’s the private sector making a decision,” in response to a question about the closing of the Flint Hills oil refinery. But that was only part of Begich’s response. He went on to say: “We have to do everything we can to be sure those who have jobs, those families, have opportunities.”

The news story that includes that quote, from KTUU-TV, also paraphrased Begich as saying “that the closure could cause a trickle-down effect that will impact businesses like shipping, as a local source of jet fuel disappears, and the Alaska Railroad, which moves product from Flint Hills south, as many as 30 cars a day, five days a week.”

Voters can make up their own minds as to which candidate cares more — or less — about the refinery jobs. But the very article the Sullivan campaign cites shows that Begich wasn’t “unconcerned.”

Full story: ” ‘Outright Lies’ in Alaska,” May 2

 

Claim: Begich “is on record supporting a carbon tax … that will cost the average family over $2,000 annually.”

Facts: Begich hasn’t backed a carbon tax proposal, and the $2,000 figure is based on general assumptions, not any specific plan or piece of legislation. In fact, there is no legislation currently being debated in Congress that would institute a carbon tax, which would be a direct tax on the carbon content of energy sources including coal, oil and gas.

An Americans for Prosperity ad points to Begich’s March 2013 vote against a budget resolution amendment offered by Republican Sen. Roy Blunt that would have required 60 votes to approve a potential carbon tax in the future. Carbon tax opponents, such as AFP, supported the Blunt amendment. But voting against a resolution to require a high-threshold for such a tax to pass the Senate at some unknown point in the future is not the same as voting in favor of the tax itself.

The AFP ad goes on to say the carbon tax that Begich supposedly supported “will cost the average family over $2,000 annually,” citing a Heritage Foundation analysis from January 2013. Heritage developed its estimate using carbon-tax scenarios presented in the Energy Information Administration’s 2012 Annual Energy Outlook. It took the higher of the two carbon tax scenarios (a $25 tax) and compared that with the scenario in which companies wouldn’t make any adjustments in capital costs in anticipation of legislation. Using this maximum impact under the EIA scenarios, Heritage says a carbon tax would “cut the income of a family of four by $1,900″ in 2016.

But, again, Begich hasn’t signed on to any carbon tax proposal — let alone the one suggested by Heritage.

Full story: “AFP Distorts Begich’s Carbon Tax Stance,” Feb. 28

– The Staff of FactCheck.org