Alaska already has a Sen. Dan Sullivan. Next year, it could have two.
Former Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan filed to challenge Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary at the last minute on Wednesday. The rub: Alaska already has a Sen. Dan Sullivan, the former state natural resources commissioner who won his seat in 2014.
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The former mayor has joked about the possibility the state could wind up with two senators with the same name. “You can never have enough Dan Sullivans in the Senate,” he said, chuckling, in an interview.
But the potential for confusion is real.
Voters will “absolutely” confuse him with the sitting senator, Sullivan said — and it could help him in a difficult race against Murkowski, who has $3.3 million in her campaign account and has already hired many of the state’s top Republican operatives.
Alaskans had trouble telling the two Dan Sullivans apart in 2014, when one of them was challenging Democratic Sen. Mark Begich and the other was running for lieutenant governor. Back then, the mayor of the state’s largest city was better known than the obscure natural resources commissioner. Now, the popular freshman senator’s reputation may give the former mayor a boost, especially outside the Anchorage area.
Some voters never figured out which Sullivan was which. The former mayor lost his race for lieutenant governor, but he said he was still deluged with congratulatory email after the other Dan Sullivan won.
“There’s speculation that my name recognition actually helped him fairly significantly against Sen. Begich,” Sullivan said. “Now it may reverse.”
Sen. Dan Sullivan was on a congressional trip to Myanmar when the former mayor filed to run, according to a spokesman, and couldn’t be reached for comment. The former mayor said he texted the senator on Thursday but didn’t get a response.
A spokesman for Sen. Sullivan dismissed concerns that voters would confuse the two men. “People know the difference between the former mayor of Anchorage and their U.S. senator,” the spokesman, Mike Anderson, wrote in an email.
It’s not uncommon for members of Congress to share the same name.
Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama and Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, both Republicans, served together for more than a decade before the latter retired last year. And the House had three John Smiths — one from New York, one from Connecticut and one from Virginia — in the early 1800s.
But no state has ever had two senators with the same name.
The closest historical parallel may be GOP Sen. James Wilson and GOP Rep. James Wilson of Iowa, who served together in the 1880s. They were known as “Jefferson Jim” and “Tama Jim,” after their home counties, to keep them straight. (That wouldn’t work for the two Dan Sullivans, both of whom live in Anchorage.)
Neither Dan Sullivan appears to have actively taken advantage of their shared name, but there’s a long history of politicians using confusion surrounding their names (or their opponents’) for political leverage.
In 1954, two years after Sen. John F. Kennedy first won his seat, a little-known Gillette worker who had dropped out of school at age 14 was elected Massachusetts state treasurer. His name: John F. Kennedy. He was twice reelected and became known as “the maverick with the magic name,” according to The Boston Globe. (His middle name was Francis, not Fitzgerald, and the two men weren’t related.)
A law student named Ruben Ramirez Hinojosa, who ran to fill retiring Rep. Ruben Hinosoja’s seat in South Texas this year, had less luck. The student filed to run as Ruben Hinojosa, even though he’d gone by Ruben Ramon Ramirez when he ran for a different seat in 2012. The state Democratic Party ultimately forced him to run as Ruben Ramirez, and he came in fifth in a six-way primary.
Pols in tight races have also been known to recruit other candidates with similar names to their opponents. The same day Jason Gonzales, a Harvard-educated consultant, filed to challenge Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan last year, two other Democrats with Hispanic last names filed to run, too. (Madigan’s campaign denied any involvement.)
But Sullivan’s name is likely to be the least of Murkowski’s worries, six years after a close call nearly halted her Senate career.
Sullivan’s last-minute decision — he made up his mind at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, two hours before the filing deadline — gives Murkowski a serious primary challenger, just when it seemed like she would avoid one. Murkowski lost her primary to attorney Joe Miller in 2010, in the early years of the tea party, but held onto her seat by waging a massive write-in campaign.
Republican consultants in Alaska say Murkowski has taken her campaign much more seriously this time around, and even Sullivan acknowledged that the campaign was “a long shot.”
“I don’t think I’m probably going to see too many large donations,” Sullivan said. “I doubt I’ll have a super PAC.”
Alaska Republicans are divided on Sullivan’s chances. One GOP operative, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Sullivan was unlikely to pull off a repeat of Joe Miller’s upset victory in 2010.
Murkowski’s campaign “has continually made it clear that they will never treat any race like 2010 again,” the operative said.
But another Republican consultant in the state said Sullivan shouldn’t be dismissed just because he’d called himself a long shot. “That’s typical of his self-effacing way of speaking,” the operative said.
“Joe Miller will be actively supporting him,” the operative, who also insisted on anonymity, continued. “I think you’re going to see all the outside groups that have issues with Murkowski getting involved.”
Sullivan has known Murkowski’s family for decades, and he refuses to run a negative campaign. “I don’t plan to attack her at all,” Sullivan said.
Murkowski’s campaign declined to make her available for an interview.
“We are prepared for this primary,” a Murkowski spokeswoman, Rachel Kallander, said in a statement. “Our team has worked hard to prepare and we are laser focused on a victory in August. We have the resources, local support and man power assembled to run a robust campaign and win this race to ensure that Lisa can continue to bring real results home for Alaskan families, our military and communities.”
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