Dan Sullivan for Senate, “Alaska Agreement”

  • Ad Title: “Alaska Agreement”
  • Ad Sponsor: Sullivan for US Senate
  • Issue of Focus: Political Authenticity in Alaska
  • Type of Advertisement: Negative
  • Broadcast Locations: Alaska, circulated on Internet
  • Length: 30 seconds
  • Web address of advertisement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGZimq-sxnE

Script

Dan Sullivan: Millions of dollars of negative ads are flooding into Alaska paid for by Washington special interests. Pretty soon, you’re gonna wanna do this to your TV.

I proposed a plan to stop all the mudslinging from outsiders, so we can keep this election focused on the issues. Unfortunately, Mark Begich said no. I’m Dan Sullivan and I approve this message cause Mark Begich should tell his DC friends to stay out of Alaska.

Analysis of “Alaska Agreement”

Lauren Hunter, University of Maryland

Ad Context

The 2014 U.S. Senate race in Alaska promises to be the costliest in state history.[1] As a key state in the battle for control of the Senate, third-party funds have flooded into the campaigns of Mark Begich and Dan Sullivan in an effort to influence the high-stakes race.[2] To undermine Begich’s super PAC support, the Sullivan campaign proposed the “Alaska Agreement.” First used by Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown in their hotly contested U.S. Senate race in 2012,[3] the pledge seeks “to move beyond partisanship and bring a greater degree of transparency to this race” so as to “give Alaskans real influence.”[4] This agreement “call[ed] upon third party special interest groups to cease all television and radio advocacy.” Should third parties produce an ad, the benefitting campaign “will contribute the equivalent of 50% of the ad [to a] charity of the opposing candidate’s choice.”[5] Signed by Sullivan on June 10, 2014, the absence of Begich’s signature became a key talking point for the Sullivan campaign.[6]

Content

Using the idea of an imagined community and the mythic narrative of the American frontier, the advertisement depicts Sullivan as a true Alaskan hero with the right approach to politics, specifically to the practices of positive campaigning. In this analysis, I explore the language and visuality of the advertisement as it attempts to authenticate Sullivan as a “true Alaskan.”

Since at least the turn of the twentieth century, Alaskans have used the term “Outside” to denote residents of the 48 contiguous states as well as the federal government.[7] Through “othering” language, the advertisement constructs an Alaskan in-group with Begich firmly positioned on the “Outside.” The slogan of Alaska politics is reflective of the state’s “independent spirit”: “We don’t care about how they do it Outside.”[8]

For Alaskans, figuring out “which candidate is most authentically Alaskan is at the core of the race.”[9] Authenticity is a concern that permeates the political process inside and outside of Alaska. Concerns of character are central to every American political campaign as candidates attempt to authenticate their image while their political opponents seek to inauthenticate it.[10] Framing Begich as an “outsider” inauthenticates his image as a “true Alaskan,” enthymematically suggesting that Begich does not share the same values, morals, or voting patterns as the Alaskan people. Additionally, by placing Begich on the continuum of “Alaskan authenticity,” the advertisement suggests that Sullivan, by bringing authenticity to bear in the campaign, exists firmly as an “insider.”

When participating in the “othering” process, or in casting another as an outsider, the community is imagined in terms of “us” versus them.[11] Sullivan uses the phrase “so we can keep this election focused on the issues.” Additionally, Sullivan aligns Begich with “his D.C. friends.” This framing suggests an alliance between Begich and “Outsiders” that Sullivan wants nothing to do with. It assumes that if Begich is part of a community of “Outsiders,” he couldn’t also be an Alaskan insider. Here we see a construction of a mythic community of “real” Alaskans who are solely concerned with the issues within their frontier community. The statement also firmly opposes the invasion of “Outsiders” like D.C. bureaucrats such as Mark Begich. Ironically, while Dan Sullivan was born in Ohio, Mark Begich was born and raised in Anchorage. This begs the question of what constitutes “authenticity” and how central the issue is, or should be, to voters.

In an effort to further authenticate the candidate, the visuality of the advertisement reaffirms the frontier narrative with Sullivan serving as the mythic hero. First the advertisement opens with Sullivan standing in a grassy field framed by a mountain range. Sullivan is dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt and the camera shot remains tight enough so that we can look him in the eyes as he uses direct address. Immediately the ad suggests Sullivan is in Alaska, and he belongs there. With state nickname “The Last Frontier,” the romantic narrative of the rugged Alaskan is re-enforced by noble and uncomplicated individuals, and personified by mountain men, trappers, cowboys, and hardy pioneer farmers.[12] The music accompanying Sullivan’s “authentic” Alaskan image is a blend of country rock, a sound that might accompany a gunslinger as he challenges his opponent to a shoot-out. As it happens, nine seconds into the ad we are looking over Sullivan’s shoulder as he points his pistol and shoots at a television—one that is presumed to be full of negative ads from “Outsiders.” Not only does the camera angle suggest that we are “standing behind” Sullivan as he takes aim against the dishonest “others,” but it constructs the image that “we” would be protected against these “Outsiders” by having a “real Alaskan” in office. The romantic frontier narrative “displays and celebrates what Americans consider to be their defining national virtues—an instinctive love of freedom, individualism, and self-reliance.”[13] In showing his support for the second amendment, Sullivan demonstrates his virtuous commitment to the “Alaskan” narrative, situating himself as the hero who will protect the frontier against encroaching special interests.

Responses and Commentary

Immediate commentary on the advertisement illustrates the jaded skepticism with which Americans approach political ads. “Inauthentic” was the general consensus of responders who saw the “Alaska agreement” as a “political gambit rather than a true effort at campaign finance reform.”[14] Responses even went so far as to call it a “publicity stunt,” as stated in a newspaper for Interior Alaska, the Newsminer.[15] Begich responded with a character attack, suggesting that a hypocritical Sullivan was accepting funding from Karl Rove and the Koch brothers, kingpins of the bureaucratic Washington “Outsiders.”[16] The Begich campaign also argued that Sullivan had voted to loosen campaign finance limits.[17] Reactions showed little faith in the treatise to produce any difference in the Alaskan airwaves.[18] The Newsminer called Sullivan’s intentions into question: if he is “unwilling to support limits on campaign finance in other races,” how authentic can his motives be in his own race?

In June, when the Agreement was proposed, Begich held a lead in the polls— a lead that saw little to no loss as the “Alaska Agreement” circulated in the media.[19] Not until the advertisement “Values” was published in late July,[20] did Sullivan manage to take the lead in the polls. Instead of letting Sullivan speak to his own authenticity, “Values” allows Wayne Woods of Palmer, Alaska (the father of a fallen soldier and son of the Manatuska) to speak for the candidate, throwing his support behind the “fighter” Dan Sullivan. The poll success of “Values” and the failure of the “Alaska Agreement” show remnants of frontier values from Revolutionary America—an era when authority was not vertically distributed, but established through the shared experience of peers. Truth and authenticity were constructed through affirmations of others. Clearly rough terrain and log cabins are not the only things that still characterize Alaska as the “Final Frontier.”

Notes

[1] Susan Davis, “Ad watch: Sullivan challenges Begich on Alaska Agreement,” USA Today Network, last modified September 2 2014, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/political-ad-tracker/2014/08/26/alaska-senate-sullivan-begich-ad-watch/14624499/.

[2] Davis, “Ad watch: Sullivan challenges Begich on Alaska Agreement.”

[3] Tovia Smith, “Warren-Brown Pledge Keeps Attack Ads at Bay,” NPR.org, last modified May 6 2012, http://www.npr.org/2012/05/06/152030297/pledge-holds-attack-ads-at-bay-in-mass-senate-race.

[4] “Sullivan Proposes Alaska Agreement,” Sullivan U.S. Senate, last modified June 10 2014, http://www.sullivan2014.com/sullivan_proposes_alaska_agreement.

[5] “Sullivan Proposes Alaska Agreement.”

[6] “Sullivan Proposes Alaska Agreement.”

[7] Russell Tabbert, “Terms for ‘Not Alaska’ in Alaskan English,” American Speech 59, no. 3 (2007): 256-259.

[8] Davis, “Alaska Wants a Fighter in the U.S. Senate.”

[9] Davis, “Alaska Wants a Fighter in the U.S. Senate.”

[10] Shawn J. Parry-Giles, Hillary Clinton in the News: Gender and Authenticity in American Politics (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014), 11.

[11] Roberta Marzorati, “Imagined Communities and Othering Processes: The Discursive Strategies of Established Italian Residents in a Milan City Neighborhood,” Journal of Language & Politics 12, no. 2 (2013).

[12] Judith Kleinfeld, Frontier Romance: Environment, Culture, and Alaska Identity (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2012), http://site.ebrary.com/lib/umd/reader.action?docID=10603802.

[13] Kleinfeld, Frontier Romance.

[14] Davis, “Alaska Wants a Fighter in the U.S. Senate.”

[15] “‘Alaska Agreement’ Good Theory, Flawed Practice: The Campaign Funding Reform Issue Shouldn’t Be Tackled Piecemeal,” Newsminer.com, last modified June 15 2014, http://www.newsminer.com/opinion/editorials/alaska-agreement-good-theory-flawed-practice-the-campaign-funding-reform/article_d7047094-f463-11e3-97cc-001a4bcf6878.html.

[16] “‘Alaska Agreement.’”

[17] “‘Alaska Agreement.’”

[18] “‘Alaska Agreement.’”

[19] Amanda Terkel, “GOP Senate Candidate Dan Sullivan Shoots a TV in New Ad,” Huffington Post, last modified August 27 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/27/dan-sullivan-alaska_n_5722074.html.

[20] “‘Powerful’: Reactions to Sullivan for Senate’s Newest Ad,” Sullivan for U.S. Senate, last modified July 30 2014, http://www.sullivan2014.com/_powerful_reactions_to_sullivan_for_senate_s.