EAGLE RIVER, Alaska (AP) — The focus of attention one recent Saturday at the Veterans of Foreign War post in this community on the fringe of Anchorage was college football, not the state's hard-fought Senate race.
When asked, Army veteran Ken Speegle thought about the race for a moment and said that, as a Republican, he's pulling for challenger Dan Sullivan, a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve, against Democratic Sen. Mark Begich in November. But he says he won't be heartbroken if Begich wins.
Those mixed feelings hint at the tough competition for the support of veterans in the Alaska Senate race this year.
"I wouldn't be particularly happy that a Democrat won, but I wouldn't be worried as a veteran," said Speegle, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 50-year-old real estate agent said the incumbent has been "very aggressive" on veterans' issues.
Veterans represent an outsized share of the population in Alaska, where 1 in 10 residents has served in the military and an additional 35,000 troops are stationed at one of the state's numerous military facilities.
They may seem like natural supporters of Sullivan, who wore his Marine combat boots when he began his campaign last year. But in this election, veterans and their votes are up for grabs.
Veterans' advocates credit Begich with helping pioneer a system that allows veterans to be treated at local hospitals rather than at Veterans Affairs facilities. That's crucial in a state where the nearest VA hospital is in Seattle. The change also has helped Alaska avoid the lengthy waiting times for patients that caused a scandal in other states.
"I'm not a shill for Mark Begich," said Ric Davidge, head of the Alaska Veterans Foundation and a Republican Party committeeman. "But we're enormously blessed up here, and that blessing is directly related to Mark Begich." He also credited the state's senior senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski, and its veterans' affairs agency.
In an interview, Sullivan noted that the first policy paper he issued after announcing his candidacy last year was on veterans, warning of growing VA wait times in the rest of the country before the scandal made headlines.
He also noted that Begich voted for a budget bill in December that would have eventually slashed military pensions — though Begich supported a measure rescinding that provision and recently authored legislation providing a cost-of-living increase for veterans' pensions. Finally, he criticized Begich for not doing more before last year's VA scandal.
"Had he cared he would have been pounding those issues of the backlog and the severe mismanagement at the VA within a year or two of showing up in Washington, not when he feels vulnerable and he's running for re-election," Sullivan said.
A first-time candidate who can be stiff on the stump, Sullivan by all accounts comes to life when he visits American Legion and VFW posts — usually impromptu events that are closed to reporters. But Begich has also long been a fixture at veterans' halls and holds roundtables on military issues.
The Democrat said that while his party usually doesn't win the majority of veterans' votes, he has a strong record. Begich beat a veteran to become mayor of Anchorage, and he won the state's three military bases in his 2006 race against Sen. Ted Stevens, who was a veteran.
"In Alaska, veterans are a big deal," Begich said in an interview. "I can show a record of delivering services."
At a senior center in the town of Palmer last week, Begich touted Alaska's flexible veterans program and noted that it has now become the model for the bipartisan bill to end backlogs at the national VA facilities. Vietnam veteran Richard Grant, 83, had a less-than-ideal experience with the new system — he has spent the last two months getting shunted from one facility to another as he tries to get a hearing test — but is still a Begich voter.
"I like everything that he's doing," said Grant, who personally thanked Begich for getting the cost-of-living increase through.
It's not just the range of military facilities that pulls veterans to Alaska — it's the adventurous, gun-friendly, live-and-let-live lifestyle, said David Joslin, a former combat medic who was wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Guys that spent a decade at war, we don't want the (issues) of the lower 48," said Joslin, 42.
Tony Unsderfer, an avid hunter and gold-miner, sat at the VFW in Eagle River, pointing out the mounted wolverine that he shot. When talk switched to politics, Unsderfer, a Vietnam veteran, said he was voting for Sullivan.
"He's an old military guy, too," Unsderfer said of the Republican candidate. "The majority of us guys are for Sullivan."
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