JUNEAU, Alaska — Sen. Mark Begich's re-election bid was going better than his fellow Democrats had hoped. That was, until his campaign ran an inflammatory ad that he was forced to pull off the air.
With one 30-second commercial about a hideous crime, the freshman senator complicated his campaign prospects and inspired Republicans to take a new look at whether the race in Alaska should be part of their effort to take control of the Senate.
Begich began the year both as one of the Senate's most endangered incumbents and a lynchpin to his party holding onto their majority in the chamber. He raised $8 million on his own while supporters formed a super PAC to help him, and national groups have already spent almost $5 million to attack his Republican opponent, Dan Sullivan.
Republicans had started to view Alaska as out of reach and were considering shifting dollars reserved for Begich's race toward other at-risk Democratic incumbents, including those in North Carolina and New Hampshire.
Then came an ad that was unlike any Begich's campaign had run. Up to that point, the spots had largely featured his work in the Senate.
The ad, which began airing last week, sought to portray Sullivan, a former state attorney general, as soft on crime and as someone who let sex offenders off with light sentences. Its narrator, identified as a former Anchorage police officer, stands outside the apartment where an elderly couple was beaten to death and their granddaughter sexually abused in 2013.
The narrator says that Sullivan "let a lot of sex offenders get off with light sentences" and goes on to assert: "One of them got out of prison and is now charged with breaking into that apartment building, murdering a senior couple and sexually assaulting their 2-year-old granddaughter. Dan Sullivan should not be a U.S. senator."
The website Politifact.com, which investigates campaign claims, found that Sullivan was not personally responsible for the early release of the suspect in the attacks and deemed the ad inaccurate, rating it "pants on fire." The editors at the Ketchikan Daily News wrote that the commercial never should have been created or broadcast. "Most anything seems to go in politics," the editors said. "But such a commercial shows that a line exists. Begich crossed the line."
Sullivan swiftly responded with an ad of his own, accusing Begich of trying to use the case for personal gain.
Begich's campaign talked with the victims' families but did not receive their permission for the style of the ad, said a senior campaign aide, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss an internal campaign strategy. The family criticized the ads and asked both Begich and Sullivan to stop running them. An attorney for the victims' family blamed Begich for stirring up an "emotional storm."
Meanwhile, Begich's advisers in Washington and some in Alaska told him there was no way the campaign could continue to run his ad if the victims' relatives were publicly criticizing it. His top campaign aides initially were reluctant to pull the spot but eventually acquiesced, according to several Democrats who took part in the discussions, which continued throughout the weekend. All spoke on condition of anonymity to share information about those private discussions.
Begich had long planned to make Sullivan's record as attorney general a focus of the fall campaign. His spokesman, Max Croes, said that remains the plan, as does scrutinizing Sullivan's record as a former natural resources commissioner.
Andy Holleman, who leads an Anchorage teachers union and backs Begich, called the ad a distraction. In his view, Sullivan is not personally responsible for what is alleged to have happened in the 2013 killings.
"I would prefer that they do keep the campaign on clear issues," Holleman said. "It's an ugly situation."
Yet in bungling the ad, Begich seems to have caught a break. It first started airing during the Labor Day holiday weekend, when voters were paying scant attention to television and politics. Even the state GOP chairman, who is working to defeat Begich, said that voters have short attention spans and that he didn't expect there to be much lingering political damage to the Democrat's campaign.