Alaska's US Senate Surprisingly Close, Because Alaska Doesn't Do Predictable
Alaska, as fans of the popular 1990s TV documentary "Northern Exposure" know, can be a quirky place, what with the displaced Jewish doctors from New York, the idealistic young Native American filmmakers, the Zen philosopher DJs, and the romance-shy bush pilots who end up rightwing loonies. And Ruth-Anne. We loved Ruth-Anne .
But even when it's not being filmed in Washington state, Alaska can be politically weird. It has America's highest percentage of voters registered as independent or no party affiliation (58 percent!), and in 2010 reelected Lisa Murkowski as a write-in candidate when the official Republican primary went to a wackaloon tea partier. And then there's freakin' Sara Palin, who just won't go away. So it shouldn't be much of a surprise that in 2020, two independents are putting up serious challenges to the state's sole congressional representative, Don Young (R), and to first-term US Senator Dan Sullivan (R), aka the answer to the trivia question, "Who's the other senator from Alaska, again?" In a PPP poll earlier this month, Sullivan was actually tied with Al Gross, the independent candidate running against him.
Since this is your Senate Sunday column, we won't get into that House race between Young and Alyse Galvin, except to link to her campaign site and suggest you help Alaskans get rid of Young, who's been in Congress since 1973 and may be facing one of his closest challenges ever.
As for the Sullivan-Gross race, it's yet another of those unexpectedly-close Senate races this year, and Gross clearly has the GOP rattled: Mitch McConnell's super-PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, just confirmed to NBC News that it's planning to spend $1.6 million on media buys on behalf of Sullivan.
Because we can't get that pleasantly boppy theme song out of our head, we should note that Al Gross is a Jewish doctor (an orthopedic surgeon), but unlike Joel Fleischman, he's Alaskan through and through: in addition to his surgical practice, he's also a commercial fisherman, and he was born shortly after an avalanche partly buried his parents' Juneau home. His campaign site notes Gross bought his first fishing boat at 14 and "had 3 boats before he bought his first car." He paid his way through college and med school with the money he made from his little fleet.
This is Gross's first run for office, but he's got Alaska political roots; his father, Avrum Gross, was the state's attorney general in the '70s, and worked closely with Republican then-Gov. Jay Hammond (bipartisanship!). You'd better bet that Gross's campaign reminds Alaskans that his dad helped Hammond create the program that shares dividends from the state's oil revenues with Alaska citizens, too.
Corny though it may be, a good bit of Gross's campaign aims at out-Alaska-ing Sullivan, reminding voters that Sullivan is originally from Ohio, worked in Alaska for a time as a judicial clerk, then left the state and only came back to Alaska in 2009 to work in the Palin half-administration. Gross also likes to point out as part of his Alaska bona fides that he once killed a grizzly bear — in self defense, because the bear had snuck up on him while he (Gross) was duck hunting.
Since 2016, recognizing that "independence" is a word Alaskans like a lot, the state Democratic party has let independents run in its primaries, which led to some recent fun ballot fuckery from the Republican election administrators. Previously, independents who ran as the winner of a party primary were identified on ballots as the Democratic nominee, but with an "i" next to their names on the ballot. The change will now identify Gross and Galvin only as the Democratic nominees. Galvin sued to reverse the move, arguing that her chances would be hurt by the lack of that marker of her independence, but the state Supreme Court upheld the change, even though 800,000 ballots had already been printed the old way. Yeesh.
Gross has announce that if he wins, he'll caucus with Senate Dems, but will remain an independent, emphasizing that he likes hunting and supports the Second Amendment, although (like a majority of NRA members, even) he wants universal background checks. Similarly, on energy policy, Gross recognizes the reality of climate change, which is already having extreme effects on Alaska and the Arctic. Gross calls for rapidly developing sustainable energy resources, but stops short of endorsing the Green New Deal. Like most red-state Dems and Dem-adjacents, he lists healthcare at the top of his issues page (he calls his platform "prescriptions," get it?) , and wants a public option for people to buy into Medicare, and calls for the protections of Roe v Wade to be enacted in law.
Gross has made his opposition to an open-pit gold and copper mine that could ruin fishing in Bristol Bay a centerpiece of his campaign. Last week, an environmental group released a secret recording of two mining executives suggesting, to an undercover environmental activist posing as an investor, that they're happy that Sullivan hasn't strongly opposed the mine, and that their plan to "work with him" is to let him remain "off in a corner being quiet," in hopes that he'll be more openly helpful after November: "He's going to try to ride out the election and remain quiet," said one. After the recording came out, Sullivan's office released a statement insisting he's been very clear that the mine proposal "does not meet the high standards we demand for all resource development projects," and that "Any suggestion otherwise is either wishful thinking, a blatant mischaracterization, or a desperate attempt to secure funding for a mine that cannot move forward."
Gross has been condemning Sullivan's previous weak opposition to the mine, and has called for Sullivan to return a contribution from the executive who said the company was counting on Sullivan's silence. That executive resigned after the recording was made public.
Sullivan, for his part, has been trying to portray Gross as a dangerous radical like Joe Biden, as the New York Times notes:
"I think they are absolutely pretending," Mr. Sullivan said last Sunday as a largely mask-eschewing crowd enthusiastically greeted him at an agriculture fair in the conservative Mat-Su Valley about 40 miles outside Anchorage. "If people identify him with the policies and being part of a Chuck Schumer Senate majority, I think they will reject it."
Oh, the horrors! The McConnell super-PAC's advertisements have gone a step further, calling Gross a "far-left, fake independent." So, the usual GOP playbook.
For his part, Gross says he was compelled to run after Sullivan voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and has pointed out how badly the GOP's failure to deal with the coronavirus pandemic has hurt Alaska, particularly the tourism industry, which has been essentially gutted this summer, since so many tourists normally visit on cruise ships.
Gross may also benefit from Sullivan's decision to vote to replace Ruth Bader Ginsberg on the Supreme Court; following Ginsberg's death Gross has received $3 million in donations, where he had raised just $5.1 million for all of 2020 before then. Lisa Murkowski, one of the only two Republicans who opposed filling the seat before November, has nonetheless endorsed Sullivan. We'll see how well Sullivan's closeness to Trump works out for him; he's voted 91.5 percent of the time with Trump's priorities, and that may not be a selling point beyond the GOP base. Alaska went for Trump by 16 points in 2016, but with the slumping state economy, Trump and Biden are running more closely in the polls this year.
We like the cut of Dr. Gross's jib! Send him some money if you can — wouldn't it be great not just to retake the Senate this year, but to do it with a good strong majority?
You know who Ruth-Anne would vote for. OK, she might at the last minute vote for an actual moose, because she didn't like being stereotyped Quirky folks up there..
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Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.