Alaska has never been considered a battleground state on the national level. Since becoming a state in 1959, its three electoral votes have gone to a Democrat only once, in 1964. Alaska’s single U.S. House member, Rep. Don Young, has been in office for all but 15 years of Alaska’s entire history as a state. At least one of its Senate seats has been represented by a Republican, either the late Sen. Ted Stevens or someone with the last name Murkowski, since 1968. Its most notable figure ever on the national political stage was a certain “hockey mom” turned governor turned vice presidential candidate.
But Democrats in Alaska and in the Beltway are sensing change, and are increasingly optimistic about their chances to compete here—especially in congressional races, where two Democratic-aligned independent candidates are attracting national dollars and talent in their attempts to unseat two GOP incumbents.
In 2018, Young, who is usually elected by wide margins, came within 6 points of defeat to independent Alyse Galvin, without much national investment in the race. Galvin is running again against Young in 2020, and a recent survey from pollster Data for Progress found the two candidates effectively tied. And Alaska’s first-term GOP senator, Dan Sullivan, has looked just a bit vulnerable to national Democrats as he faces reelection. He’s drawn a credible challenger, orthopedic surgeon Al Gross, and the nonpartisan Cook Political Report has moved the race into its competitive column, citing polling that shows the race roughly even.
Despite Alaska’s reliably Republican record in many races, virtually everyone involved in state politics insists that it defies easy political characterization. As the states of the Lower 48 grow increasingly polarized, the particulars of life in this unique state, and its people, have continued to scramble tidy political paradigms.
“We’ve got a group of Republicans that largely believe in global climate change, and Democrats who largely believe in gun rights,” said Cale Green, a GOP operative in Alaska. “We’re a little bit weird up here.”
But Alaska is no longer as reliably red as Alabama, said Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, a Democratic member of Alaska’s state House, where he and other Democrats have made enough gains to put together a majority coalition with a faction of Republicans.
“I wouldn’t describe it as purple yet, but it is getting more competitive for non-Republicans and progressive candidates,” Kreiss-Tomkins told The Daily Beast. “I definitely feel as though Alaska is more on the radar screen than it was a few cycles ago.”
According to Sean McElwee of Data For Progress, Alaska is starting to behave differently to other largely white, rural states in the Trump era. “If you look at states with demographics like Alaska, a lot of them have been moving away from Democrats,” McElwee told The Daily Beast. “Alaska’s been basically flat.”
Most Republicans, meanwhile, see no reason why their record of dominance will change. “I don’t see anything happening,” said Lynn Gattis, a former GOP state legislator who’s running again for a legislature seat in 2020. “Maybe the Democrats are hoping, praying.”
Indeed, it’s premature to say the road to control of Congress will wind through Alaska. But the idiosyncrasies of this state—combined with what some see as a purple trendline and the unusual economic and social circumstances of the 2020 election—are giving Democrats confidence that they’re at least certain to make Republicans sweat.
“I think pundits consider Alaska to be a deep red state when it clearly isn’t,” said Gross, the independent candidate for Senate. Alaska, said Gross, has seen COVID-19 ravage an already weak economy—and he believes that will drive calls for change. “Alaska is full of independent voters,” he said. “We expect to capture the majority of those voters.”
It is true that Alaska is home to far more independent voters than in any other state—but no other state has a smaller share of Democrats. Of its 585,000 registered voters, 58 percent are listed as “nonpartisan” or “undeclared.” Twenty-four percent, meanwhile, are registered Republicans, and only 13 percent are registered Democrats. Deep-red Wyoming has more Democrats, but the share of registered Republicans in Alaska is about the same as in Maryland, a consistently blue state.
That breakdown explains why Gross and Galvin are on the ballot as independents, even though both are backed by the Democratic Party’s congressional campaign committees and would almost certainly caucus with Democrats if elected.
In their campaigns so far, both candidates are attempting to balance the essential ingredient of Alaska politics—a relentless focus on the state’s unique issues—with a message that might cultivate support, and donors, in the Lower 48.
Gross’ initial campaign video, made by veteran Democratic admaker and native Alaskan Mark Putnam, touts his Alaska roots and independent streak, and focuses squarely on climate change, a defining issue in this Arctic state. “Alaska has a long history of swinging to the middle and even to the left,” Gross told The Daily Beast, “and people care more about what’s going on within the state.”
But Gross’ social media ads, which are shown to Facebook users in states like California and New York as well as Alaska, portray his campaign as an investment in flipping the Senate, and they feature liberal base bogeymen like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
That may be because Democrats see opportunity in knocking off Sullivan precisely because he’s a lesser-known figure. A Marine colonel raised in Ohio, Sullivan moved to Alaska in the 1990s and held various elected posts, including attorney general, before defeating former Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, by an 8,000-vote margin in 2014. A recent poll from Morning Consult found that Sullivan has a 10 point net favorability rating among Alaskans, but roughly one in four don’t know him enough to say. Gross’ ad calls Sullivan “the most beatable Republican senator you’ve never heard of.”
Sullivan’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast. But Sen. Todd Young (R-IN), the chair of the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, said that “it’s not our top race, or two.”
“Senator Sullivan is going to win that race, but he rightly is taking it very seriously and running an exceptional race,” said Young, “so I feel sorry for the person who decided to take on that Marine.”
If Democrats see opportunity in Sullivan’s relative lack of a name brand, the opposite might be true for Young. The longest-serving Republican congressman in U.S. history, Young—the so-called “dean of the House”—is an institution in D.C. and in Alaska, albeit one who once pulled a knife on former Speaker John Boehner and shoved a reporter. For a state where federal policy has an outsized impact—and whose lawmakers are expected to bring home the bacon—Young’s work has gotten him sent back to Washington year after year, despite that history of off-color comments and actions.
“My entire life I’ve heard Don Young is vulnerable,” said Green, the operative who has worked on two campaigns for GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski. “What will likely beat Don Young one day is death.”
Young is 87 years old, and Democrats believe that Alaskans’ patience with him may be running thin. His 6-point victory over Galvin in 2018 was his closest call since 2008, another wave year for Democrats.
The congressman’s response to the coronavirus has also given Galvin and her Democratic backers new material to work with. As it spread in March, Young appeared at an event at a senior center in Alaska, during which he mocked the disease as the “beer virus” and said that Congress’ overwhelmingly bipartisan bill to address it—which he did not vote on—was “dumb” and only came about due to “hysteria.” Young later tried to say he did not make these remarks.
“Alaskans know and trust that [Young] stands up for Alaska and wins the battles our state can’t afford to lose,” said Truman Reed, Young’s campaign manager, who called Galvin a too-liberal candidate who has focused her efforts on wooing supporters in the Lower 48.
Like Gross, Galvin—a former educator, small business owner and native Alaskan—has run fundraising appeals to donors in the Lower 48, but has also targeted Alaska voters specifically.
Malcolm Phelan, Galvin’s campaign manager, told The Daily Beast that the Data For Progress survey proves she’s only building on her 2018 showing, in which she got 47 percent of the vote as a rookie candidate.
“Alaska’s sole Representative in Congress is missing critical votes and failing to deliver results, which is why Alaskans are getting behind Alyse,” said Phelan.
Both challengers are poised to have the resources to compete in Alaska, where purchasing media like TV spots is cheaper than almost anywhere else. Gross has raised over $3 million, which includes a half-million dollar loan from himself, which puts him behind Sullivan’s $4.7 million but ensures he won’t be significantly outgunned. Galvin, meanwhile, has outraised Young by $300,000, and has nearly $1 million on hand. Her bid has attracted interest from national Democrats, and her campaign staff include seasoned operatives like an alumnus of Pete Buttigieg’s successful Iowa caucus operation.
Alaska’s occasional volatility—it is, after all, one of only two states where a write-in candidate has ever won a Senate seat—and the volatility of this election year has the candidates believing the investment could pay off. The social and economic disruption caused by the coronavirus has hit every state, but Alaska, whose economy has been on the decline for several years, has been hit especially hard.
The fossil fuel and tourism sectors, currently facing historic lows, account for a large share of Alaska jobs. Because of COVID-19, the cruise ships that normally ferry thousands of international visitors up the state’s so-called Inside Passage will not be sailing this year, and oil and gas prices have effectively crashed.
Trump, meanwhile, might not be the top-of-the-ticket boost in Alaska that he is in other states. The president won in 2016 with barely over 50 percent of the vote, and while Joe Biden is not expected to seriously compete here, he is expected to do better than Hillary Clinton did.
There’s a difference of opinion on whether many Alaskans might split their tickets—a hallmark of less polarized places. Sullivan, predicted Kreiss-Tomkins, the Democratic state legislator, is unlikely to significantly over-perform or underperform Trump. After the “Access Hollywood” tapes broke in 2016, Sullivan declared he wouldn’t be voting for then-candidate Trump, but has been a reliable supporter of his presidency since.
“While the economic situation looks grim, I don’t think voters are going to point fingers at Dan Sullivan and Don Young,” said Green, who added that Alaskans expect different things from their federal and state lawmakers. There is an effort to recall the sitting GOP governor, Mike Dunleavy, over his cuts to state government services, but the federal delegation has helped to secure popular local wins. Notably, in 2019, Trump opened up the massive Arctic National Wildlife Reserve to oil exploration, a move that large bipartisan majorities of the state legislature have backed. “Federally, Alaska and Alaskans seem to be getting what they want,” said Green.
Whether or not 2020 is the year for insurgent, Democratic-aligned candidates to take down Republicans in Alaska, those who have been involved in turning the state purpler say those trends are continuing—and should pay off in the future, if not in November.
“Anchorage is becoming more and more progressive. It’s the equivalent of what’s happening nationally with Orange County, California, going Democratic,” said Kreiss-Tomkins, referring to the longtime suburban GOP stronghold that Democrats swept in 2018.
“It’s like the very mini-Alaska version of that… It’s hardly a mini-Seattle or Portland at present,” he continued. “But every election cycle, it is becoming a little bluer.”