The Alaska Challenge

By Jim Ellis

Alaska senate candidates: first-term Republican incumbent Dan Sullivan (left) and physician and commercial fisherman, Democrat Al Gross.

Oct. 8, 2020 — In the Last Frontier, the Democratic Party’s preferred candidate is stressing his independence and joined a legal fight to ensure that he would only be labeled as an Independent on the ballot. Still, the national party leadership is excited over physician and commercial fisherman Al Gross and his improving prospects in the Alaska Senate race against first-term Republican incumbent Dan Sullivan.

As the national Senate situation continues to change (i.e., North Carolina’s Cal Cunningham (D) becoming embroiled in a scandal, Sen. Susan Collins’ (R) numbers improving in Maine, Alabama Democratic Sen. Doug Jones badly trailing GOP challenger Tommy Tuberville, and trends favoring Republican wins in Kansas, Kentucky, and Texas) seeing late potential in a place like Alaska is a boon to the Democratic leadership’s goal of flipping Senate control to their side of the political aisle.

The party’s candidates remain in strong position to flip Arizona and Colorado and are competitive in South Carolina and the two Georgia seats, in addition to being favored to hold their competitive incumbents in Michigan and Minnesota. Therefore, control of the Senate could boil down to just one seat, so the emergence of the Alaska race is of national political importance.

Running with his “Always Alaska” message that includes moving beyond oil and gas and into renewable energy sources even though the former industry is one of the major employers in the state, Democrat Dr. Gross is moving close to Sen. Sullivan in polling and has plenty of money to compete.

At this point, the latest survey from the Harstad Strategic Research firm (for the Gross campaign; Sept. 20-23; 602 likely Alaska voters, live interview) finds Dr. Gross pulling within one percentage point of Sen. Sullivan, 46-45 percent. This margin is not far from the 2014 victory spread Sullivan recorded (48-46 percent) when unseating then-Sen. Mark Begich (D).

Sen. Sullivan’s ad ends with the message that Alaskans “… should not be hoodwinked. Al Gross is a liberal Democrat.”

Sen. Sullivan had a $5 million to $3 million cash-on-hand advantage at the end of July and is using his advantage to establish a positive image of himself with a series of ads highlighting how he is devoting his time in the Senate to helping his Alaskan constituents, particularly in regard to their recent COVID-19 induced economic plight. He is also hitting Gross with ads highlighting his opponent’s statement that, as an Independent, he would still caucus with the Democrats should he be elected. The Sullivan ad (seen above) delivers the message saying that Alaskans “should not be hoodwinked. Al Gross is a liberal Democrat.”

The Harstad pollsters, who conducted the survey for the Gross campaign, make the point that Republican political strength is weakening in the state. Therefore, they say, the electorate is primed to elect a left-of-center candidate, thus boosting Gross’ chances. They point to Mark Begich defeating then-Sen. Ted Stevens (R) in 2008, that Sen. Sullivan’s victory margin six years later was only two points, at-large Congressman Don Young (R-Ft. Yukon), the Dean of the House being originally elected in 1973, having closer re-election wins, GOP Gov. Sean Parnell being defeated in 2014, and President Trump attracting only 51 percent of the vote in his 2016 election.

The other side of the coin, however, recalls that Sen. Stevens was found guilty of several federal charges, a verdict that was eventually reversed, just days before the 2008 election, and Sen. Sullivan’s margin was only two points, but he was unseating an incumbent in Begich whose father had served in the House even before Rep. Young was elected and was tragically killed in a plane crash with then-House Majority Leader Hale Boggs (D-LA) as they were traveling in Alaska.

Additionally, Gov. Parnell lost to an Independent and not a Democrat; Republicans regained the governor’s position four years later; and while President Trump scored just 51 percent of the vote, his victory margin was a full 15 percentage points over Hillary Clinton as she managed to garner just 36 percent.

Perhaps most importantly, the two at-large federal candidates, Dr. Gross and 2018 congressional nominee Alyse Galvin against Rep. Young in the at-large House race, have both fought in court not to be labeled as Democrats on the ballot, thus suggesting it is this party which is in the weaker position.

While the Alaska Senate seat appears competitive, and Republicans must take the race seriously, voting behavior in the state still favors the conservative positions, particularly on the energy issues so important to the state’s economy. We will undoubtedly see more twists and turns here, especially since this is the most difficult of states with which to draw a reliable poll, but Sen. Sullivan remains at least a slight favorite and a difficult incumbent to unseat despite the closeness of the most recent political survey.

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