Gianni Sarra’s Senate Series: ALASKA

(Mandy Lindeberg)

The largest state by far, Alaska is perhaps unsurprisingly a Republican state, with its large oil and gas industries, strong military presence and prevalent culture of hunting and shooting. Originally admitted to the US as the 49th state in 1959, there was actually an expectation it would be a Democratic state. There was the expectation that it would balance out Hawaii, the 50th state that was expected to be Republican. They have balanced out, but in the opposite way: Hawaii is safely Democratic, and Alaska is considered safely Republican. 

Its politics are not party-line conservative, however: compared to most Republican areas, voters there tend to be supportive of a proactive state government and understanding of the need for an interventionist federal government, and social and religious conservatism have less hold here than in most red states. Combined with the proportionally largest Native and indigenous population of any state and an affinity for third-party and independent candidates, and the state becoming more competitive than usual is not completely unthinkable. 

Few, though, initially suspected that 2020 would be that year. Up until very recently, most pundits had the bulk of the state’s elections – including its Presidential votes and the re-election effort of incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan – as surefire wins for Republicans. That discussion has, over the past couple of weeks, dramatically changed. Now Alaska is considered as a state that could be ripe for an upset. 

We only know what is going on in Alaskan politics because of a community on Twitter. Members of Election Twitter – psephological enthusiasts on the social media site – were curious about the state of play in Alaska, a state that had received virtually no public polling during the election cycle. The idea formed of hiring Public Policy Polling, or PPP, to poll the state. PPP was eager to poll the state, but had not yet received a client for a public poll. Their fee was $5,000, and the challenge was set – if election Twitter could raise the funds, PPP would swiftly move to conduct the polling.

Within 16 hours, about $8,000 had been raised from around 500 donors. As a result, not only Alaska but Montana, another underpolled red state with a unique political landscape, were as polled. PPP waived their usual polling fee, and the funds instead went to two Alaska charities, with the Alaska Native Justice Center and Alaska Community Project’s GCI Suicide Prevention Fund each receiving a $2,500 donation. The organisers of the previous campaign have started a new, more ambitious target to poll three further states. Like before, if the funds raised either fall short or exceed what is needed, they’ll donate any unused proceeds to charity. 

The manner in which the poll was commissioned was only half of the story. The results of the poll were, in and of themselves, surprising in their own right. Alaska is now a competitive state. Trump’s approval rating is underwater, and in a state that has only voted for a Democratic Presidential nominee once since statehood, Biden is only three points behind Trump. This has sparked a flurry of interest in Alaska as a Presidential battleground and will likely see Alaska polled far more in the future. With only three electoral votes and virtually no chance it could serve as a deciding factor in the national contest, neither presidential campaign has shown any sign of investing there. 

The state’s other races, though, are similarly competitive, and they will attract broad national interest. The state’s sole US House seat – held by Don Young, who has represented the state since 1973, a majority of Alaska’s history as a US state – is competitive. Young has had close calls before, including a tight race in 2018, but the polling results would certainly be bad news for him. Independent candidate (and Democratic endorsee) Alyse Galvin currently leads Young 43% to 41%, after losing to him by about 7% in 2018. Young won’t be easy to beat: he is something of an institution in Alaskan politics, having secured substantial funding for projects throughout the state, and has historically been able to secure considerable crossover support among the state’s more Democratic-leaning indigenous population. 

Young won the seat in a special election in 1973. The previous incumbent, Nick Begich, was a Democrat who disappeared in a 1972 plane crash in Alaska. Since then, Young has held the seat for the Republicans. Young’s greatest obstacle is his own personality, though. He has a habit for attracting negative headlines, such as frequently using profane and violent language, being listed frequently as one of Congress’s most corrupt members, and using racial slurs to describe Hispanic workers on his father’s ranch in a 2013 interview. In 2014 he generated controversy when, while visiting a high school where there had recently been a death from suicide, he made several insensitive comments about suicide when addressing students. When called out on it, he responded by calling a student an “asshole”. 

The focus of this series, though, is the Senate race. There, incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan leads independent Al Gross (like Galvin, the endorsee of Alaska Democrats) by a 39-34 spread. Gross, a commercial fisherman and surgeon, has received support from much of the Alaska and national Democratic establishment. Though he’s running as an independent, he is, like Galvin, set to receive the official Democratic nomination too in August. Alaska Democrats had recently won a legal battle to secure the right of non-Democrats, such as Gross and Galvin, to compete in their primaries and win their nomination while maintaining their independent designation. 34% is not admittedly an impressive score for any candidate, but Gross has room to grow: most voters in the state still aren’t aware of him, including many Alaska Democrats who do not yet know he’s their de facto nominee. Promisingly, among those voters who are aware of Gross, he has strong approvals and posts a decent lead over Sullivan.

What is more eye-catching is that only 39% of voters are committed to backing Sullivan. That is not a good place for an incumbent to be. Sullivan narrowly won his seat in the 2014 red wave, defeating one-term Democratic incumbent Mark Begich, then-Mayor of Anchorage and son of the late Nick. Begich had won the seat in 2008, himself narrowly ousting an incumbent – Ted Stevens, who had served in the Senate since 1968 and, arguably like Young, had thrown away much goodwill from decades of work for Alaska by getting embroiled in gaffes and ethics scandals. It culminated in a guilty verdict in a corruption trial eight days before the vote. Stevens’s conviction was vacated prior to sentencing when the Justice Department found there to be gross prosecutorial misconduct in the case, and he had talked of challenging Begich for his seat in 2014, even though he would have been 90 years old on election day. That never materialised – Stevens was killed in a plane crash in 2010.

Alaska’s other Senate seat, too, attracts considerable attention. It’s held by Lisa Murkowski. Murkowski is arguably the most moderate Republican in the Senate. She was the sole Republican to vote against Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination, joined Maine’s Susan Collins in (unsuccessfully) opposing Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, voted with Collins and John McCain in sinking Trump’s proposed healthcare bill, and has been critical of many Trump moves and statements. Murkowski knows she is a swing vote and acts accordingly – in exchange for voting for the Republican tax plan, Murkowski achieved a long-held goal of the Alaska delegation by opening up the federally-protected Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas drilling. Though she voted to acquit in the impeachment trial, Trump despises Murkowski. He’s already promised, via Twitter of course, to campaign for her defeat in her 2022 re-election bid. 

Murkowski was appointed to the seat in 2002 by her father, Frank Murkowski. The elder Murkowski had held the Senate seat for many years and had just won election as Alaska’s Governor. The appointment was, of course, controversial, mired in nepotism charges. Murkowski has since won re-election three times, but, noticeably, never achieving above 50% of the vote. In 2010, she lost the Republican primary and, despite her Senate colleagues endorsing the Tea Party-backed candidate who’d ousted her, she mounted a write-in campaign. Over a hundred thousand Alaskans wrote “Lisa Murkowski” on their ballots, and she was narrowly re-elected. In 2016, she held onto the Republican nomination, but in the general only won 44.4% of the vote against a divided field that included the Tea Partier, now a Libertarian, who’d almost ousted her in 2010. 

By the standards of Alaskan politics, Senator Dan Sullivan is a rather dull figure. He’s had little public role in the big debates of the time. For example, though Sullivan condemned Trump during the 2016 election, he has since fallen in line without a hint of dissent. He has some non-partisan legislative wins under his belt, has had a long career in state politics and government, and has the distinction of being the only Senator to still be in active military service. But for all that, his public profile is as close to “generic Republican” as it gets in Alaska. He might not even be the most notable Republican politician in the state called Dan Sullivan. The former Mayor of Anchorage, the state’s biggest city and home to about 40% of the population, shares that name. Alaska came close to having two Dan Sullivans in the Senate. Mayor Sullivan briefly ran for Senate in 2016, trying to knock off Murkowski in the primary election, but he withdrew after only a few weeks. If Mayor Sullivan had been elected, it seems likely that the earlier Senator Sullivan would have been the chief loser from any name-based confusion.

Alaskan politics is noted by the preponderance of colorful characters, and compared to them, Sullivan does not stand out. Unlike Murkowski, he is an orthodox conservative who rarely makes headlines and has done little to make a splash. Unlike Stevens, he doesn’t have a string of accomplishments to point to. Unlike Begich, who was part of a then-sizable contingent of red-state moderate Democrats, he doesn’t stand out from his party. Unlike Young, he’s never brandished an 18-inch-long walrus penis bone during a Congressional debate. Unlike Gross and Galvin, he doesn’t have the freedom and appeal that comes from being an independent politician in a state that isn’t particularly enamored with party labels. 

27% of voters, according to the PPP poll, have no opinion of Sullivan, and those that do are split down the middle on whether they like him or not. In small states such as Alaska, where palpable records of achievement are highly valued and the party label is no substitute for personal popularity, such anonymity can be lethal. If the state is close presidentially, Sullivan might struggle to break away from the top of the ticket. In a state where its politics are defined by big personalities (and this article has only scratched at the surface – omitting, for example, idiosyncratic former Senator Mike Gravel and the notorious former Governor Sarah Palin), Sullivan just seems quite dull. In some states, that might be an advantage. In Alaska, it makes Sullivan an anomaly. 

Though geographically the largest state by some considerable margin, Alaska’s population is small. Institutions such as the Senate and electoral college go a long way in giving the state’s population congressional sway far in excess of its numbers. Alaskans know that the three people they choose to represent them in Congress will have a big impact on their state. With the Senate likely to be decided by tight margins, their choice could have a big impact on their country too.

Gianni Sarra is a PhD candidate at King’s College London.  He is a recipient of an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) London Interdisciplinary Social Science Doctoral Training Partnership studentship award and his doctoral research is on ‘The Dirty Rules Dilemma: Achieving Justice in Conditions of Corruption’.