Senate campaigns could be among Alaska's most expensive

Redistricting and several hot-button issues draw attention and donations.

Anchorage Daily NewsAugust 5, 2012 

The latest state Senate campaign reports are in and they show there's no shortage of money for flooding the state with political messages as candidates take last session's defeat of oil-tax cuts and other issues to the voters.

The reports also show which challengers have been picked by the money-raisers as viable and which outcomes they believe could be affected by infusions of campaign cash.

"Money is paramount," said Ivan Moore, one of the state's leading campaign consultants. "You can't possibly expect to be a challenger and run successfully against an incumbent without getting significant monetary support. It's why 95 percent of incumbents win -- they have the ability to raise money to a greater extent than the challengers do."

"You can have the best campaign in the world but if you don't have gasoline, the car can't get out of the garage," said another leading consultant and pollster, Marc Hellenthal.

With the Senate split 10-10 between Democrats and Republicans and multibillion-dollar oil-tax and natural gas pipeline construction issues hanging on the chamber's balance of power, the 2012 Senate elections are likely to be some of the most expensive the state has seen. For the last two years, control of the Senate has been in the hands of a 16-member coalition led by two Republicans but containing all 10 Democrats, giving the Democrats a strong majority.

Members of the Bipartisan Working Group, as the coalition named itself, are being targeted on several fronts in both the Aug. 28 primary and the Nov. 6 general election:

• Three of its Republican members are being challenged in the primary, some by candidates with tea party backing, in part for joining with Democrats.

• At least four Democrats in the coalition appear to be facing strong Republican challengers in November.

• Redistricting, controlled this year by Republicans, has two pairs of Senate incumbents running against each other in November. Three of those four incumbents are members of the coalition. That means at least one and possibly two current coalition members are certain to be knocked off.

The coalition is also an issue in a primary challenge of a senator who was one of the four Republicans in the minority caucus. In that race, in District N stretching from South Anchorage to Kenai, Republican challenger Joe Arness of Kenai says that Cathy Giessel of Anchorage let down her constituents by taking a powerless position in the minority. He would join a coalition that included Democrats, he said.

Two Senate districts are open seats with no incumbents.

UNIONS AND OIL

In some ways, the reports, filed last week, a month before the primary and covering the period from Feb. 2 to July 27, show the expected: Republican incumbents and challengers were favored by the oil, construction, engineering and transportation industries, while Democrats got money from labor, lawyers and a mix of small contributors, often retired.

But not in every case.

Unions representing mainly public employees turned out big for two Republican members of the coalition: Linda Menard of Wasilla and Lesil McGuire of Anchorage. The $5,250 the unions gave to Menard represented 21 percent of all her income in the period; McGuire's $4,000 was 17 percent of hers. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, and Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, each got $1,000 from labor, Meyer from the Anchorage police union, Stedman from heavy equipment operators.

In contrast, oil, for the most part, shunned Democrats. An office manager at Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. gave $200 to Democratic Sen. Bettye Davis of Anchorage and an official from the independent Armstrong Oil Co. donated $250 to Hollis French, also of Anchorage.

Instead, oil companies and the contractors who work for them opened their wallets to Republicans, mainly challengers, giving them more than $42,100. But they treated four of the six Republicans in the bipartisan coalition as if they were Democrats, giving them nothing: Senate President Gary Stevens of Kodiak, Tom Wagoner of Kenai, Stedman and Menard. Majority Leader Kevin Meyer and McGuire were the only two of the six to get oil money. She got $1,600 and Meyer, of Anchorage, received $750.

Labor union political action committees and officials mustered a little more than $30,000 in donations. Fairbanks Sen. Joe Thomas, a Democrat in a tough redistricted November race against Sen. John Coghill in District A, got the most, $7,000, accounting for more than half of his campaign income in the period. The oil industry gave Coghill $4,900.

Another Fairbanks Democrat, Joe Paskvan, got the second largest labor contributions, $5,900. His November opponent in District B, Pete Kelly, got $4,250 from oil.

That pattern persisted in Anchorage, where labor donated $5,650 to Democrat Bill Wielechowski in East Anchorage's District E. His November opponent, Republican Bob Roses, picked up $7,975 from oil.

In Anchorage Senate District M, which combines parts of East Anchorage with Eagle River, Davis got $4,800 from labor and Republican Anna Fairclough, a House member trying to move up, got $3,005 from oil.

Former Rep. Harry Crawford, challenging Davis in the Democratic primary, got nothing from labor or oil. His campaign, with a negative cash balance of $108, appears to be struggling for traction. Davis had $33,397 in cash at the close of the period, while Fairclough had $69,441.

TURNAGAIN MONEY RACE

In one of the key Republican primaries, in which former Anchorage Assemblyman Bob Bell is facing Liz Vazquez, a former prosecutor and Chugach Electric Association board member, both candidates were close in fundraising for the period: Bell got $62,912 and Vazquez reported $51,585. They spent about $26,000 apiece.

Bell and Vazquez are fighting in Turnagain's District J for the right to face French, who picked up $47,000 and is leading all the Senate candidates in cash in the bank, $78,653.

Where Bell and Vazquez differed was in the source of their money. Bell has scored big in fundraisers. He held one on June 6 at the Petroleum Club in Anchorage and reported raising $31,165 that day.

Eight-five percent of Vazquez' money came out of her own pocket in a series of deposits totaling $43,700. It's by far the biggest use of personal funds by a candidate in a Senate race.

Two other candidates had double-digit self-donations: Peter Micciche, the Soldotna mayor challenging Wagoner in the Republican primary, gave $10,000 of his own money to his campaign. Giessel put $11,185 of her personal funds into her campaign.

State law allows candidates to treat as much as $10,000 as a personal loan to their campaign that they can then get back from contributions. Anything more than that is not recoverable.

'THEY'RE NOT A KOOK'

Money not only allows a candidate to produce commercials, hire campaign help and send out fliers, it also provides credibility, said Hellenthal, the consultant.

"Your initial problem running for office is a credibility problem," he said. "If somebody doesn't appear on TV, they're not really viewed as credible. It's kind of like, once they appear on TV, they're for real, they're not a kook."

In that case, Republican Paul Kendall, the only candidate to sign up against longtime Democrat Johnny Ellis in District I, covering downtown and Mountain View, has a serious problem. Kendall, who has shown up at recent public events as diverse as the Fairbanks militia trial and a Senate hearing on price gouging wearing shorts and flip-flops to promote a cold fusion energy concept, raised $68 -- all his own money.

Hellenthal expressed sympathy for Jeff Landfield, the 27-year-old challenger taking on McGuire with some tea party support. Landfield raised $5,105 in the reporting period and had $1,418 in the bank. McGuire raised $24,172 and had $11,894 on hand.

"Landfield's going to have a real problem -- he doesn't have enough money," said Hellenthal, who doesn't represent a candidate in that race. "Jeff has been killing himself going door to door but if he doesn't make a TV or radio appearance, he's going to be viewed as a (fringe) candidate. That's the problem -- it's a real serious problem running for office."

Landfield, a salesman for an information technology company, said he's been trying to challenge McGuire to debate but hasn't heard back from her. He's also made conservative talk radio appearances and has friends and out-of-town consultants helping out on his campaign.

McGuire too has reached out to personal contacts for help in her campaign. She's paid more than $15,000 for campaign consulting to Optima Public Relations, run by Tom Anderson, a former legislator and her ex-husband. Anderson has been running the company since getting out of prison last year on federal political corruption charges.

Landfield has been trying to make McGuire's campaign operation an issue but it's unclear whether he's made any headway. Last month, the Alaska Public Offices Commission staff assessed McGuire $25,000 in penalties for improperly spending $450 in campaign money in 2011 on charitable donations -- her board fee to one organization and an event fee to another. An APOC paralegal who works on campaign accounts, Heather Hebdon, said she expects McGuire to appeal to the commission, which usually reduces penalties.

Her most recent report shows that between May 15 and July 16, McGuire charged her campaign $870 for restaurant, bar and coffee shop expenses, saying they were for campaign "team meetings," volunteer appreciation meals or campaign events.

McGuire didn't return a message left on her cellphone seeking more detailed information on the expenses. Landfield questioned whether at least some of the them were legitimate campaign expenditures. "I'd never use campaign money for that," he said.

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or 257-4345.

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