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Third-party candidates could tip scales in Alaska's US Senate race

Nathaniel Herz

One’s a former Republican legislator who pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy in 2011 as part of the FBI’s investigation of Alaska political corruption. Another works at a University of Alaska Fairbanks field station north of the Brooks Range. A third says he’s paying for his campaign out of his own pocket, with a $1,000 budget so far.

Meet the third-party candidates for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Democrat Mark Begich.

So far, three Republicans vying to replace Begich have soaked up the bulk of the attention.

But five more candidates are running in the August primary election under the banner of two other groups: the Libertarian Party and the Alaskan Independence Party. And some experts say that their participation could tip the balance in what’s expected to be a tight vote in November between Begich and the Republican nominee.

One recent poll, by Anchorage political consultant Ivan Moore, ran two hypothetical general election matchups that saw a pair of Libertarian and Alaskan Independence candidates drawing combined totals of 9 and 11 percent of the vote.

Others downplay those numbers, saying that in such a hard-fought, high-profile race, few voters will be tempted to throw their support behind a candidate unlikely to win. But it’s likely that the mainstream candidates — especially the Republican nominee — will still end up playing defense.

“If I’m working on that campaign, I want to make this a race about two candidates and two ideals,” said Kevin Sweeney, the campaign manager for Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s successful 2010 re-election bid. “Any other vote is a vote for the Democrats.”

Of the five third-party candidates, two have significant experience with political campaigns. One is Vic Kohring, the Republican from Wasilla elected to seven terms in the state Legislature who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit extortion and bribery in 2011.

He’s running in August’s primary to be the Alaskan Independence Party nominee against Zachary Kile, a Wasilla man who’s funding his campaign with his own money and expects to spend some $6,000, in contrast to the millions being raised by the mainstream parties and their backers.

Kile wants to repeal President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act and abolish the Internal Revenue Service.

Kohring refused an interview request but said in an email that his platform will include stopping deficit spending, trying to stimulate the economy through lower taxes, and eliminating “Washington’s grip on Alaska.”

As for his switch to the Alaskan Independence Party?

“My new party designation reflects my independent conservative thinking, which was how I was in the Legislature,” Kohring said.

The second experienced candidate is Scott Kohlhaas, who’s running for the Libertarian Party’s nomination. Kohlhaas is a political consultant and former Libertarian Party chairman who ran for U.S. Senate in 2004 and drew 1,240 votes, or just less than half of 1 percent.

Since then, he’s also run unsuccessfully for the state Legislature. This time, he said, he’s running because he thinks one of the other men in the Libertarian primary, Mark Fish, could give the party’s ballot line to Republican candidate Joe Miller, if Miller loses his own primary.

“I didn’t want to run,” Kohlhaas said in a phone interview. “I felt I had to, to protect the brand name of the Libertarian Party.”

Kohlhaas’ platform is tailored to distinguish his positions from Miller's: Kohlhaas says he’s pro-choice, anti-war, and for open borders.

Fish, meanwhile, says that a bait-and-switch to Miller “is not going to happen.”

He noted that he’s the Libertarian Party’s endorsed candidate, and that putting Miller on the ballot line would require him to drop out of the race, as well as the approval of the party’s leaders.

“It would have to be a grand conspiracy of seven people to pull it off,” Fish said in an interview.  “I have no intention of dropping out.”

The third Libertarian candidate, Thom Walker, who works at the UAF research station, says he’s running merely to give voters an option and will not be campaigning or accepting donations.

Moore said his poll assumed that Kohlhaas and Kohring would win their respective primaries. Kohring, Moore said, “is bound to beat” Kile, while Kohlhaas has strong name recognition from his consulting work and his history as a candidate.

Moore’s results showed that a wide majority of the people who said they’d vote for Kohring or Kohlhaas would likely prefer the Republican candidate to Begich in a two-way race.

In a hypothetical matchup between Begich and Republican candidate Dan Sullivan, Begich’s lead would likely narrow from 6 percent to 1 percent if the two third-party candidates are left out, Moore said.

Sweeney, Murkowski’s campaign manager from 2010, agreed that most people inclined to vote for the third-party candidates would otherwise vote for the Republican nominee. But he said he doubts that they’ll draw as much support as Moore’s poll suggests.

“Given the amount of attention drawn to this election, I don’t think you’ll see they will tip the scales,” Sweeney said. “This election is too important, and people recognize that.”

Marc Hellenthal, another Anchorage consultant and pollster, also said he expected candidates like Kohring and Kohlhaas to draw fewer votes than Moore predicts.

Hellenthal cited statewide election results from the last decade that show third-party candidates rarely drawing a combined total of more than 5 percent.

Hellenthal also disputed the notion that a wide majority of the voters who make Alaskan Independence or Libertarian party candidates their first choice would otherwise vote Republican; he said the breakdown is usually more like 60 percent Republican to 40 percent Democrat.

Voters, Hellenthal added, don’t always vote based on ideology.

“They could be voting for the Libertarian Party candidate because of the way he parts his hair,” Hellenthal said. “And they could like the way the Democratic candidate parts his hair — but the Libertarian candidate parts his hair just a little bit better.”

Kohlhaas also noted that his campaign, with its pro-choice, open-borders stances, could be more likely to draw votes from Begich than from a Republican.

For now, candidates like Kohlhaas and Kohring don’t appear to be considered much of a threat by the Alaska Republican Party’s top leadership.

In an interview, Chairman Peter Goldberg said he did not know the names of the third-party candidates, though he said that generally speaking he tries to tell his Libertarian-minded acquaintances that “they’re really not that much farther right than I am.”

“I think when a Libertarian votes for a Libertarian candidate in a general election, he’s basically throwing his vote away,” Goldberg said. “If they really want our government to move further right, then vote for someone who’s going to get there. I’d rather take baby steps than no steps at all, or steps to the left.”