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Playful campaign key to starting Forrest Dunbar's congressional conversation

Suzanna Caldwell
Forrest Dunbar, the Democratic candidate for U.S. House of Representatives, has worn a suit in two running events so far in his campaign, in Anchorage and in Fairbanks. The Run Forrest Run slogan is borrowed from the "Forrest Gump" movie of 20 years ago.' Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News

When it comes to campaigning for U.S. Congress, Forrest Dunbar got a little desperate, in a way most young, single people can relate to.

He considered starting an online dating profile.

His idea? Creating a profile under the name “Horace Gunbar.” His profession? “Definitely not running for congress.” His profile pic? Dunbar (or technically Gunbar) wearing a fake felt mustache.

His hope was a journalist might encounter the profile on OKCupid and give it a write-up. The idea was squashed, Dunbar said in an interview earlier this month, ultimately seeming a little too goofy even for a campaign that has prided itself on being playful.

“People have said ‘it looks like you guys are having fun,’” Dunbar said, “and from the outset we wanted to be that kind of campaign.

“I don’t think politics should be a death march.”

That’s been the challenge of the Dunbar campaign, which is taking an unconventional approach to campaigning against longtime Republican Congressman Don Young.

Dunbar said for every idea they’ve executed, there have been two or three other ideas that haven’t gone beyond the pre-planning stages, either because they come off as too risqué or too impractical.

“We take the campaign seriously,” Dunbar said. “But we try not to take ourselves seriously.”

It’s expected to be an uphill battle for Dunbar, who at just 29 years old is planning to take on one of the nation’s most seemingly undefeatable candidates.

Young is seeking his 22nd term as Alaska’s sole congressman, a post he’s held since 1973. In those 41 years, Young has been nearly untouchable, winning with more than 55 percent of the vote in all but a handful of races. Despite pratfalls over the years, Alaskans have voted Young to represent them in Washington, D.C. over and over again.

Matt Shuckerow, spokesman for the Young campaign, said for now the congressman is focused on overcoming his Republican primary, in which he has three challengers: John R. Cox of Anchor Point, Dave Dohner of Fairbanks, and David Seaward of Anchorage. It’s unlikely any of them are capable of overtaking Young.

While there have been no formal polls looking at a head-to-head match up against Young, his fundraising numbers speak volumes. As of June, Young had almost $600,000 in cash on hand. In comparison, Dunbar had only $30,000.

Shuckerow wouldn’t directly comment on the Dunbar campaign tactics, but said that Young “doesn’t take any of these elections for granted.”

“We understand the environment of this election cycle,” Shuckerow said. “We are trying to remain focused on the goal in front of us.”

Keeping it light

So is Dunbar, even if the moves are a little unconventional. He’s playing up his name, making campaign comparisons to the 1994 movie “Forrest Gump” by using a “Run, Forrest, Run” campaign motif. T-shirts with the slogan are popular among his volunteers, and include a graphic of Dunbar running with a tie.

It’s a theme he’s literally been taking to the streets. He’s showed up to at least two running events in a full suit and tie. One was the weekly 3-mile Tuesday night pub run hosted by Skinny Raven Sports in Anchorage, the other the 10-kilometer Midnight Sun Run in Fairbanks.

Dunbar said the gray suit from his freshman year of college is now well-worn. He bought it on sale in Washington D.C. just before he went to intern in the House with Rep. Madeleine Bordallo, D-Guam.

Dunbar is probably better known for making his campaign rounds in Alaska in a Carhartt jacket, a staple of his life growing up in rural Alaska. He spent his early years in Eagle, the tiny community of only a couple of hundred people located on the Yukon River near the Alaska-Canada border. When he was 7, his family moved to Cordova, the small fishing community in Southcentral Alaska, where he lived through high school. That was all before he went on to graduate from American University in Washington D.C., serve in the Peace Corps, and then go on to earn a master's in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School and graduate from Yale Law School. 

Clothing has, perhaps accidentally, come up again and again in the campaign. In a YouTube video, Dunbar took Young to task wearing XtraTuf boots, the ubiquitous footwear of many Alaska communities. He noted that Young was dinged in his ethics violations for not reporting $400 dollar Le Chameau rain boots he received. The boots are apparently popular with Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge.

“That makes two things Don Young has in common with Kate Middleton,” Dunbar says in the YouTube video. “Both like French footwear and neither are allowed to chair a full committee in the House of Representatives.”

In another video parodying The Outfield’s “Your Love,” Dunbar wears a black wig and top hat a la Slash of Guns N’ Roses. In it, Dunbar lip-syncs a version of the song with "lose your love" changed to "lose your vote," while running across the state, through Anchorage, down railroad tracks next to the Seward Highway and even boats dry-docked in a shipyard. One boat name is clearly in view. It’s aptly called “longshot.”

Unconventional but not unheard of

Despite the laid-back attitude, Dunbar said to expect the campaign to move toward a more serious tone as the general election date nears. He admits that he’s had to be careful not to alienate voters along the way.

“We have to walk a fine line with the youthful feeling and spirit,” he said. “But let people know I still have more experience.”

In Alaska, tongue-in-cheek campaigns are not unheard of. Even this election season, Republican Senate candidate Joe Miller took to YouTube with .50 caliber Browning Machine Gun to shoot up a copy of the Affordable Care Act. Dunbar took the same approach with a copy of the Paul Ryan budget (that Don Young voted for), "amending" it with a shotgun.

Matt Larkin, president of Dittman Research, who is not working for either congressional campaign, thinks the Dunbar campaign has been great so far, especially appealing to a “younger, fresher” audience. Considering that Dunbar is up against a longtime incumbent and well behind in fundraising efforts, Larkin thinks he’s been successful at maximizing his resources.

“(Dunbar’s) strategy has been to cut through the ads and cut through the noise and get people to notice him,” Larkin said. “That puts him in a position where we now know who he is.

“We think he’s funny, we like him, now let’s hear what he has to say.”

Democratic Party Chair Mike Wenstrup agreed with that assessment. The party formally endorsed Dunbar in May, a decision based more on Dunbar’s resume, ideas and experience than his YouTube savvy. With the media market overwhelmed with ads for Senate and the oil tax referendum, Wenstrup said it makes sense for Dunbar to work in outside channels.

“To get your name out there as a newer candidate, trying something outside the normal circles, isn’t a bad idea,” Wenstrup said.

Andrew Halcro, now president of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, noted similarities between Dunbar’s campaign and his own campaign as an independent candidate for governor in 2006. Facing off against Republican Sarah Palin and former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles, Halcro had neither the resources nor the name recognition of the other two. So in a series of TV commercials he played off that. Asking people to stop him on the street -- or even at the movies or in the dentist chair -- to talk about Alaska. One had him giving a serious monologue on Alaska issues in front of two mascot animal costumes of a donkey and elephant duking it out.

Eight years later, Halcro considers the campaign a success. Despite not winning, he still took in 22,000 votes, about 10 percent of the overall number. Those ads caused people to start conversations, he said, some that are still going on today.

“If you listen to every campaign ad out there, it’s all generalities,” Halcro said. “… Every candidate is saying the same thing. OK, but what else? At least with humor you can relay a message.”

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