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National Republican group invests in Anchorage School Board races

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: March 20, 2019
  • Published March 20, 2019

Conservative candidates for Anchorage’s local races for School Board are drawing an unusually well-financed independent advertising campaign this year, boosted by a national Republican organization focused on building what it calls a “farm team” of candidates for higher office.

An independent political group, Families of the Last Frontier, has spent about $42,000 on radio ads and robocalls supporting Anchorage School Board candidates Kai Binkley Sims and David Nees, campaign finance reports show.

Some of the ads and robocalls feature an endorsement from former Anchorage Mayor Rick Mystrom, while others highlight the candidates’ backgrounds.

Binkley Sims is an engineer and part-owner of several businesses, including the Anchorage Daily News, and Davis Nees is a retired math teacher.

The group’s top donor is GOPAC, a national Republican group based in Arlington, Virginia. The organization’s funders include the beer company Anheuser-Busch and the tobacco company Reynolds American, federal disclosures show. The ads and the donations were first reported by Alaska Public Radio Network.

Independent expenditure groups, a byproduct of a 2010 Supreme Court decision, run campaigns separately from candidates. They can raise unlimited amounts of money and constantly find new niches.

This may be the first time, however, that such a group has run ads in an Anchorage School Board race, said Marc Hellenthal, a longtime Anchorage political consultant whose firm handled the ads featuring Mystrom.

“School board races normally aren’t on the radar,” Hellenthal said. The races are technically nonpartisan, though parties often get involved in fundraising, messaging and voter outreach.

The infusion of cash alarmed groups that were backing progressive candidates in the race, veteran educator Margo Bellamy and current school board president Starr Marsett. Union officials were talking Wednesday about whether to counter with ads supporting Bellamy and Marsett, said Tom Klaameyer, the president of the Anchorage Education Association, which represents local teachers. Klaameyer was critical of what he called “dark outside money coming in from big tobacco and big alcohol.”

“It’s supposed to be a local race,” said Andy Holleman, a current school board member and a former union president. “This really changes all that.”

Families of the Last Frontier formed in 2018, backed by funds from a different national Republican group. The group ran ads boosting then-Sen. Pete Kelly’s unsuccessful re-election campaign. Negative ads targeted the Democratic candidate, Scott Kawasaki.

The group’s chairman, Anchorage Republican activist Steve Strait, said in an interview that Families of the Last Frontier decided it wasn’t finished, and isn’t limiting itself to certain types of elections. He said the group decided to get involved in the school board races after hearing disappointment from parents about the Anchorage School District.

“When you just see the amount of money that goes into the school system, and the poor performance ... what does it take to make a change here?” Strait said.

Strait referenced a January study on state school performance by the Alaska Policy Form, a conservative think tank for which Nees has worked for years as a volunteer. Families of the Last Frontier has not yet spent money on Anchorage Assembly races, records show.

Strait said he couldn’t speak to the specific reasons for national Republican involvement in this campaign. GOPAC, the Virginia-based national Republican organization once chaired by former House speaker Newt Gingrich, is so far the group’s largest donor. The organization has given at least $40,000, records show — a substantial sum for a school board race. The current chairman, David Avella, is a longtime Republican strategist.

In a phone interview from Virginia on Wednesday, Avella said the organization is focused on electing and educating Republicans who can someday run for higher office. Families of the Last Frontier fits into an effort to build up an Alaska Republican “farm team,” like a feeder team for Major League Baseball, Avella said.

GOPAC has been investing in Alaska for more than a decade and a number of Republican leaders had attended GOPAC events over the years, Avella said. That included the most recent legislative races, with a priority of winning a Republican majority in the state House of Representatives, Avella said.

It isn’t unusual for GOPAC to invest in local races in “targeted states,” Avella said. The group has been similarly active in New Jersey, which leans Democratic, Avella said.

“We’re helping to get folks elected into local offices … and building a record for voters to judge them when they run in higher office,” Avella said.

Avella declined to say whether GOPAC was considering future campaign donations in Anchorage races. He also said Families of the Last Frontier made its own decisions about where to spend the money.

The other listed donors were Arctic E&P Advisors, a consulting firm owned by former Republican party chairman Randall Ruedrich, and Strait, who owns a broadcasting company.

Nees, who has unsuccessfully run for Anchorage office almost every year since 2010, called the support a “pleasant surprise.” He said he saw it as a counter to the organizing capabilities of unions, which typically support progressive candidates.

Binkley Sims said she was focused on her own campaign and did not have information about other efforts.

Separately, Binkley Sims had raised close to $50,000 for her campaign, which is unusual on its own for an Anchorage School Board race. The last school board candidate that raised more than $50,000 was now-Sen. Natasha Von Imhof, in 2012.

Conservative leaders said Binkley Sims and Nees would represent a needed change of direction for the school board, while union officials and other supporters said Bellamy and Marsett would be stronger advocates for public education. In a widely distributed email earlier this week, Holleman urged Bellamy and Marsett’s supporters to get involved in the campaign.

“The other side has huge amounts of money,” Holleman wrote in an email earlier this week. “Our side does not.”

Unions typically donate up to $1,000 to progressive candidates in elections, though independent expenditure campaigns have never happened at the local level, said Klaameyer, the president of the Anchorage teacher union.

In the recent ads, Hellenthal’s firm, Hellenthal & Associates, spent about $7,000 on a one-minute robocall and 30-second radio ad that featured Mystrom endorsing both Nees and Binkley Sims on behalf of four conservative Anchorage mayors.

The ads were paid “100 percent” with money raised by individual Alaska donors, Hellenthal said, though that fact is not clear from campaign disclosure reports.

A second consulting firm, PS Strategies, spent about $33,500 on radio advertisements boosting Nees and Sims and opposing Marsett and Bellamy, records show.

The firm’s co-founder and managing partner of PS Strategies is Mary Anne Pruitt, who is currently the acting communications director for Gov. Mike Dunleavy. Pruitt did not return a message seeking comment Tuesday.

The ads came as ballots were starting to hit mailboxes in Anchorage’s second-ever vote-by-mail election. As of Tuesday, about 8,000 voters had returned ballots.

There’s still a ways to go: Between 50,000 and 80,000 people typically vote in Anchorage elections, or up to about one-third of registered voters. The last day to vote is election day, April 2.