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Alaska's US Senate race cracks open with influx of new candidates

Sen. Lisa Murkowski speaks to supporters during her re-election campaign kickoff at Williwaw in Anchorage on Nov. 6, 2015. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

A Senate race that was starting to look like a quiet ride got a lot more crowded last week when a rush of candidates signed up last week to take on Alaska's senior Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

Many candidates waited until the June 1 filing deadline to make their intentions known, leaving the Murkowski camp waiting to see whether she would face much of a primary challenge. With more than a dozen candidates vying for the Senate slot, voters will now have options in both Democratic and Republican primaries in August.

Reasons for jumping in the race run the gamut — Murkowski is too liberal, too conservative, too beholden to her party or not enough. And for several candidates, it all comes down to the dollars.

A healthy campaign "war chest" is one way to ward off competition, though not necessarily a sure route to a win. In August, Murkowski will be one in a field of five candidates, with the main fight coming from former Anchorage mayor Dan Sullivan, who has fair name recognition across the state on his own, even if he couldn't feasibly share signs with Alaska's junior senator, the other Dan Sullivan.

Sullivan decided to jump in the race at the last minute, showing up to file paperwork in Anchorage with just 10 minutes until the deadline.

He's made clear so far that he has no interest in waging a personal campaign against Murkowski, but also that he's here to offer an option to those who feel she isn't conservative enough, particularly when it comes to key party issues like abortion. Murkowski has struggled to find middle ground on abortion in the last six years, often failing to please both the party faithful and some of the more liberal Alaskans who helped her win her historic write-in campaign in 2010.

Sullivan said he got in the race to be a voice for conservatives who feel that Murkowski falls too far toward the middle.

While fundraising is priority No. 1, Sullivan conceded he is unlikely to raise but a fraction of the sitting senator's cash haul. But with Alaska's small population, he's hopeful that a "people-to-people type campaign" could win out.

But Sullivan is hoping to avoid any negative campaigning, he said, noting decades-long friendships between his family and Murkowski's.

Recent quarterly polling from Alaska Survey Research shows that a Sullivan-Murkowski primary could be a competitive race, based on favorability ratings, where Sullivan has a boost among registered Republicans.

Another Republican on the ballot, Thomas Lamb, questions Murkowski's military bonafides and economic decisions, and isn't happy with her middle-ground approach to climate change.

Republican candidate Bob Lochner of Wasilla also touts a focus — and background — on military issues, and makes clear that he doesn't care for the big-money donors fueling Murkowski's campaign. "I am not a lawyer, retired judge or a member of the millionaire club," he said on his website , where he also advocates for Alaskan land rights.

Opposition to big-money politics runs through a swath of candidates who won't face a primary fight in August. The party primary winners will face five nonaffiliated challengers in the November election.

"No one owns me, I don't answer to any special interest or billionaires," said Breck Craig, an unaffiliated candidate, in an email. Craig is new to Alaska, having moved to the state just three years ago. "I believe I can provide the leadership neither of the main political parties can provide because they are so compromised by special interest," Craig said.

That's the central message from Margaret Stock, too. Stock, who announced her candidacy earlier this year and quickly raised more than $250,000 to fund her independent Senate campaign, argues that neither Republican nor Democrat will do for Alaska. Washington is broken and the parties are to blame, Stock argues.

Murkowski is "too tied to Washington politics," and "listens to the party bosses in Washington rather than listening to Alaskans," Stock said in an interview.

Ray Metcalfe, who filed to run as a Democrat the day before the deadline, is primarily focused on taking the influence of Outside money out of politics.

Metcalfe filed as a Democrat in part to capitalize on Alaskan support for Sen. Bernie Sanders, who won the state's Democratic caucus by wide margins, and calls himself a "Bernie-crat."

Metcalfe said he also regretted not getting in the race in 2010 after Joe Miller won the primary, and there might have been a better opportunity for a Democrat with some name recognition in the state. Metcalfe, who works in real estate in Anchorage, previously served two terms as a Republican lawmaker in the state House.

"So I didn't want to wake up on June 2 kicking myself again," he said.

The more candidates there are in the race, the better chance one of them has to eke past Murkowski in November, Metcalfe said. Stock, the current leader among independent candidates, is "going to pull more votes from the Republicans than she is from the Democrats," Metcalfe said.

Metcalfe will face Edgar Blatchford in the Democratic primary in August, a candidate primed to slice off Native support in the general election. Blatchford has held turns as a professor, adviser and newspaper owner, and served in the administrations of Govs. Frank Murkowski and Wally Hickel. He stepped down from positions as state commerce commissioner and director of the Chugach Alaska Corp. in 2005 after conflict-of-interest claims.

Murkowski's Deputy Campaign Manager Rachel Kallander said there were no worries for the senator, and the campaign is prepared with "the resources, local support and man-power assembled to run a robust campaign and win this race."

The full list of Senate candidates:

Republicans:

Paul Kendall
Thomas Lamb
Bob Lochner
Sen. Lisa Murkowski
Dan Sullivan

Democrats:

Edgar Blatchford
Ray Metcalfe

Libertarian:

Veterans Party of Alaska:

Independents:

Breck Craig
Ted Gianoutsos
Sid Hill
Margaret Stock
Jed Whittaker

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