Ex-Mayor Sullivan still testing the waters in his run for Senate

WASHINGTON — The countdown is on, with just two months until Alaska's Aug. 16 primary election, but there's still some mystery as to the names that voters will eventually see on the GOP ballot for U.S. Senate.

Former Anchorage Mayor Dan A. Sullivan made a splash when he filed last-minute paperwork to challenge Sen. Lisa Murkowski, tickling the national press with the prospect of two Alaska senators named Dan Sullivan. But the fate of Sullivan's campaign is uncertain as he tests the waters and seeks financial support.

There's no website yet ("in the can," Sullivan said, but not released yet), and no official campaign infrastructure in the way of staffers. Though he was clear when he filed to run — 10 minutes before the deadline — that it was a last-minute decision, Sullivan seemed, at the time, ready to hit the ground running.

But Sullivan isn't all in yet. In an interview this week, Sullivan said he filed to keep the option open while he takes "some time to really vet this" decision.

Sullivan said he thinks about 45 days is necessary to mount a primary campaign, given Alaska's small population.

That leaves about two weeks to get finances lined up and boots on the ground. Alaska's primary elections will be held Aug. 16, though absentee ballots and early in-person voting begin 15 days earlier at regional elections offices in Juneau, Anchorage, Wasilla, Fairbanks and Nome.

Getting Alaskans to vote in the primary will be a key focus for Murkowski, who lost a close primary race to Joe Miller in 2010 before going on to win back her Senate seat in a nail-biter write-in campaign that November. Murkowski chalked it up to focusing on primary voter turnout.


Primaries tend to suffer from low turnout nationwide, and in Alaska, an August primary can exacerbate the problem of getting voters to the polls.

In August, "people are still in full summer mode, possibly out fishing, taking the kids out for the last camping trips, so it's going to be important to make sure that we get folks excited about the campaign and committed to getting out and voting," Murkowski said of her campaign's plans.

"We've got a really good team that is put in place. We're well resourced. And I'm just totally focused on … let's get on the other side of this primary; let's kick this out decisively, and then move on to the general," Murkowski said.

In Murkowski's 2010 race, 109,750 people voted for either Lisa Murkowski or Joe Miller in the Republican primary, with Miller coming out on top by a margin of just 2,006 votes, just under 2 percentage points.

The 2014 Republican senate primary had a similar turnout, with 111,697 voters picking up the GOP senate ballot that year. But the tally was a bit more spread out, with four contenders in the race. Current Sen. Dan S. Sullivan won 40.05 percent of the vote, followed by Joe Miller with 32.14 percent, Mead Treadwell with 24.9 percent, and John Jaramillo with 2.91 percent.

The 2016 primary could have similarly spread-out results, as there are, for now, five candidates signed up to run in the GOP primary: Paul Kendall, Thomas Lamb, Bob Lochner, Dan A. Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski.

Before he makes a final decision, Sullivan said he is doing "due diligence" to "find out if the resources are there to support a campaign," Sullivan said.

Sullivan said he will "decide probably within the next few days whether there are the bones … to put together a legitimate campaign." But he promised the people that asked him to run that he is "not going to spend money we don't have."

Moving forward with a challenge to Murkowski's more than $3 million war chest means courting donations from right-leaning organizations, many headquartered in the Lower 48. There are "a lot of individuals and organizations out there that want to support good conservative candidates," Sullivan said.

But with little time until the primary, that means shoring up a lot of support in a short time, he said, noting that it is time-consuming work, and some of the groups would like to meet him in person before committing to sending support his way.

Sullivan had hopes for a scrappy upstart campaign that could down the chair of the Senate energy committee. There's plenty of "angst" nationwide about the national debt, uncontrolled spending and "entanglements abroad," Sullivan said. "That's why everybody's labeling this the year of the outsider," he said, pointing to the unprecedented success of the presidential campaigns for Republican Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Former candidate Joe Miller echoed the outsider sentiment last week when he released a statement blasting Sen. Dan S. Sullivan for supporting Murkowski's campaign, calling it "a betrayal of everything Alaska conservatives hold dear." He pointed to the conservative issues likely high on candidate Sullivan's list: ending federal support for Planned Parenthood, repealing the Affordable Care Act, known as "Obamacare," and backing away from "D.C. insiders."

[Sullivan on Sullivan: Alaska senator backs Murkowski in U.S. Senate race]

But Sullivan, like Murkowski, isn't all-in on Donald Trump just yet. Like many, he said, he supports his party's nominee, but wishes Trump would take a different tone.

"I wish that he would grab on to the horrible economic news that we continue to see churned out of this administration," Murkowski also said of Trump, urging condemnation of some recent statements by the candidate that she said were racist.

[Sen. Dan Sullivan criticizes Donald Trump's comments on judges]

Despite holding a key position within the Republican party, Murkowski will avoid some affiliation with the unpredictable presumed nominee by skipping the Republican National Convention in July.


The Senate will break for the summer on July 15. "It's exactly one month to the primary," Murkowski said. The "convention is very important, but what is more important is for me to be up in the state," she said. Instead of heading to Cleveland, Murkowski said she plans to use "every day plus every hour in every day to get out across the state the minute that we get out of" Washington.

Read more:

Former Anchorage mayor files for primary run against Sen. Lisa Murkowski

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is Alaska Dispatch News' Washington, DC reporter, and she covers the legislation, regulation and litigation that impact the Last Frontier.  Erica came to ADN after years as a reporter covering energy at POLITICO. Before that, she covered environmental policy at a DC trade publication and worked at several New York dailies.