Two Democratic candidates are battling for Alaska's northernmost House seat, crisscrossing massive District 40 by plane and boat to campaign in Arctic villages and hub communities.
Dean Westlake, a Native corporation official from Kotzebue, is making a push for the seat currently held by Barrow Democrat Rep. Ben Nageak. It's Westlake's second straight run in the Democratic primary, and he says his earlier start to the campaign this year will make for a closer race than in 2014, when Nageak claimed 53 percent of the vote.
The race is one of two in the Bush in which the state Democratic Party is backing a challenger running to the left of the incumbent. The other race is centered in Bethel, where Zach Fansler is challenging incumbent Rep. Bob Herron.
Westlake is also benefiting from thousands of dollars in spending on ads by left-leaning political groups, including one that quotes Anchorage GOP Rep. Lance Pruitt as saying Nageak is "one of the best Republicans we have in the Legislature."
Nageak follows a long tradition of Bush Democrats caucusing with the House majority organization, whether it's led by Republicans or urban Democrats. But other Bush Democrats in the House haven't followed the Republican leaders quite as closely. In 2016, for example, Nageak voted with House leadership nearly twice as often as another Bush Democrat in the caucus, Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham, according to an Alaska Dispatch News analysis of all votes this year.
Westlake said he would likely caucus with urban Democrats, even if that puts him in the House minority.
The old advantages of joining with majority Republicans — namely state grants or legislative earmarks for local projects — have disappeared now that Alaska faces a huge budget deficit, he said.
And the House majority, Westlake added, has pushed budget cuts that hurt rural Alaska, including for public radio and revenue sharing, which distributes state money to villages, cities and boroughs.
"It was great when we had all that money," Westlake said in a phone interview from Kotzebue this week. "Now we're at a crossroads on defining and rewriting Alaska for the future. I mean, you can't keep chasing dead dreams, and that, I think, is what's happened."
Nageak, first elected in 2012, had a slow start to his re-election effort this year, raising $11,000 to Westlake's $35,000 as reported under a campaign finance deadline last week.
Nageak has also suffered from health problems.
He was taken by ambulance from the Capitol last year after collapsing during a floor session due to complications from knee surgery.
And a scare this summer led to his medical evacuation by air from a North Slope hospital to the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, where it turned out a feared heart problem was actually "severe gas," he wrote in a recent Facebook post.
Nageak has been working to close his fundraising gap with Westlake since lawmakers last month wrapped up their work in Juneau. He held an Anchorage fundraiser Tuesday co-hosted by executives from Arctic Slope Regional Corp., with Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan in attendance.
Nageak also made a recent campaign trip to Westlake's home community of Kotzebue, and traveled with Sullivan to the Northwest Alaska villages of Noatak and Kivalina, according to Nageak's most recent campaign finance report.
Nageak didn't respond to repeated requests to talk about his campaign. But Tara Sweeney, an ASRC executive who helped coordinate Nageak's Anchorage fundraiser, said Nageak's position in the House majority caucus — and his co-chairmanship of the House Resources Committee, which shapes oil and gas legislation — gives him a platform to promote policies that bring revenue to his district.
From that platform, Nageak has been an enthusiastic promoter of Slope oil development and supported a House majority move this year to weaken Gov. Bill Walker's legislation increasing taxes and reducing subsidies for oil companies.
Sweeney, who spent time in Barrow as a child but now lives in Anchorage, said Nageak would "rather be inside the tupiq than outside the tupiq," using the Inupiaq word for "tent."
"When you understand politics like Bennie does, he understands that being in the majority certainly gives you a seat at the table when negotiations are happening on bills that affect our region," said Sweeney, stressing she was giving a personal opinion rather than a corporate perspective.
The race will likely hinge on regional loyalties and the extent to which the candidates can disrupt them. In the 2014 race, Nageak won close to half of his 1,100 votes in his home community of Barrow, where he took 90 percent, or 486 votes.
Nageak still boasts the endorsement of Harry Brower Jr., the newly elected mayor of the North Slope Borough, which is headquartered in Barrow. But Westlake has campaigned aggressively there, making two trips this year, and his efforts can be expected to close the gap, said Jason Evans, publisher of The Arctic Sounder newspaper.
"The more somebody runs, the more cross-support they're going to gain," Evans said in a phone interview.
Westlake drew much of his support in 2014 from Northwest Alaska villages; in Kiana, where he grew up, he won 67 to 22.
But he only eked out a victory in Kotzebue, where he lives now, with 168 votes to Nageak's 150.
"I didn't campaign very hard here, and I should have — it was my mistake," Westlake said. "But it was a lesson learned."
Another dynamic in the race is the support Westlake has drawn from the Alaska Democratic Party and allied groups.
A union-backed group, Working Families of Alaska, has reported spending about $12,000 on digital ads, mailers, television and newspaper ads on Westlake's behalf.
The Alaska Center, a conservation group, has spent more than $5,000 on phone banking, mailers and Facebook ads supporting Westlake.
Together for Alaska, a new political group backed by unions, attorney Robin Brena, and executives for telecommunications company GCI, spent $1,400 on a mailer attacking Nageak.
And the Alaska Democratic Party itself sent a mailer backing Westlake to district residents, charging the House majority "wants to balance the budget on the backs of rural Alaska."
Party leaders also held a fundraiser this month for Westlake at the expansive South Anchorage home of Brena, an oil and gas lawyer who has fought with the state's major producers over the taxable value of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.
One of the co-hosts was Mark Begich, the Democratic former U.S. senator. His former campaign manager, Susanne Fleek-Green — now Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz's chief of staff — introduced Westlake and Fansler, another fundraiser beneficiary.
"We're all in this together, and we know that with a strong rural Alaska is a strong urban Alaska," Fleek-Green said.
Sweeney, the Nageak ally, said it was "disheartening" to see the Democrats "throw away two of their own." She pointed out that the party doesn't list Nageak or Herron as legislative candidates on its website.
Referring to Nageak, Sweeney said, "You cannot say that he does not represent our people."
"One of our Inupiaq values is about cooperation and compassion," she said. "He embodies those values down to his absolute core."