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Big money flows mostly to Alaska Senate races, and left-leaning groups have the edge overall

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: November 5, 2016
  • Published November 5, 2016

Interest groups across the political spectrum have spent a small fortune on this year's state legislative races in Alaska — nearly $800,000 and rising.

Through Wednesday afternoon, Democratic- and union-affiliated groups had targeted state House and Senate candidates with about $430,000 in internet videos, robocalls, attacks ads and other communications, putting them ahead of the business- and Republican-affiliated groups that spent roughly $350,000.

More than half of all the cash from both left and right, about $480,000, went to two Senate races, in Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Anchorage independent Senate candidate Vince Beltrami, who's challenging Republican incumbent Cathy Giessel, has been on the receiving end of more than $150,000 in reported attack spending alone, about 40 percent of all the negative spending from interest groups in this year's general election.

Among the attacks lobbed at Beltrami, resident of Alaska's largest organized labor group: He's been branded "Boss Beltrami" and accused of having a "love affair" with the Democratic Party; on Wednesday, he discovered the Alaska Republican Party had attached his head to the body of a fox guarding a henhouse in an online video.

"My wife and a couple other people said they thought I made a really cute fox," Beltrami said.

The money from the business, union and other groups is known as "independent expenditures" because it's required by law to be independent from candidates' campaigns — with the idea there's a lower risk of corruption if donors aren't working directly with candidates.

In the six years since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed corporations and unions to spend on campaigns, money has poured into Alaska elections, peaking in 2014 when Outside groups spent $38.5 million on the U.S. Senate race, which saw Republican Dan Sullivan unseating Democratic incumbent Mark Begich.

Republicans have been the most vocal defenders of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, and at the national level, conservative groups have done more independent spending than liberal ones.

Conservative groups have spent $809 million on this year's federal elections compared to the $498 million spent by liberal groups, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Washington, D.C.,-based Center for Responsive Politics.

In Alaska, however, left-leaning groups are keeping up, outspending right-leaning ones in several Alaska House races this year. Democratic challenger Harry Crawford has seen $47,000 spent on his behalf compared to $9,000 for Anchorage Republican Rep. Lance Pruitt, while independent Jason Grenn has benefited from $36,000 in independent spending compared to $24,000 for his opponent, Anchorage Republican Rep. Liz Vazquez.

Asked about the apparent advantage of the liberal leaning groups, Jim Lottsfeldt, an Anchorage political consultant working with one of them, an independent expenditure group called Together for Alaska, responded that business interests can still overwhelm their opponents when they choose to.

"The oil industry and its allies have always been able to outspend the left, and could in this election, too, if they wanted to," Lottsfeldt said. "There's just so much more money on that side."

The Alaska Senate campaigns, in fact, have seen more independent spending from the conservative side than the Alaska House races.

In the Fairbanks contest, Republican Sen. John Coghill and Democratic challenger Luke Hopkins have received a nearly equal amount of support — $83,000 for Hopkins and $82,000 for Coghill.

The Anchorage Senate race between Beltrami and Giessel is one of the few races where business and Republican groups have spent more than the other side, buoyed largely by a late investment by "The Truth — Alaskans for Cathy Giessel."

"It appeared to us that she would be faced with a formidable money-raising venture on the other side," said Dan Coffey, the attorney and former Anchorage mayoral candidate in charge of the group.

The Truth has purchased about $100,000 in radio ads attacking Beltrami. One, despite the group's name, falsely accuses the candidate of changing his voter registration from Democratic to independent just two months before launching his candidacy, when the switch was actually made more than two years ago.

"Two months, two years, what difference does it make?" said Coffey. He added: "The last thing we want is him in charge or in power in the Senate."

The total ad spending, including all House and Senate races, was close to evenly divided between positive messages and attacks.

But there was a distinct split between races for seats in the two different chambers. Independent spending on House races skewed positive, at about $214,000 spent on supportive messages compared to $85,000 for attacks.

The Senate races, meanwhile, saw about $316,000 in negative spending, and $170,000 for messages of support.

The big spenders

Here's who's funding the independent groups that have spent more than $40,000 in Alaska elections this year.

*$40,170, Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii — As a 501c4, the group isn't required to disclose its donors

*$41,033, Southeast Voters for Bob Sivertsen — All of the group's cash comes from The Accountability Project, with the exception of $35 from two Accountability Project-connected groups.

*$48,632, The Accountability Project — Alaska State Chamber of Commerce, Alaska Frontier Constructors, shipping company Lynden and chairman Jim Jansen, and the Republican State Leadership Committee, a Washington, D.C.-based group whose own donors include tobacco company Reynolds American, Koch Industries, and drug company Pfizer.

*$61,425, Interior Voters for John Coghill — $57,000 of this group's money comes from The Accountability Project; other donors include Fairbanks auto dealer Ralph Seekins and Yukon Title Co. chief Roger Floerchinger

*$65,585, Alaska Republican Party — Financier Bob Gillam, Juneau developer Patricia Blomfield, lobbyist Heather Brakes, GCI executives Ron Duncan and Greg Chapados, Lynden Chairman Jim Jansen, construction executives John Ellsworth and Dave Cruz, banker Ed Rasmuson

*$100,309, The Truth – Alaskans for Cathy Giessel — Republican State Leadership Committee, Alaska Republican Party, Lynden and Jim Jansen, Alaska Frontier Constructors, Alaska State Chamber of Commerce, Ed Rasmuson, Associated Builders and Contractors of Alaska

*$126,308, Working Families of Alaska — Local 341, an Anchorage-based union that represents health care and construction workers, and the Washington, D.C.-based Laborers Political League Education Fund, an arm of the Laborers' International Union.

*$211,356, Together for Alaska — Attorney Robin Brena, Working Families of Alaska, Public Safety Employees Association (the union that represents state troopers), and three Washington, D.C.-based unions: the AFL-CIO, the IBEW, and the American Federation of State, County, & Municipal Employees

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