The fight over a ballot question on salmon habitat is now among the most expensive political campaigns in Alaska history, with more than $14 million raised. Millions more have poured into the election for governor, according to new disclosures filed this week.
In both campaigns, the bulk of the money is being raised and spent by so-called independent expenditure groups. Allowed in the aftermath of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2010, the groups can raise money without limits on individual donations, and have changed how elections are financed in Alaska. They've largely upstaged the actual campaign organizations.
"IEs (independent expenditure groups) are coming to the forefront and basically taking over. The campaign doesn't do squat," said Marc Hellenthal, a pollster and political consultant who has worked this election cycle for Republican gubernatorial candidate Mike Dunleavy.
With hours ticking away until the polls open Tuesday, the biggest spenders in the election overall are opponents of Ballot Measure 1. Stand for Alaska, an independent expenditure group fueled by oil and mining companies and some Alaska Native corporations, had raised more than $12 million as of Tuesday.
Supporters of Ballot Measure 1, including Yes for Salmon, have raised at least $2.3 million, with donations from nonprofits and individuals.
The spending on the ballot measure has eclipsed the governor's race. As with the salmon initiative, the big money in the governor's race between Democrat Mark Begich and Republican Mike Dunleavy comes in the form of unlimited contributions to political action committees. The independent expenditure groups aren't allowed to coordinate with the individual campaigns.
The campaigns for Begich and Dunleavy, which rely mainly on individual donations, have raised little more than a million dollars combined. The independent expenditure groups supporting Dunleavy alone have raised about four times that amount.
With as few as 285,000 people expected to vote statewide on Tuesday, every dollar helps campaigns and groups buy limited commercial time. One independent expenditure group opposing Dunleavy reported paying $10,000 for a single, 30-second commercial during Sunday night football.
State law limits the amount that individual voters can give to a candidate. But the 2010 Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision allowed corporations and unions to make unlimited independent expenditures. In Alaska, those independent expenditure groups pay for many of the ads that voters see attacking or supporting candidates.
An independent expenditure group "can take individual money, (it) can take corporate money, and there's no limit," said Hellenthal, the consultant who has worked for decades in Alaska political campaigns. "It's become incredibly lopsided now, the IEs doing everything. And I'm not sure how healthy that is for society in general."
In the most recent filing period, Oct. 6 through Oct. 27, the Begich campaign collected $334,433 in donations. Begich jumped into the race late, in June, and has raised a total of $731,078 from more than 2,200 people throughout his campaign.
Over the October reporting period, the Dunleavy camp raised $220,374 from a smaller pool of individual donors. The campaign has raised $482,308 to date.
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Compare those numbers to the amounts raised by independent expenditure groups. Pro-Begich groups — with names like Defeat Dunleavy, Begich for Alaska and Alaskans Opposed to Dunleavy — have raised at least $840,000. Some of that money is leftover from a union-funded group that had supported Gov. Bill Walker until Walker dropped from the race.
Independent expenditure groups supporting Dunleavy reported a blockbuster fund-raising month in October. All told, those groups have raised about $4.6 million to elect Dunleavy, with at least $2.7 million from the Republican Governors Association.
The Democratic Governors Association recently kicked in $500,000 for Begich.
Dunleavy's brother, Francis Dunleavy, gave $50,000 in October to Dunleavy for Alaska and has now contributed more than half a million dollars total to the independent expenditure group.
Francis Dunleavy made headlines in 2013 after a JPMorgan Chase & Co. energy desk that he ran in Houston was "accused of manipulating the U.S. power market," according to Reuters. Asked why Mike Dunleavy would accept the money, a campaign spokesman replied in an email:
"Mike is happy to have the support of his family, most importantly his wife and three daughters," wrote Dunleavy spokesman Daniel McDonald. McDonald noted that candidates' campaigns operate independently of independent expenditure groups like the one that the brother donated too.
One of the Begich independent expenditure groups received $100,000 in October from W. Dean Weidner, chief executive for Weidner Apartment Homes and once described by Bloomberg as "Alaska's hidden billionaire." After losing re-election to the U.S. Senate, Begich owned a consulting firm that included Weidner Apartment Homes among its clients, and the consulting business has raised questions of how a Begich administration might encounter future clients when making policy decisions.
Asked about the donations from consulting clients, Begich campaign manager Nora Morse wrote, "Mark Begich will follow the law and all state regulations … most people want someone in government who has business experience."
Hellenthal said that the big spending to kill Ballot Measure 1 by industry groups might spill over into increased financial support for Dunleavy, who opposes the measure. Begich has said he will vote for it.
"It helps fundraising in the sense that the oil PACs are going to be more inclined for Dunleavy, and the mining PACs," Hellenthal said, referring to political action committees.
Vince Beltrami, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, said that the union umbrella organization opposes Ballot Measure 1 but also supports Begich. "He staked out a strategic position because the other two candidates, the governer and Dunleavy, had already said they were no on (Ballot Measure) 1."
As for the 2018 fundraising climate, Beltrami said that some donors did not give big to individual candidates or groups this year because of the uncertainty of a Walker-Dunleavy-Begich matchup.
"A lot of money stayed on the sidelines when there was a three-person race," he said.
That wasn't the case with the salmon fight. Ballot Measure 1 would make state regulations affecting development in certain fish habitat "significantly more restrictive," if approved by voters, the Alaska Supreme Court has said. It would apply to anadromous fish habitat — such as streams where salmon and other ocean-dwelling fish return to spawn.
With at least $14.3 million raised in the ballot measure campaign so far, the spending on that single ballot question comes to about $50 per Alaskan voter, if expectations of voter turnout based on past elections hold true. The spending is approaching the blockbuster $15.3 million fight over Alaska oil taxes in 2014, when voters faced a referendum designed to repeal and replace a new oil tax production law.