The business-backed group Stand for Alaska poured more than $10 million into the campaign against Ballot Measure 1, eclipsing spending by the competition in one of the costliest campaigns ever seen in Alaska.
The Stand for Salmon forces, which raised less than $3 million to support the measure, pointed to the financial disadvantage as a key reason their side lost heavily Tuesday.
"We couldn't overcome their messaging and misinformation," said Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, a measure sponsor, as election results streamed in Tuesday night.
But campaign observers said the defeat didn't necessarily turn on money, a view shared by Stand for Alaska's political consultant, who said the opposition group didn't spread lies.
The eight-page measure would have rewritten state law, setting new regulations for activity affecting salmon habitat.
The measure won in just six of 40 House districts — downtowns Juneau and Anchorage, and Southwest Alaska. It lost by nearly a 2-to-1 margin, receiving 85,553 yes votes, and 148,130 no votes, as of Friday.
Political consultants and others say a key handicap was the measure's complexity, leaving it subject to interpretation by the opposition.
Meantime, a broad coalition of influential groups, including Native corporations, a labor federation, and oil and mining giants, sprang up to fight it.
"This was so far overreaching it had something all of us could hate," said Vince Beltrami, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, a labor federation representing more than 50,000 Alaskans.
"This wasn't the case that the superior money won," said Marc Hellenthal, a longtime Alaska political consultant who didn't work for either side. "(Stand for Salmon) had enough money to get their message out. But obviously, their message wasn't effective."
Ryan Schryver, head of the Stand for Salmon campaign, said his side received much of its support as non-monetary contributions from conservation groups. That provided workers doing person-to-person outreach such as door-knocking.
But cash for media ads was limited to the hundreds of thousands of dollars, not millions.
"One lesson learned is it's a lot to overcome a tidal wave of commercials, when you're trying to communicate on a micro-level," he said.
Confidential polling showed the measure was doomed weeks before the election, said Willis Lyford, Stand for Alaska's political consultant.
His side slowed ad-buying with a month left. "We'll give back some of the money to our donors," Lyford said, declining to specify the amount.
Stand for Alaska raised $12 million, spending $10.3 million, the latest reports show. It spent about $70 a vote.
Pro-measure groups, led by Yes for Salmon, raised and spent $2.7 million, about $32 a vote.
The overall spending — at $13 million — dwarfed the top-ticket races in Alaska for Congress and governor.
As ballot-measures go, the spending might trail only the $15 million war over oil taxes in 2014, won by industry with a 53-47 margin. Oil companies and partners spent about $145 for each supportive vote. The losing side spent about $7 a vote.
Spending was also high in the 2008 battle over the Clean Water initiative, viewed as a threat by mines. Those records weren't accessible this week from the Alaska Public Offices Commission.
"We were definitely outraised and outspent by quite a bit," said Paula DeLaiarro, Yes for Salmon treasurer. "Money isn't everything, but it allows you to get a message out, and they clearly did a lot of TV, which is expensive."
The pro-measure groups focused on cheaper radio and social media ads, she said.
Jerry McBeath, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said the decisive issue was prominent opposition.
The congressional delegation, Gov. Bill Walker, Native corporation executives and other leaders, concerned about impacts to development, stood against the measure.
"I don't think it's simply a question of money," McBeath said. "It came down to the attentive public and the leadership of the attentive public."
The measure got "drubbed" because it was an expansive overhaul of state law affecting projects big and small, said Beltrami, with Alaska AFL-CIO.
The group joined employers to fight the measure, an unusual union, he said.
"We don't always agree, but when something impacts jobs, we line up," he said.
Quinn-Davidson, a sponsor, said the measure was detailed for a reason: "If you're going to change the law, let's change it right the first time."
Bob Shavelson, with Cook Inletkeeper, a donor to the Stand for Salmon campaign, said the measure's complexity was an issue. It allowed the other side to spread a message of fear, distortion and doubt, he said.
"In hindsight, the KISS principle should have been applied — keep it simple stupid," Shavelson said.
Stand for Alaska didn't spread lies, Lyford said.
Instead, he said, the group interpreted and explained the measure's potential impacts, after polling showed confusion among voters.
"I mean, this was eight pages of legalese," Lyford said. "You needed a lawyer and an accountant to help you understand what it was about."
The language generated widespread concerns over its potential effects, he said. Native corporations and hunting groups feared it would hurt backcountry access. Others worried even residential projects near creeks could be slowed or halted.
"We took the opportunity to define what this was," said Lyford, a veteran of Alaska's ballot-measure fights.
Lyford acknowledged his side had a hefty financial advantage, but not overwhelming. The other side had "real resources" — sizable contributions — to work with.
Many of those donations came from nonprofit organizations outside Alaska, part of a new fundraising strategy for these types of campaigns, he asserted.
"They had a powerful message about salmon, but didn't communicate it effectively enough," Lyford said.
Schryver said Stand for Salmon was thrown on the "defensive," knocked off its core message of protecting salmon for future generations.
"We did have an effective message early on," he said.
"But that was drowned out in conversations about the details of the initiative," he said. "They were able to pull out an artificial bogeyman and convince people the sky was falling. That forced us to go in and prove it wasn't."