This story was originally published by Alaska Public Media.
This year’s U.S. Senate campaign in Alaska this year was not expected to be especially competitive: Incumbent GOP Sen. Dan Sullivan was predicted to cruise to victory, and one nonpartisan rankings service rated the race as “solid Republican.”
But a recent flood of Democratic-linked money suggests that the race is tightening. On Wednesday, according to Politico, a super PAC with links to a Senate Democratic campaign arm reserved $4 million in advertisements on behalf of Al Gross, the independent running with the Alaska Democratic Party’s nomination.
President Donald Trump’s flagging poll numbers across the country are helping to bring a number of previously safe Republican U.S. Senate seats into play across the country — including in Alaska, said James Arkin, who covers campaigns for Politico.
“$4 million is money that could be really helpful to them in a number of states,” Arkin said in a phone interview Thursday. “So this is a pretty clear declaration from the Democratic Party that Alaska is on the map and on the board for them.”
The $4 million doesn’t come directly from Senate Democrats' super PAC; instead, it’s from a separate super PAC called North Star that was established Monday.
Because its creators waited to register North Star until after a quarterly campaign finance deadline last week, the group does not have to report its donors for a couple of weeks, Arkin said. But its affiliated bank is one known to work with Democratic organizations, and the firm it hired to buy its television commercials is the same one as Senate Majority PAC, the group aligned with Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer.
Officials at Senate Majority PAC didn’t respond to a request for comment. North Star’s only listed contact is treasurer Ryan Johnston, a 28-year old Anchorage Democratic legislative aide who declined to answer specific questions about the group.
“North Star’s mission is to shine a light on Dan Sullivan’s record of failing Alaskans,” Johnston said when reached by phone Thursday. “Our new effort will hold Dan Sullivan accountable to Alaskans, and of course is complying with all campaign finance laws to do so.”
While North Star’s links are not exactly a secret, Arkin said, they do lend the PAC a measure of distance from national Democrats, which can help in a not-especially-Democrat-friendly state like Alaska. In 2014, national Democrats had a similar strategy for spending money: Instead of Senate Majority PAC buying its own ads, it transferred money to another super PAC that bought ads on behalf of the Democrat in the race.
“A lot of times, a big investment from the national party and groups associated with leadership in the Senate can backfire, and Dan Sullivan’s campaign and his supporters in Alaska could say, ‘This is Chuck Schumer’s super PAC coming in to try to sway the balance of this state,’” Arkin said. “And now they can’t say that declaratively.”
Nonetheless, they can get pretty close. Matt Shuckerow, Sullivan’s campaign manager, said the U.S. Senate campaign is seeing millions of dollars arriving in the state through “obscure front groups” that are “part of Chuck Schumer’s campaign machine.”
North Star isn’t the only group spending six- and seven-figure sums on Gross' behalf; there are four others that have spent $6.5 million compared to just $1.5 million spent by Republican groups to boost Sullivan, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Gross' own campaign announced Wednesday that it raised a huge sum of money, $9 million, in the past three months.
Shuckerow said people are getting tired of hearing from the campaigns.
“The television ads, the digital ads, the songs that are being played — I’m sure at this point a lot of Alaskans wish that we could just turn it off,” he said.
He also noted that because of the way that American campaign finance laws work, Alaskans won’t know where the money for North Star’s attack ads are coming from for weeks.
For his part, Gross supports more rigorous campaign finance rules, including a Constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that got rid of limits on spending by corporations and unions, said spokeswoman Julia Savel.
But she stressed that federal rules bar Gross' campaign from working with any of the super PACs participating in the race.
“We can’t tell them to get into the race, can’t tell them to get out of the race,” she said. “They do their spending in races they see as competitive, and clearly Alaska has become one of those.”
Shuckerow pointed out that Gross, in a digital video, said he was “glad to have” the support of the Lincoln Project, one of the Outside groups that’s advertising on his behalf.