The 48 candidates for Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat include an ex-governor, a doctor, a professor, a gardener, a few lawyers and fishermen. But no figure is more recognizable than Santa Claus.
This particular Santa’s personal history is not a regular Christmas tale. He is a monk who took a vow of poverty, serves on the North Pole city council and agrees with most of what Bernie Sanders has to say. But with a white beard, round appearance and soft-spoken demeanor, he looks and sounds like the real deal.
Behind the name and appearance is a man with a detailed campaign platform that some say gives him a fighting chance at capturing one of the top four spots in the special June 11 primary needed to advance to the general election in August. And befitting his name, Claus is taking an unconventional approach to running for office.
He says he will spend no more than $400 of his own money on the campaign. He is running as an independent, uninterested in toeing a party line. He is not accepting donations, not planning any in-person events — at 74, he is worried about COVID-19 — not planning to send mail to Alaskans and not taking any endorsements from politicians, though he says a couple have already offered.
But with a name like Santa Claus, some are wondering: Is any of that even necessary?
“When your name is Santa Claus, name ID has got to be rated at 100%,” said political consultant Jim Lottsfeldt. “So I’m not sure what he would spend money to say. Could he actually improve the image of Santa Claus?”
The only other candidate in the race whose name recognition rivals Santa’s is former Gov. Sarah Palin, who elicits strong emotions ranging from adoration to detestation and is widely seen as one of the most famous — or infamous — Alaskans in the history of the state.
By contrast, Santa’s name evokes broadly positive feelings. But it also belies a progressive platform that stands out in his ruby-red surroundings.
With interview requests streaming in from national outlets, Claus isn’t complaining about the “Santa advantages.” But he hopes some voters will also look up his campaign platform. His views include supporting Medicare expansion and reducing federal defense spending.
If elected, Claus says he wants to carry on some of the work started by Republican Rep. Don Young, who held Alaska’s U.S. House seat for 49 years until his sudden death last month. That includes joining the cannabis caucus that Young led. But Claus also wants to promote more Santa-esque policies: improving health, safety and welfare for children and people who are neglected, exploited, abandoned or homeless.
“What I’m trying to do is find common ground and move Alaska forward, and set a better example for some of the other folks that are in Washington,” he said. “Why not come in there as Santa and see if I shake it up a little bit?”
Of the $400 he’s lent his campaign, $100 has gone toward the state’s filing fee and around $150 has gone to his website, Claus said. The remainder may go toward sending out a press release to clarify his positions on various issues, he said, but he plans to spend no money on advertising or traveling to different parts of the state.
“People have asked to make buttons for me or go out and wave signs, and I just politely decline,” he said.
His low-cost strategy may be working. A Twitter account he launched April 1, the day he announced he would run for office, had more than 7,000 followers by April 9.
Still, the unforgettable name brings with it the possibility that some won’t take him seriously. He has so far been unable to verify his Twitter account, a process that would give him the blue checkmark that signifies Twitter has confirmed his identity. It would allow him to follow more new accounts per day, increasing his reach, which he says is part of his campaign strategy.
Claus, who changed his legal name in 2005 from Thomas O’Connor as part of an effort to bring awareness to children’s issues, said he is planning to run only for the special election to carry out the remainder of Young’s term, and not the regularly scheduled election in November. His goal, he says, is to get “a little balance going, and then whoever wins the big election will have a clean slate — whether it’s a Republican, Democrat or independent.”
‘The naughty list’
With several candidates running on the left side of the political spectrum — including Democratic Anchorage Assembly member Christopher Constant, Democratic former state lawmaker Mary Sattler Peltola and independent physician Al Gross — Alaska’s progressive voters have options.
Many of the candidates are now trying to figure out how to run a campaign that will capture enough votes to advance from the primary to the general election, without declaring a war on Christmas.
“How in the world do you campaign against Santa Claus? Nobody wants to get on the naughty list,” Constant said.
Under Alaska’s new election system implemented this year, voters must choose one candidate in a nonpartisan, open primary held June 11. The top four vote-getters will advance to a general election scheduled Aug. 16, when voters will be able to rank the candidates based on preference.
Malena Marvin, a small fishing business owner and progressive activist from Petersburg, said she’s familiar with Claus, and she’s considering voting for him.
“He’s a guy that will join the Zoom and contribute and is a good communicator, a really nice person who follows through,” Marvin said. “I think it’s meaningful that he genuinely cares about people and has chosen this unconventional life fully for the purpose of uplifting children’s issues and social issues.”
As a cancer survivor, Marvin said she is motivated to vote for a candidate who is willing to “propose bold solutions” to health care challenges in the state. Claus falls in that category, but she also points out that it’s early in the race and too soon to tell if other candidates will come forward with similar positions.
“Among the candidates I’m following, Santa is the only one who has weighed in on current congressional legislation,” she said. “I don’t think he has any competitors on that level.”
Marvin is also inclined to vote for an Alaska Native candidate. While Indigenous Alaskans currently make up 15% of the state’s population, the state has never elected an Alaska Native to its congressional delegation. And this race includes four candidates who could make history as the first: Peltola, Democrat Emil Notti, Republican Tara Sweeney and nonpartisan Laurel Foster.
“It’s a tough decision for me,” Marvin said.
“A great deal of our uniqueness as a state comes from our Alaska Native tribes and communities. They make Alaska what it is. And after a while, it becomes immoral that the people who define Alaska are not representing us in the halls of Congress,” she said.
Peltola, who is Yup’ik, said in an interview Friday that she was compelled to run for the seat after the death of Young, who was a family friend. While she sees the importance of having an Alaska Native in Congress, she said she doesn’t necessarily want to emphasize her unique identity in the race.
“I feel like I’m a true Alaskan. I’m a fisherman. I’m a hunter. I’m a mother,” she said. “I really don’t want to emphasize being different. I want to emphasize being the same and identifying with everyday Alaskan challenges.”
Peltola was chair of the Bush caucus for eight of the 10 years she served in the Alaska Legislature. Until announcing her run, she was executive director of the Kuskokwim Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
Peltola said she is not ruling out any campaign contributions at this point. Nor is she ruling out any solutions to the problem of high energy costs that she says plagues rural communities like the one she’s from.
For progressive voters with a variety of options, that may not be enough.
“Any candidate that hopes to bring us courageously forward has to be brave enough to disavow the extractive oil economy that has led to the climate crisis that rural Alaskans are now facing at a disproportionate rate to the rest of the world,” said Ruth Miller, who is Dena’ina Athabascan and serves as the climate justice director for Native Movement. She has not expressed support for any particular candidate in the race.
“So many of our elections are bought out by dark money and special interest groups that seed candidates knowing that they will vote to protect their capitalist interest. So, we know that any candidate that really hopes to enact strong social change will be one that can rise above that kind of corruption,” Miller said before marching at a “Protect The Arctic” rally in Anchorage on Friday.
Marvin said she’s hoping for a coalition of center-left, moderate and unlikely voters to unify around one or two progressive candidates who can draw enough support to advance to the general election.
What about some candidates suspending their campaigns to increase the chances of others in a crowded race?
“That would be my dream,” Marvin said.
There is room in the race for candidates with differing opinions, Claus said, and he hasn’t seen a candidate who shares his particular views — so he doesn’t have any plans to withdraw his candidacy.
“I’m going to keep saying what I have to say,” Claus said. “We’ll see where the votes go.”
An unconventional candidate
As a younger man, before the name change and the white beard, Claus lived in New York City and served as a special assistant deputy police commissioner there. His pre-Santa days also include film school and gigs as a bouncer. Since moving to North Pole, he has served as president of the local chamber of commerce and two terms on the city council.
All that experience informs his positions on various issues now. For one, he does not believe that defunding the police is the answer.
“I do see funding social programs,” he said. He also supports auditing military spending to get more dollars diverted to education, child care and Medicare expansion.
“Even though I’m an independent progressive, a democratic socialist, I’m not in favor of putting people at risk,” he said. “How about funding some of these programs so these problems don’t keep cropping up and getting worse over time? If all that stuff were done, the police wouldn’t even have to deal with the problem to begin with.”
Claus’ support for democratic socialist policies like those promoted by Bernie Sanders could end up helping him when voters fill out their ballots. Sanders won Alaska’s 2016 Democratic presidential caucuses with 80% of the vote, capturing 8,447 votes to Hillary Clinton’s 2,146.
Still, some political analysts in Alaska cast doubt on Claus’ chances of reaching the top four spots — let alone winning the race.
“Professional political people forget that unconventional candidates can go very far, and that a lot of times, an unconventional candidate carrying a bold message can be a big draw for unlikely voters,” Marvin said.
The precursors to Claus’ current run for U.S. House are two presidential races, in 2008 and 2012. He says the decision to run came after a chance run-in with then-candidate Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign.
Claus said he had asked to share some ideas with Obama on children’s issues.
“And he said, ‘Well, I’m really not addressing that in this campaign, but if you want to do it, run for office.’ That’s how it happened.”