Politics

In a special U.S. House race, Alaska Democrats see opportunity

Alaska’s congressional delegation has not counted a Democrat among its members since 2015. With a special election on the horizon to fill Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat, Democrats and their allies in the state are wondering if now is their chance.

But in a field of 48 candidates, only six are registered Democrats, and some candidates with progressive views are running without a party affiliation and putting distance between themselves and the Democratic Party.

One of them is Al Gross, who in his 2020 U.S. Senate run received the Democratic Party endorsement and raised millions of dollars from donors hoping to flip the Senate from Republican to Democratic control. The independent candidate lost by a wide margin to GOP incumbent Sen. Dan Sullivan. Gross, an orthopedic surgeon and commercial fisherman, is shunning any connection to the Democratic Party this time around.

In a crowded field, Gross benefits from name recognition bought with more than $19 million spent by his campaign in 2020. But he will be fielding challenges from both the left and right. On the left, he’ll battle Democrats with local and statewide experience like Chris Constant, Mary Sattler Peltola and Adam Wool, and one wildcard named Santa Claus.

Those running with a “D” next to their names are cognizant that they’ll have to attract independent voters to nail down one of the top four positions in the primary race needed to advance to the August general election.

“When I first was organizing to run, a lot of people asked — ‘Are you going to run as an independent? Are you going to run as a Democrat? Maybe we should have a poll on that question to see which way the wind blows,’ ” said Constant, an Anchorage Assembly member and the only Democrat to enter the U.S. House race before Rep. Don Young died unexpectedly in March, triggering the special election.

“I’m not going to change my stripes depending on which way the wind is blowing,” Constant said. “Am I going to be the independent who’s kind of going to skirt the line between, ‘Oh, I want Democrat support but I don’t want to work with them really, because that’s bad for my reputation in Alaska’?”

[Q&As with Alaska’s U.S. House candidates in the 2022 special primary election]

Constant said he sees Gross as his direct competitor for votes. So did Peltola, a former state lawmaker and subsistence fishing advocate from Bethel.

Peltola has been a registered Democrat for more than half her life. She also touts her experience working across the aisle in Juneau to advance legislation.

“We were able to succeed through unity, and not looking at things through a partisan lens,” she said.

Still, she adds: “I think that there’s definitely room for a Democrat to win in Alaska. Because I think that in Alaska, it’s so much more about the person and their beliefs and values and how they relate to voters, over a political party.”

‘What human on Earth is anti-Santa?’

Gross, Peltola, Constant and Wool may be battling for the same voters as the June 11 primary deadline nears, with ballots already mailed to registered voters. But they have fierce competition from others in the crowded race. In Santa Claus, they see a candidate who can win without even mounting a campaign.

Claus, a North Pole city council member who identifies as a social democrat and is running as a nonpartisan, is spending only $400 on his campaign, not soliciting donations, not running ads and not holding any in-person campaign events. Still, the household name is gaining unsurprising traction.

“What human on Earth is anti-Santa?” said Peltola. “So, yeah, it’s very challenging being in a race with Santa in the field because he’s got more recognition than anyone else, by far, and he as a person is wonderful.”

When asked about his platform, Claus points voters to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ website. He has a come-what-may approach to the race, but he has been bolstered by enough supporters and national media attention to briefly consider entering the regularly scheduled November election. Initially, he had said he would only enter the special election to carry out the last few months of Young’s term.

At 74, he said he did not want a long career in Washington — only a platform to shine a light, however fleetingly, on children’s welfare, a topic he calls his ministry. Ultimately, after several days of deliberations, he decided to stick with the one-race plan. The deadline to file for the November election is June 1.

[Mentored by Young, GOP U.S. House candidates navigate a race shaped by his death]

Other candidates are hoping that a commitment to the long haul and traditional campaigns, accompanied by advertising, fundraising and hours of phone calls and hand-shaking, will make up for what they lack in name recognition and wish-fulfilling elves.

“If Santa Claus takes enough of the vote on a whim, and all of us are bumped out because of it, then I’ll be very frustrated,” said Constant. “It is a trap. We lose five points here, five points there, and we could have no lane.”

‘Someone that I wasn’t’

Under Alaska’s new election laws, the 48 candidates running appear on a single primary ballot. Voters must pick one candidate in the all-mail primary election and mail in their ballot by June 11. The top four vote getters will then advance to an August general election in which voters will be able to rank the four candidates by order of preference.

Gross, 60, says that the new nonpartisan primary, which takes emphasis away from political parties, serves him well.

“It certainly allows me to run as the person that I truly am, which I tried to do in the last election. But because I accepted the Democratic Party endorsement, I believe I was labeled, at least by the Republicans or my opponent, as someone that I wasn’t,” he said.

Gross, who has never held public office, ran an expensive campaign in 2020 on the promise that if elected, he would caucus with Democrats. Polls predicted a tight race, but ultimately Gross lost to Sullivan by more than 12 points that year, earning 45,000 fewer votes.

[More coverage of the 2022 special congressional election in Alaska]

Now, Gross has declined to commit to caucus with either party. In an interview last week, Gross said that he would join the majority caucus, regardless of who holds the majority. But then he quickly changed course, saying minutes later that he would decide only after the election.

“When I’m elected, I’ll caucus with the majority caucus, at least for the first two years, because I think that’s in the best interest of Alaska. After two years, I’ll caucus with whoever best represents the values of Alaskans,” he first said.

But later he added: “I will make a decision as to who I will caucus with based on how I can best represent the values of Alaskans, and how I can best get work done for Alaskans.”

Just as Gross has changed his tune from 2020, so has the Alaska Democratic Party. The party is not endorsing any candidate ahead of the primary.

“Vote for one Democrat. That’s it,” said Casey Steinau, Alaska Democratic Party chair. “That’s the end of our messaging.”

“We can talk all day long about whether or not it’s advantageous to run as independent or unaffiliated, but we know the six Democrats share our values,” said Lindsay Kavanaugh, executive director of the Alaska Democratic Party.

“We have to vote our values. We have to stop thinking who’s the most viable. That’s just throwing away your vote,” Kavanaugh said. “It concerns me that people could run as an independent and don’t think they have to work for the Democratic vote, that they just somehow get it because they’ve had it in the past or they said the right thing. That’s not the way it would work moving forward.”

Alongside Constant and Peltola, the Democrats in the race include Fairbanks state Rep. Adam Wool, former Alaska Federation of Natives President Emil Notti, former Kodiak Island Borough Assemblyman Mike Milligan and Ernest Thomas.

Constant and Peltola are the only Democrats currently registered to run in the November election for the next congressional term, but Wool has indicated he intends to enter that race before the deadline.

Notti, now 89, ran against Young for the U.S. House seat in 1973 and came within 2,000 votes of winning. He was involved in developing the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and later served as state commissioner of community and regional affairs and commissioner of commerce, community and economic development. He was also the chief executive of Doyon Ltd., an Alaska Native regional corporation headquartered in Fairbanks. He has not committed to running in November.

“Most of the old people that knew me aren’t here, and a lot of young people have entered the voting age, so this race is entirely different than in 1973,” said Notti.

‘One person can’t carry the water’

The first Democrat to enter the U.S. House race was Constant, a 50-year-old Anchorage Assembly member who has served on the assembly for five years, weathering a stormy period during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even though Constant was planning to position himself as an alternative to Young’s Republican ideals, he did not intend on attacking the congressman before he died.

“We’re not here to say he’s a bad guy, or he did this wrong or that wrong,” Constant said.

But Constant is not shy about his progressive ideals. As the first openly gay person to run for Congress in Alaska, he says he is sending “a message to kids and to the elders that some good is still happening. The march of progress is still forward.” He is also aligned with the party in his messaging on the urgency of addressing climate change and the rising costs of health care.

Constant said he was grateful to be joined by other progressive candidates in the race after Young died, despite the prospect that they could be taking votes away from him in the primary.

“It’s good to have more than one person on the left in the conversation, because one person can’t carry the water,” he said.

But when Peltola announced her run, he read that as a referendum on his candidacy.

“We’re kind of similar in our values. We show up to the same places, we have the same friends,” he said. “I wish she hadn’t decided that I wasn’t good enough. Because that’s the message.”

For Peltola, it is an opportunity to bring a different kind of diversity to the office. She is a Yup’ik woman from Bethel, and she sees the value that identity could bring to a seat held for 49 years by Young, whom she counted as a family friend.

“All of our resources come from rural Alaska, so we can’t leave that critical demographic out of the conversation,” Peltola said.

In a more crowded field, Constant said he is focused on courting votes where he is more likely to find them.

“We are now working for a more narrow bandwidth of support,” he said. “That really is through the parts of the state where the most Democrats live, and the most undeclared and nonpartisan who lean our way.”

‘A lane for me’

To win, Constant will have to overcome a reputation of saying things he has later regretted during assembly meetings and in other public forums. But he is trying to harness that as part of his brand, with stickers depicting a cartoon version of himself getting his mouth washed out with soap.

“If the last two years didn’t bring out a little rage in you, then you’re probably not a normal person, and when you have weeks and weeks of testimony of people calling you a pervert … sometimes you’ll say some things that aren’t necessarily how you would say them if you had a chance to really think it through,” Constant said.

Whatever baggage Constant carries from his tenure on the assembly is part of what drew Wool to enter the race several hours before the April 1 deadline.

“My only thought was, ‘Is this the guy the Democrats think can beat a Republican?’” Wool said. “So I looked at the list and I said, ‘I think there might be a lane for me.’”

Wool, 60, is hoping that his broad support in Fairbanks, the state’s third-largest city, can help carry him into the top four positions. For years he owned the Blue Loon, a bar and nightclub in the city, building relationships with community members that helped him win his seat in the Legislature even in a district that voted for Donald Trump in 2016.

“I had my business for so long that when I finally ran, I didn’t have to tell people who I was,” said Wool, who has been serving in the state House since 2015. He sold the Blue Loon in 2019.

But in the first few weeks of the race, Wool has been spending much of his time in the House, where he is a member of a razor-thin bipartisan majority, leaving him little time to run a statewide campaign.

“I’m going to do what I can with my limited time and my limited resources,” he said.

Recognition ‘cuts both ways’

By the time Peltola was a teenager, she was captaining her own commercial fishing boat. She was elected to the state Legislature at 24. And during her 10 years in the state House, she brought together the Bush Caucus that convened lawmakers from rural parts of the state. She later worked for the Donlin Gold mine project and as a state lobbyist.

Now 48, she has four kids, three step-kids and two grandchildren. When she launched her campaign, she took a hiatus from her job as director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

Her long career in public service has not been without mistakes. In 2005, she voted to remove defined benefits for public employees in the state as Alaska faced a fiscal crisis. Now, she supports reinstating those benefits.

“I have a very strong commitment to labor and the labor movement, and growing our middle class and making sure that employees have protections and can make a livable wage,” she said. “It was a very hard lesson.”

Peltola has earned the support of Alyse Galvin, the nonpartisan candidate who received the Democratic Party’s endorsement when she ran against Young in 2020. Galvin’s campaign garnered national attention that year, but she lost to Young by nine points. Now, Galvin is backing Peltola for the seat, citing her ability to bridge the rural and urban areas of the state.

“Rural Alaska tends to not care about parties. Not so true about urban Alaska,” said Galvin, whose 2020 campaign finance director, Kim Jones, is managing Peltola’s campaign. “How do you get around that in a state that’s used to voting for people with an R next to their name? I think it takes a lot of work.”

Democrats in the race are aware that Gross has the advantages of money in the bank and a statewide campaign in the rearview mirror that brought Gross visibility as Alaska’s “bear doctor.”

“We’re all struggling with name recognition,” Peltola said. “I never imagined that I was especially well known statewide.”

But recognition “cuts both ways,” she added. Unlike Gross, she has not been the target of negative ads.

In 2020, outside groups spent $8 million attacking Gross. An ad launched by Sullivan’s campaign accused him of being “a liberal,” showing him alongside U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who identify as democratic socialists. That is just the kind of identity Gross is trying to move away from, and one that registered Democrats in the race have not had to contend with.

“In Alaska, more than any other state, we are unattached to political parties,” Peltola said. “I think that’s really in keeping with the Alaska spirit. We’re really just independent, free-thinking people.”

Iris Samuels

Iris Samuels is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News focusing on state politics. She previously covered Montana for The Associated Press and wrote for the Kodiak Daily Mirror.

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