Politics

Alaska gubernatorial candidates draw outsized contributions with fundraising limits gone

Candidates

Candidates for governor in Alaska took advantage of lifted limits on campaign contributions with six-figure donations from wealthy supporters in the months since strict fundraising limits went away, recent campaign finance reports show.

Republican incumbent Gov. Mike Dunleavy, independent candidate Bill Walker and Democratic candidate Les Gara all reported large contributions far exceeding the previous donation limit of $500 per individual donor per year, which was lifted earlier this year after a court deemed the limit to be unconstitutional. An effort by state lawmakers to pass new contribution limits failed in the last days of the legislative session, allowing candidates in the state to take in unlimited contributions.

Dunleavy and running mate Nancy Dahlstrom are narrowly leading in cash-on-hand with one month to go until the Aug. 16 primary, according to campaign reports filed by Monday night to the Alaska Public Offices Commission that cover fundraising and expenses between Feb. 2 and July 15. Dunleavy has $768,000 in the bank while former Gov. Walker has $751,000 and former state lawmaker Gara has over $655,000.

Dunleavy, Walker and Gara are expected to be three of the top vote getters in the August primary. The top four candidates will advance to a ranked-choice general election in November.

Much of Dunleavy’s funds come from his brother, Francis Dunleavy, and other wealthy donors. Francis Dunleavy gave his brother’s campaign $200,000. Dunleavy also received $100,000 checks from Alaska developer and sportfishing advocate Bob Penney and from Minnesota real estate developer Armand Brachman. Together, those contributions make up over 43% of the $925,000 the incumbent raised during the reporting period.

Penney and Francis Dunleavy were the main backers of an independent expenditure group that raised more than $700,000 to support Dunleavy’s first gubernatorial bid in 2018. Brachman is a personal friend of the governor who has joined him on hunting and fishing trips, campaign spokesman Andrew Jensen said Tuesday, adding that the campaign “could not identify any business interests of Armand in Alaska.” Jensen also works for the governor in an official capacity as a speechwriter.

Critics said during Dunleavy’s previous campaign that the outsized financial backing could lead to undue influence by donors. A no-bid contract awarded by a state agency in 2020 to Clark Penney, Bob Penney’s grandson, sparked outcry from Democratic lawmakers. Clark Penney ultimately canceled the sole-source contract.

Dunleavy has previously said he’s inclined to support unlimited campaign donations, as long as they’re publicly disclosed.

“I appreciate the support of everyone who recognizes that Alaska is at the forefront of issues that matter not just to us, but to all Americans, especially energy independence, national security, and leading the fight against extremist policies coming from Washington, D.C.,” Dunleavy said in a statement Tuesday.

Walker and running mate Heidi Drygas received three contributions of $100,000 from Kansas politician Greg Orman, trading firm partner Jason Carroll and New York author Kathy Murdoch. Those contributions make up 40% of the $751,000 raised by the Walker-Drygas campaign since February.

Orman, who ran unsuccessfully as an independent for the U.S. Senate representing Kansas, also provided the campaign will polling services valued at $28,500, according to the report. Carroll is a partner at Hudson River Trading, headquartered in New York City.

Walker has said he supports campaign contribution limits. A spokesperson for his campaign did not immediately provide details on the reasoning behind the large contributions from Orman, Carroll and Murdoch.

According to a written statement from the Walker campaign, 90% of donors to his campaign are Alaska residents. “The other 10 percent are individuals who live out of state and support independent candidates whose loyalty is to their constituents rather than a political party,” the campaign said in an emailed statement.

Gara and running mate Jessica Cook raised over $575,000 in the last reporting period and did not receive any six-figure checks. Gara’s largest contributions came from Alaska attorneys. They are Robin Brena, who gave $16,500; Myra Munson, who gave $11,500; and Jacqueline Carr, who gave $13,000.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Gara called the differences in overall fundraising “negligible” and said his campaign had received more individual donations from Alaskans.

“Big money in politics is a terrible thing,” said Gara, who has consistently called for campaign contribution limits to be reinstated after a federal court called the state’s previous limits unconstitutional, leaving room for lawmakers to implement newly crafted limits.

[Murkowski maintains heavy cash advantage in Alaska U.S. Senate race]

Brena, who helped represent the winners in the campaign finance litigation that overturned contribution limits, also gave $25,000 to Walker’s campaign. Brena and Walker are partners in the same law firm.

Brena has said lifting contributions limits “won’t add a penny to the amount of money flowing into our political system.” Instead, he said, the money — including his own contributions — would go directly to candidates rather than independent expenditure groups, which can accept unlimited contributions but are barred from coordinating with candidates.

Recent independent expenditure filings show that they have raised far less than individual candidate campaigns.

Several other candidates are running for the governor’s seat, including Republican Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce and Republican state Rep. Christopher Kurka of Wasilla.

Pierce and running mate Edie Grunwald reported raising $64,000 and had nearly $22,000 in cash after spending around $42,000 in the recent reporting period.

Kurka reported having just $2,653 in the bank and $8,400 in debt after raising $12,000 since February. His running mate, Paul Hueper, raised $28,536 and had $1,658 in the bank.

No other gubernatorial candidate raised more than $3,000 in the reporting period.

Walker has far outspent his rivals since February, paying out more than $650,000, of which $140,000 went to a Washington, D.C., agency for advertising.

Dunleavy’s campaign spent nearly $400,000, of which more than $170,000 went to Anchorage-based political consultant Art Hackney for radio and TV advertising.

Gara’s campaign spent around $370,000, of which nearly $130,000 went to advertising through a D.C. agency.

Several state lawmakers signaled their support for gubernatorial candidates with campaign contributions.

Walker’s supporters include Democrats Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, Rep. Andy Josephson and Sen. Scott Kawasaki. Gara’s backers include Democrats Rep. Harriet Drummond, Rep. Sara Hannan and Sen. Bill Wielechowski. Republican Rep. George Rauscher gave to Dunleavy. Republican state Senate candidate Tuckerman Babcock, who previously worked as Dunleavy’s chief of staff, also contributed to his campaign.

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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