Buzz Kelley has 12 campaign signs and hasn’t raised a dime. Still he has 3,450 votes so far in Alaska’s U.S. Senate race — enough to put him in fourth place and on a trajectory to be placed on the general election ballot.
The top three candidates in the race were no surprise: incumbent U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Trump-backed Republican challenger Kelly Tshibaka, and Democrat Pat Chesbro. But Kelley himself seems flabbergasted that he made the cut for fourth place in the 19-way primary race.
He says he is a “David” to Murkowski’s “Goliath.” His campaign slogan, printed on clothing and plastered across his vehicles, is “Hard right turn.” Kelley, 65, is a longtime Wasilla resident who retired in December from his union mechanic job and calls his U.S. Senate run “a retirement project.” He also insists that maybe his electoral success is thanks to his 12 campaign signs, one of which is welded to the roof of his Subaru Outback. He wonders if some of his votes can be attributed to his sleek website, where he says he’s pro-union, pro-Trump, pro-Guantanamo Bay, and anti-voting machines, among other things. When former President Donald Trump came to Anchorage last month, Kelley was there but never went inside; instead, he spent the day driving around the block in his Subaru.
“Well, of course, I’m going to tell you, I think Trump endorsed too soon,” he said in an interview Friday morning.
[ADN Politics podcast: A very special primary]
Tshibaka, the Trump-endorsed candidate who has held a fundraiser at the former president’s Mar-a-Lago resort and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in her quest to unseat the incumbent, has another theory: Kelley got votes meant for Kelly.
Tshibaka’s campaign slogan, printed on thousands of yard signs distributed across the state, is “Kelly for Alaska.” When election results began rolling in Tuesday night, Tshibaka said she thought maybe some of the votes that Kelley received were intended for her.
Kelley doesn’t buy it. “I just don’t think that 3,000 people would be that uninformed. Seems a bit of a stretch,” he said.
“There is probably the possibility that some of those people had intended to vote for Kelly Tshibaka,” he said. “But it’s also possible people have looked at my website and say, ‘Hey, I kind of like some of that stuff. I think I’ll color in Buzz’s oval.’”
For a U.S. Senate candidate, Kelley is hard to find. His campaign website and Division of Elections filings don’t include a phone number. Emails to his campaign address went unanswered for a few days after the election. He has no social media accounts. To track him down, a reporter went to his home address and left a note at the door when Kelley appeared not to be inside. Kelley called back the following morning from a blocked number, and declined to provide a phone number when asked.
[Murkowski leads Trump-backed Tshibaka in Alaska’s U.S. Senate primary]
Under Alaska’s new election laws, the top four vote-getters in the open primary advance to the ranked-choice general election. With thousands of votes left to count, Murkowski is in first place with 44.2% of the ballots counted so far, Tshibaka is in second with 39.8%, Chesbro is in third with 6.2%, and Kelley is in fourth with 2.2%. In fifth place is Republican Pat Nolin with 1.1%.
Some of the other names floated as more likely fourth-place finishers ahead of the primary, including recent Alaska transplant Shoshana Gungurstein, attorney Huhnkie Lee, conspiracy theorist Dustin Darden or Libertarian Sean Thorne, each garnered less than 1% of the votes so far.
Under ranked choice voting, Kelley’s presence on the ballot could shake things up. Some conservatives have publicly wondered if Kelley’s name on the ballot could detract from Tshibaka’s chance at victory. But with a new election system, others wonder if Tshibaka could get second-place votes from Kelley. Kelley himself declined to say if he’d rank Tshibaka second on his ballot.
When Kelley called into conservative talk radio host Dan Fagan’s program on the day after the election, Fagan tried for several minutes to convince Kelley to drop out of the race in order to benefit Tshibaka. Kelley pushed back. He said Friday he had not heard directly from anyone on Tshibaka’s campaign staff — though they agree with the theory that he took votes meant for their candidate.
“I think that’s a real possibility that the name has confused voters,” Tshibaka spokesman Tim Murtaugh said Friday. “We had some Kelly Tshibaka supporters tell us that they almost voted for Buzz Kelley because of the name.”
Tshibaka may have to spend more time making voters more comfortable with her last name, which some find difficult to pronounce. In a recent campaign ad, Tshibaka, husband Niki and their five children repeat some common mispronunciations of their name in an effort to point voters in the right direction.
“People have a hard time saying her name. They’re not sure how to say it based on how it’s spelled,” said Tshibaka campaign consultant Mary Ann Pruitt.
Still, when asked if Tshibaka’s campaign strategy would shift significantly in response to Kelley’s name on the ballot, Murtaugh said: “No, no, no, no.”
Murkowski’s campaign spokesperson Shea Siegert declined to answer questions about Kelley. Jim Lottsfeldt, who has worked for a super PAC with millions to spend helping Murkowski’s reelection, said he thought many of Kelley’s votes came from “super low information voters” who were just looking for a name other than Murkowski’s that they’d heard before.
“If they were super committed Tshibaka voters, they’d probably know she’s a woman,” he said. “It’s not like they’re tried and true Tshibaka voters who had the wool pulled over their eyes.”
As for Kelley’s motivation to enter the race, he said he’s been unhappy with the state of the country. As a union retiree, he says he has all he needs, but he’s concerned about the price of gas and the rising cost of living.
“Every day I just got tired of hearing myself whining, like, ‘When is somebody going to step up?’ So I guess it’s going to be me,” Kelley said. He elicited the help of a friend to design his website but has mostly been going at it alone.
“It’s just been me, driving around in my hard-right-turn Subaru, passing out business cards,” he said.
If he remains on the ballot, Kelley will be one of three Republicans — up against Murkowski, who has millions in her campaign coffers, and Tshibaka, who has the backing of a former president. Kelley plans to start accepting campaign donations soon.
“If money comes in, then I’d say that’d be positive. If money doesn’t come in, then I’ve got a choice to make,” he said.
“It’s going to be entertaining, if nothing else.”
The ADN’s Marc Lester contributed to this report.