First of three stories on candidates for U.S. Senate in Alaska in the Nov. 8 general election.
Days before Alaska’s first open primary election in August, U.S. Senate candidate Pat Chesbro stood before an audience to make her case. This election needs the voice of a Democrat, she opened.
“I am determined in this race to say what I think is important to say,” she said.
Chesbro introduced her background and the issues that compelled her to run: gun violence, abortion rights and climate change among them. The left-leaning Bartlett Club audience applauded and lengthy discussion ensued. But some at the Anchorage Senior Center called blunt attention to her most daunting question: What is her path to winning?
One audience member said news coverage made her seem like a “sacrificial lamb.” Others wondered how she might gain momentum with a broader audience. “Why don’t we have a room full?” one person asked. “Because you’re a dynamic speaker.”
Chesbro said she expected a “long slog” when she entered the race in May. “I think for so many years, Democrats have been at a disadvantage in statewide elections …,” she said after the appearance. “The kinds of things people say about Democrats, I think that does sink in to some people.”
Even in that red-state landscape, Chesbro has a particularly steep hill to climb. Her competition includes moderate Republican Lisa Murkowski, a two-decade incumbent whose potential swing vote in the Senate has been at the fulcrum of several heated nationwide issues. The other is Kelly Tshibaka, a right-wing Republican with snowballing name recognition and in-person support from a former U.S. president who won Alaska’s vote twice.
The results of the primary the following week removed any ambiguity about Chesbro’s long odds. Murkowski won 45 percent of the choose-one-candidate vote, and Tshibaka took 38.5. Chesbro didn’t quite reach 7 percent. After the Bartlett Club luncheon, Chesbro didn’t bristle at being described as a longshot. But she doesn’t want voters to mistake that for lack of seriousness.
“I’m an underdog,” Chesbro said. “I don’t mind saying that because I think that it’s important for people to understand that you are at a disadvantage when you’re running against any incumbent.”
“But I also think that it’s important for them to know that I might be an underdog, but I’m fighting for the right things,” she said.
Nothing to lose
A U.S. Senate campaign wasn’t in her plans before her party’s state convention in May, she said. Chesbro, who had unsuccessfully run for elected office twice before (Alaska Senate in 2014, Alaska House in 2006), suggested to party leadership that she’d be interested in having her name on the ballot for a state Senate race, she said. “She thought I meant U.S. Senate, and they didn’t have anybody right then because Elvi Gray-Jackson withdrew,” Chesbro said. “There was no Democrat.”
Conversations that followed convinced her to be that choice, Chesbro said.
“It seemed like I was the one, and so I am,” she said.
Dave Musgrave, a friend and an active Democratic party member, said he warned running would be a big hurdle and suck up all her time. But he also saw reasons for her to go for it.
“She forthright, she’s genuine and she’s authentic, and once people see that, they realize she’s a real candidate,” he said. Musgrave is now her campaign manager.
Chesbro came to Alaska from Upstate New York in 1974 for work as a teacher. She spent the bulk of her career at Palmer High School, where she taught English for 15 years and served as principal for nine years, ending in 1999.
She said she has “failed at retirement” several times since then. For two years she served superintendent for the enormous Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District. Soon after, she began a decadelong stint teaching in UAA’s College of Education. She was its interim dean for a year.
Her third attempt at retirement a decade ago made more time for involvement in political, arts and community groups, including the Mat-Su Borough Planning Commission, the Palmer Community Foundation and the Palmer Museum of History and Art.
“I’ve watched people be idle,” she said. “I don’t think it’s healthy.”
However late and indirect her entry into the Senate race was, Chesbro, who will turn 74 on Wednesday, said last month that she’s happy she’s doing it.
“I don’t have anything to lose,” she said.
Chesbro said she’s motivated not only by what she has to say, but how she wants to say it.
“I’m not into slamming people or demeaning people or disrespecting people,” she said. “Being an educator, what we’re demonstrating to our children is not the way we want them to behave. And it really frankly scares me a lot that that’s what they see and it’s been so normalized.”
Chesbro aims her most direct criticism for Murkowski on the issue of abortion access. Murkowski is often described as a pro-choice moderate, but her votes show that she’s “very aligned with her party,” Chesbro said.
“It would be hard for anybody to argue that it’s not a setup,” Chesbro said of the U.S. Supreme Court. “And our current incumbent has voted for Alito, Roberts, Gorsuch, Coney Barrett, and did not vote against Kavanaugh. Was present. So in fact, our current incumbent and this Republican party has set up that Supreme Court to do exactly what they did with Roe v. Wade.”
The “Reproductive Freedom for All” Act, introduced by Murkowski and three other senators in August, includes language to preserve “conscience protections,” something Chesbro said in a tweet was a loophole for health care providers to deny abortions based on religious objections.
Environmental regulation and separation of church and state issues face similar threats, she told her audience.
“And what is next? I think we need to be afraid of what is next and we need to be afraid for our children and our grandchildren about what is next,” she said.
An issue close to home
Chesbro said she views society as trending toward less empathy. People seem quick to assume they won’t be touched by some troubling problems. Walking on a clear fall day in Palmer in late September, Chesbro said she doesn’t have that luxury when she speaks of gun violence.
“You don’t ever think your child’s going to be murdered,” she said.
In 2010, Chesbro and her husband, Jim Chesbro, received a call that their daughter, Amy Chesbro, had been shot in Michigan where she lived with her partner. The partner’s sister, Julie Hopwood, had been visiting the couple in the days prior to the violence.
“Amy drove into work. Julie came in behind her and penned her in, and then she came up and shot her through the window of the car,” Chesbro said.
The 35-year-old, one of Pat and Jim Chesbro’s six children, was shot six times. Chesbro scrambled to get to Detroit, where Amy was being kept alive by machines.
“We got there in time to make the decision to let her go,” Chesbro said.
Chesbro is left with questions to this day. “I wanted to find out why,” she said. “But you know, why doesn’t matter. So I’ve given that up.”
She said she keeps Amy in mind each time she discusses gun violence. Chesbro points out that she’s a gun owner and her husband, who died in 2016, was a hunter. But that doesn’t necessarily mean she thinks current laws are adequate. Selling guns with trigger locks and requiring gun safety classes are ideas worth considering, she says. A focused response to youth suicide, the leading cause of death among adolecents in Alaska, should be a top priortiy, she said.
“Gun violence goes far beyond those mass killings you hear about,” she said.
Chesbro hopes her family’s experience will contribute to the conversation.
“I share it as often as I can. I think it makes people uncomfortable …,” she said. “I think it’s important for people to know that this isn’t somebody else’s problem.”
Chesbro said campaigning has allowed her to meet great people and broaden her knowledge of issues affecting Alaskans. Her years as a principal have prepared her to speak to groups, she said. But if she expected a long, slow grind when she entered the race, the months since have proven her right.
“The energy to do it all the time is difficult, just because I am not an extrovert,” she said.
She said she often uses her own frequent flier miles to travel and stays as a guest in homes of supporters to stretch donated dollars. Musgrave, her campaign manager, is her only full-time campaign staffer.
“We don’t have much money, so we’re a fiscally conservative campaign,” she said with a laugh.
During a small fundraiser held recently in a railcar-turned-social hall on a Palmer farm, Musgrave said their biggest challenge is convincing left-leaning voters that Alaska’s new ranked-choice system frees them to choose a candidate with whom they most closely align.
“They can rank Pat number one without fretting about a candidate that they truly don’t want making it in, floating to the top,” Musgrave said, who said he’s encouraging voters to rank at least two candidates. “They’re used to the old ballot. They’re used to 2010 when you had to vote for Murkowski just to keep (Joe) Miller out.”
Ambivalence weighs on the campaign, he said, affecting the money they raise and the volunteers they draw. According to the most recent filing with the Federal Election Commission, Chesbro’s campaign had raised about $174,000 from its launch through September. Tshibaka raised about $4.3 million since launching her campaign in March 2021 by then, and Murkowski raised more than $8.5 million since the beginning of 2021.
Chesbro said the reluctance of some groups to offer support, even if she represents their positions, has been occasionally disappointing. One example is the National Education Association endorsement of Murkowski.
“I was a member of NEA-Alaska. I was the president of the teacher’s association here. I was on the executive board for years,” Chesbro said. “I felt like, well, they could’ve at least talked to me.”
“I’ve learned a lot about that. And a lot of those organizations, they just don’t want to gamble with their money and I understand that,” she said. “When I was a principal, we tried to get people to come to basketball games. And we’d have a lot of people coming if we were winning and not so many if we weren’t.”
Several of the 25-or-so supporters at the railcar fundraiser expressed appreciation that someone was willing to do what most wouldn’t. “There’s not many Democrats out there who are willing to put their names on the line, their life on the line, and she has really done that,” said longtime friend Mari Jo Parks.
Judy Gette of Wasilla said without Chesbro, the race would consist only of two Republicans debating the issues and no one would speak for progressives.
“Certainly living in the Mat-Su Valley, people have a perception that everybody is Republican or conservative,” she said. “And I think that if we don’t present or represent or have a seat at the table, that that myth, so to speak, continues.”
Chesbro said she’s learned a lot and made some mistakes But she’s encouraged by the many people who tell her they’re glad she’s running, she said. With just weeks to go before Election Day, Chesbro said that there are other ways she can measure success, no matter who is senator after votes are counted.
“What’s winning? Winning is having people…have a choice. Winning is bringing up the issues that are important…,” Chesbro said.
“Winning is maybe starting conversations,” she said. “Maybe making people think.”
Next: Republican Kelly Tshibaka.