Alaska candidates make final appeals before Election Day

Candidates in the U.S. House, U.S. Senate and governor’s races are urging voters to head to the polls, in what could become the deciding days of monthslong campaigns.

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Asked what epitomizes her whirlwind seven-month campaign for the U.S. House, Rep. Mary Peltola has a ready answer: “yard signs.”

When the Democrat entered the race in April, Peltola’s campaign was strapped for cash. In the 48-way June primary to replace longtime Rep. Don Young after he died, she lagged behind many of her better-known opponents in fundraising. And that meant she didn’t have enough money for yard signs — an easy way for voters to show who they support and what in rural Alaska is often the only visible mark of the campaign season.

“We just couldn’t get them out, and the supporters were becoming angry, because they couldn’t get the yard signs,” Peltola said.

Then Peltola won the August special U.S. House race against Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich. And with her victory came a massive cash infusion that has since dwarfed that of her opponents and put yard signs well within her multimillion-dollar budget.

But her sign problems weren’t over.

“We finally started feeling like we were satiating the demand, and then they started getting stolen and run over,” Peltola said.

The story of Peltola’s campaign signs reflects her odyssey from near anonymity to becoming a household name and the subject of attack ads.

“Yard signs are so important on so many different levels, and you can never have enough,” Peltola concluded.

In the final days before Election Day on Tuesday, after months of getting their messages out in an effort to convince undecided voters, candidates in statewide races are turning to what many say is an equally important task: turning supporters into voters.

For Peltola, that means a rare trip to her hometown in Bethel, and setting up a campaign office in the reliably blue Mountain View neighborhood of Anchorage, where turnout has been historically low and where her campaign sees an opportunity.

[ADN Politics podcast: What we’re watching before Alaska’s polls close]

For Begich, it means returning to the conservative pockets of Alaska that he sees as key to his victory. In the week leading up to the election, he held events in Wasilla and in Eagle River. He called the latter “the conservative core” of Anchorage.

U.S. House, candidate, Nick Begich

Palin stuck to her unorthodox campaigning tactics: Less than a week before the election, she flew to New York City, where she attended a basketball game with her ex-hockey player boyfriend, Ron Duguay. The former governor and vice presidential candidate has done more national media interviews during her campaign than in-person campaign events with voters in Alaska. She has argued that in doing so, she brings national attention to Alaska’s interests.

[2022 Alaska voter guide: Resources for voters in Alaska’s 2022 general election, including candidate comparisons, videos of debates, how-to-vote info and all of our stories]

After spending months of his campaign attacking Palin — for her absence from the state, among other things — Begich’s recent events and campaign ads have focused on attacking Peltola instead. In Eagle River, Begich said Peltola is “deceiving the public” and criticized her positions on resource development, inflation-fighting measures and free speech.

“At the end of the day, we are a red state. We know that,” Begich said. “So why would we elect a Democrat? It’s very easy. Rank the red.”

“Rank the red” is the slogan used by the Republican Party to encourage voters to rank both Republicans on their ballots in Alaska’s new ranked choice election system, regardless of order.

[Breaking down Senate, House, governor races that could flip in midterms]

Palin, too, has spent more of her time urging her supporters to “rank the red” even as she remains friendly toward Peltola. She still couldn’t resist the urge to take a dig at Begich in a recent interview with right-wing commentator and former Trump strategist Steve Bannon. Palin accused Begich of being “a plant” in the race, calling him “the chosen one” of the left-leaning Begich family that also includes Democratic former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich.

It’s an association Nick Begich has been fighting since launching his campaign, and one that continues to dissuade Palin’s supporters from ranking Begich second. Likewise, some of Begich’s supporters say they will not rank Palin second because they are averse to her campaign tactics and celebrity stardom.

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“If I’m going to go down, I’m going to go down swinging,” Palin told Bannon, before taking a shot at her own campaign advisers.

“Sometimes you wonder — the people who are actually advising, working on campaigns — you gotta wonder if they’re really in it for the right reasons because sometimes they give really crappy advice and effort. So, I’m doing a lot of this myself. I’m not going to ask people for donations, though, which ticks off those in my campaign,” Palin said.

In Eagle River, Begich’s message was one that many candidates have been emphasizing to supporters.

“I know everyone in here is going to vote. There’s no question about that,” Begich said to around 30 supporters who had gathered to listen to him and eat a catered meal at the Lions Club. “So here’s the assignment for all of us, me included. We’ve got to talk to our friends, we’ve got to talk to our neighbors, we’ve got to talk to our colleagues, we’ve got to talk to our family.”

It remains unclear if either Republican can muster up enough first- and second-place votes to unseat the incumbent. Peltola has campaigned with a moderate message that, on some issues, overlaps with her Republican opponents’.

A recent ad mailed to voters by Peltola’s campaign under the title “2022 voter guide for Alaska hunters and sportsmen” tells voters that, like Republicans Begich and Palin, Peltola supports the Second Amendment, opposes a ban on assault weapons and is an active hunter and gun owner.

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And at a campaign event Thursday with other Democrats running for office, Peltola named resource development and inflation fighting as her top priorities — topics often associated with right-leaning candidates. It is the final stage of Peltola’s evolution as a candidate, culminating with a message that is both “pro-choice” and “pro-guns.”

“We’re building this airplane while we’re flying it. And we kept rebuilding it while we were flying it,” Peltola said.

‘Dessert for every meal’

Statewide Republican candidates are expected to congregate on the Sunday before Election Day at the Anchorage Baptist Temple for an event hosted by the Alaska Republican Party.

It will be one of the few pre-election campaign appearances by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, whose campaign calendar has been largely empty in the days leading up to the election. Dunleavy has argued in the past that he is too busy being governor to actively run for reelection.

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Independent candidate and former Gov. Bill Walker calls that an excuse. Walker ran for re-election in 2018 while serving as governor until suspending his campaign. He said he made an effort to attend as many campaign forums as possible, while Dunleavy has attended four ahead of the election, and has not advertised any meet-and-greets or other typical pre-election activities in the days leading up to the election.

“When I was governor, I attended every debate, every forum, anywhere in the state, the entire time I was a candidate,” Walker said Thursday. Walker accused Dunleavy of intentionally creating scheduling conflicts.

“The governor needs to show up — not just to answer questions. It’s most important to hear and listen and feel the passion of what people are talking about. You don’t get that from a memo,” said Walker.

A request to Dunleavy’s campaign to interview the governor ahead of the election went unanswered. A question about Dunleavy’s campaign calendar also went unanswered.

Meanwhile, Walker and Democratic candidate Les Gara have made education the center point of their campaigns in the days leading up to the election, as the Anchorage School District continued discussions on possible school closures in the face of a looming budget deficit.

[Compare the candidates for Alaska governor issue-by-issue]

Gara and his running mate, former teacher Jessica Cook, made an appearance at the Anchorage School Board meeting a week before the election. Walker and his running mate, former Department of Labor Commissioner Heidi Drygas, attended a meeting at Birchwood ABC Elementary in Chugiak on Thursday to hear about possible school closures.

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After months of debates attended only by Walker and Gara, their final strategy involved urging their supporters to rank the other ticket second. It’s a parallel to the Alaska Republican Party’s “rank the red” strategy.

“Heidi and Jessica are dressed the same, but Les and I go to the same barber,” Walker told a crowd of around 50 at the Anchorage Senior Center on Thursday, eliciting laughter as he gestured to the two women’s similar outfits and the men’s similarly balding heads.

Gara, Walker, Cook and Drygas all reflected on the extensive travels through the state in the months leading up to Election Day.

“Really, it’s just reinforced that Alaska is the biggest small town you’ll ever live in,” Cook said.

“It’s like having dessert for every meal,” Walker said, listing Kodiak’s Crab Fest, Golden Days in Fairbanks, Founders Day in Metlakatla and Nalukataq in Utqiaġvik as highlights of the campaign that has been his primary occupation since jumping into the race last year.

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Cook, who was tapped as Gara’s running mate in February, is used to long days and nights from her years as an educator.

“Apparently candidate-tired and teacher-tired feel the same. But candidate-tired looks a little different than teacher-tired. It looks more rested, I’ve been told,” she said. “I’m still smiling at the end of the day, so regardless of what Alaskans say on Nov. 8th, I’ve done my best and that’s all anybody can ask.”

Dunleavy, to the extent he has been campaigning, has spent much of his time pointing to what he sees as problems in Walker’s record. His criticism has centered on Walker’s decision to veto part of the Permanent Fund dividend in 2016 to resolve a multibillion-dollar budget deficit, launching a yearslong unresolved debate about how the state will calculate the annual dividend amount while still covering constitutionally required state services.

In his most recent campaign ad, Dunleavy calls himself “the first governor in two decades who hasn’t proposed changes to our oil tax system.” But the tax proposals made by Walker in 2016 weren’t implemented — and the lack of changes to Alaska’s oil tax system is something Gara has said contributes to the state’s fiscal woes.

Under Alaska’s new rules allowing unlimited campaign contributions, the governor’s race has broken records in the amount of money raised by candidates. Gara reported more than $1.5 million. Dunleavy reported nearly $2 million. Walker had amassed more than $2.4 million.

During the last election for governor in 2018, when individuals were limited to contributions of $500 per candidate per year, the two front-runners raised just around $1 million combined. Then, most of the money in the race had gone to independent expenditure groups, which this year have played second fiddle to the candidates’ direct spending.

The leading candidates have turned to wealthy acquaintances — including ranked choice voting backers, oil executives and family members — to fund their campaigns, all but drowning out the small-dollar donors. Gara said the daily task of calling supporters for money is the part of the campaign he will not miss.

“I would be so angry with myself if I was not running,” said Walker. “If we didn’t run, it would be like we’re saying, ‘It’s OK, what is happening is OK.’ And it’s not OK.”

‘Not taking anything for granted’

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The U.S. Senate race, a contest widely seen as a referendum on Trump’s vision for the Republican Party, is in its final leg.

Following a road trip that took her through conservative communities in Interior Alaska, Tshibaka attracted a crowd of around 200 in Anchorage on Thursday evening — including Begich. She said it’s the ending she expected to the campaign she launched in March 2021.

“We were planting the seeds and laying the groundwork for these few days here, and it’s all played out exactly the way we planned,” Tshibaka said. Her campaign message has remained a consistent barrage of attacks on Murkowski’s record.

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Murkowski, meanwhile, made a trip to Juneau a week before the election, and had plans for campaign appearances in Fairbanks and Southcentral Alaska.

There is no “rank the red” message in the Senate race. At the Anchorage event, Tshibaka drew enthusiastic cheers when her husband Niki Tshibaka held up a completed ballot with only the oval by Tshibaka’s name filled in.

[The making of a U.S. Senate candidate: Kelly Tshibaka]

In an interview with right-wing commentator Sean Hannity on Fox News, Tshibaka predicted she would lead Murkowski by “nine points or double digits” in first-place votes and that a majority of Democrat Pat Chesbro’s voters would rank Murkowski second. Tshibaka predicted the race would then come down to voter turnout.

Chesbro, a retired educator, has struggled to gain traction amid a cash-strapped campaign that has paled in comparison to the expensive Republican-vs.-Republican race. With a week to go, Chesbro said she was in the “wait-and-see zone” and lamented the fortunes spent by her opponents.

“How sad is it to think about how much money we spend on these things. We could have so many people housed, so many people fed, so many people taken care of,” Chesbro said.

Alaska’s U.S. Senate campaigns — while by no means record-breaking — have drawn a flood of money. Tshibaka’s campaign had raised a total of nearly $5 million; Murkowski had nearly $9 million. Chesbro had less than $200,000. That does not include millions in spending by independent political action committees barred from coordinating with candidates.

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Murkowski is propelled by an unexpected alignment between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — the country’s top elected Republican — and Peltola, the country’s newest Democratic U.S. representative. Both agree that Murkowski should retain her seat.

[The making of a U.S. Senate candidate: Lisa Murkowski]

The senator’s 20-year incumbency — which Tshibaka has tried to weaponize against her — has become the focal point of Murkowski’s run, which has blended campaign events with official duties. On the Friday before Election Day, Murkowski visited a new substance abuse treatment facility, met with a group of Filipino residents at a Wasilla brewery to discuss immigration issues, and ate dinner at the Eagle River Veterans of Foreign Affairs post.

“The best part of the campaign has been that it doesn’t feel like it’s been a campaign,” Murkowski said. “Sometimes I’ll forget I’m supposed to say, ‘Don’t forget to vote.’ Because it’s so substantive.”

[The making of a U.S. Senate candidate: Pat Chesbro]

Both Murkowski and Tshibaka have turned the final days of campaigning into a family affair. Tshibaka said some of her five children have joined her as she trudges through snow to knock on doors. Murkowski has organized a “family fun bus” for the Sunday before Election Day; she’ll be hitting the road in a 15-passenger van with her relatives, including nieces and nephews, with planned stops in Girdwood and Whittier.

While both have emphasized contacting voters in person, Murkowski acknowledged the race at this point is “not necessarily about undecided” voters.

“It’s, ‘Are you decided whether or not you’re going to vote?’ Period. And that’s what we need to encourage — to get out the vote,” Murkowski said. “There’s some people that have told me, ‘Lisa, don’t worry, you’re going to be fine.’ No. You never, ever, ever, ever assume you’re going to be fine. Not until it’s over and everybody’s voted. You have to push it right up until the very end. I’m not taking anything for granted.”

The ADN’s Marc Lester contributed to this story.

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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. Contact her at isamuels@adn.com.