Alaska Thaw… And A Political Earthquake?

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Photo by Sandra Seitamaa on Unsplash

Political life in Alaska has long put it all together:  Pungent personalities, corruption scandals, enduring family feuds, plus a candidate for Vice President impersonated by Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live and given serious treatment by Julianne Moore in “Game Change.”

The 49th State is getting something else – and new – this year, contested races for Congress and the U.S. Senate.

Unusual in a “red” state, two Republican incumbents must fight for their political lives: “Congressman for Life” Don Young and first term U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, an incumbent massively overshadowed by Alaska’s senior Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

They are being challenged by House hopeful Alyse Galvin, who took 47 percent of the vote against Young in 2018, and by orthopedic surgeon and salmon fisherman Al Gross. Both are officially Independents. The Democratic Party has opened its primary to independent candidates.  Both Galvin and Gross won Democratic primaries on Tuesday.

How do you introduce yourself to Alaska voters?  Al Gross did it with a TV ad boasting, “bought his first fishing boat with a bank loan at age 14, and killed a grizzly bear in self-defense after it sneaked up on him.”

Rep Don Young (R-AK)

Don Young, 87, has made the House a home since 1973, and has probably delivered as many insults and falsehoods in 47 years as Donald Trump has uttered in four.

Young called Mexican immigrants “wetbacks.”  While denouncing the National Endowment for the Arts, he used an obscene phrase for anal sex in a talk to Fairbanks high school students.  He upbraided Native children who traveled to Congress to explain what climate change was doing to their coastal villages.  He once waved an Oosik, the penis bone of a Walrus, at Mollie Beattie, the first woman to head the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

One ”joke” by Young has, however, hit home.  Young referred to the coronavirus as “the beer virus” earlier this year and blamed media “hysteria” for ominous news.  The “Congresman for Life” later had to apologize when the COVID-19 pandemic hit his state hard.

Don Young loves mines, oil rigs, pulp mills, and clearcuts.  He championed the infamous “bridges to nowhere” while chairman of the House Transportation Committee, characterizing himself as a “porker.”  He once described visitors to proposed new national parks in Alaska as “jet setting hippie backpackers.”

But days when the now-defunct Anchorage Times referred to “self-admitted environmentalists” are long gone. Galvin is no flaming liberal, but has come out against the proposed Pebble Mine, the giant copper and gold mine that poses a danger to the $1.5 billion Bristol Bay salmon fishery.

In Galvin’s words, “I am opposed to the Pebble Mine Project because I believe that with current technology, it is the wrong mine in the wrong location and represents too big a risk to our vital Bristol Bay fisheries.”

“My sense is that this is the first year that Young might be defeated, and Al Gross seems strong against Sullivan,” said Carol Kasza, co-owner of Arctic Treks, who takes guests river rafting in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which the Trump administration is gung-ho to open to oil and gas leasing.

If you can take eyes off Alaska’s natural beauty, here are a few facts about its political landscape:

  • Big Oil:  The petroleum industry has long fueled Alaska’s economy, with politicians doing its bidding.  Not even the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker disaster has shaken industry’s hold.  Don Young missed a key committee vote on tanker safety legislation.

    Between 2006 and 2008, the FBI probed the self-identified “Corrupt Bastards Club”, a gang of lobbyists, organized by an oil field supplier, that made payoffs to public officials.  The scandal caught up with and convicted “Senator for Life” Ted Stevens, who lost his seat to Democrat Mark Begich.  Stevens’ conviction was later thrown out.

    But depressed oil prices have hurt Alaska.  One big player, BP, is pulling out of Alaska and selling $5.6 billion in sales and operations, including transfer of leases in the Prudhoe Bay oil field.
  • The Tea Party:  The extreme right of the Republican Party has clout up north.  In Tuesday’s primary, it sought to purge nine GOP state legislators deemed too cooperative with Democrats.  A libertarian Tea Bagger, Joe Miller, upset Sen. Murkowski in the 2010 Senate primary.

    Murkowski became the first U.S. Senator since Strom Thurmond in 1956 to win back her seat with a write-in campaign.  Voters had to spell her name right.  They were aided by T-shirts featuring a cow and a ski.
  • The feuds:  The best is between the Murkowski family and ex-Gov. (and Veep nominee) Sarah Palin.  Wasilla, Alaska, Mayor Palin beat Gov. Frank Murkowski in 2006.  (Murkowski had appointed his daughter to the Senate seat he was leaving.) Palin had all sorts of good things to say about Joe Miller in 2010.

    A second great Republican feud, in the 1970’s, putted bush pilot Gov. Jay Hammond against wealthy former Interior Secretary Wally Hickel.  Hammond sought to balance conservation and development.  Hickel was gung-ho to dig, log and drill.  Famously, arguing the need to shoot wolves, Wally declared:  “We can’t just let nature run wild.”

Lisa Murkowski has emerged as an influential senator, using a back door provision in the Republicans’ tax cut bill to open the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. She works effectively across the aisle, particularly with Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. A social moderate, she is grappling with whether to vote for President Trump.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK)

Dan Sullivan is of a different stripe.  He withdrew support from Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign, citing “reprehensible revelations” about the GOP nominee.  Post-2016, he  has lined up behind Trump on policy issues.  He is anti-abortion and has opposed same-sex marriage.

He unseated Democratic Sen. Mark Begich by 6,000 votes in 2014, and was not thought vulnerable this cycle.  He has settled into pro-development, pro-oil, pro-defense stances.  But Trump has not looked strong in the infrequent polls coming out of Alaska.  And Gross has put resources into his challenge.

Gross touts that he is a “lifelong Alaskan.”  He is the son of Avrum Gross, who served as Attorney General under Hammond in the 1970’s.  Sullivan is Ohio born, a product of Harvard and Georgetown Law School.

Wins by Galvin and/or Gross would amount to a political tremor to match the 1964 earthquake that laid waste to downtown Anchorage, wiped out towns in Prince William Sound, and caused land in the Copper River Delta to rise or fall more than 10 feet.

Alaska is hurting.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit hard.  It has cut deeply into tourism, although Alaskans are getting a chance to see their own state in summer.  Falling oil prices have robbed the state of revenue.  The 49th State is suffering high unemployment. Climate change is causing permafrost to melt, and the state has experienced ferocious fires. 

In a state where political life is always interesting, political campaigns this year are competitive.

1 COMMENT

  1. Best and most succinct summary of Alaskan politics I’ve seen in a long time. “Donasaur” Young is long overdue for a comeuppance, having represented for decades only his constituents who agree with him. The rest of us were belittled, publicly insulted, and, in some cases, intimidated. I’m glad that hidebound attitudes are giving way to more sensible and equitable ones, and I wish these challengers well.

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