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Why Alaska’s Senate and House races look competitive in 2020

Two independent candidates could give Democrats a fighting chance in Alaska.

From left, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Rep. Don Young (R-AK), and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). Sullivan and Young each have potentially competitive races in 2020.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

For evidence that Democrats have expanded their map of competitive US Senate and House races, look no further than Alaska.

Alaska voted for President Donald Trump by close to 15 percentage points in 2016, but it is nothing if not fiercely independent — featuring the highest number of independent voters of any state. National Democrats would like to capitalize on that, hoping to unseat Republican incumbent Sen. Dan Sullivan with Dr. Al Gross, an independent candidate running for the Democratic nomination.

Another independent candidate, educator Alyse Galvin, is making her second attempt to take the seat currently held by Alaska’s at-large Republican Rep. Don Young, who, at age 87, is the longest-serving member of Congress. Galvin lost to Young in the 2018 midterms but is hoping a political year that’s looking favorable to Democrats could sweep her into office.

Although Gross and Galvin are independents, they are each running for the Democratic party’s nomination in Tuesday’s primary, along with several others. Each has a key advantage: Gross has the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, while Galvin is the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee-endorsed candidate. And both are favored to win their respective races.

Whether they will actually be successful in the general election is yet to be seen. Beyond having to face incumbents, the winners of the Democratic primaries will face unique hurdles due to the pandemic: The coronavirus has severely limited in-person campaigning, which could hurt challengers running in such a massive state.

Still, the fact that national Democrats have two serious candidates running for House and Senate in a cycle that could be a wave year for the party means Alaska’s congressional races could heat up this year.

Vox will be covering the results live, with our partners at Decision Desk HQ.

The Alaska Senate race, briefly explained

Gross, an orthopedic surgeon and commercial fisherman whose Alaska credentials include shooting a grizzly bear in self-defense, is the favorite to win a four-person Tuesday primary. He has fundraised over $5 million, compared to Sullivan’s $7.9 million. Gross is the son of former Alaska Attorney General Av Gross, a Democrat who forged a close relationship with former Republican Gov. Jay Hammond.

“I’ve never really been much of a labels kind of a guy,” Gross told Vox in a recent interview, describing himself as “certainly less liberal than the far left of the Democratic party.”

The other Democratic and independent candidates running including former Seward, Alaska, Mayor Edgar Blatchford, nonprofit employee Chris Cumings, and the Alaskan Independence Party’s John Howe.

Sullivan is still favored to win reelection by the nonpartisan forecasters Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball, who both rate the race “likely Republican.” But Alaska Senate races have a habit of being competitive, and voters aren’t necessarily likely to toe the party line, facts reflected in their elected officials.

For example, even with Trump’s resounding 2016 win, Alaska’s other Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski is notoriously independent and has broken with Trump and Senate Republicans on several occasions. Notably, Murkowski also ran — and won — a write-in campaign in 2010 after losing the Republican nomination for Senate.

“The bottom line is that Sullivan is favored ... but Alaska voters have been willing to split their tickets over the years, and I wouldn’t sleep on the Senate race,” said J. Miles Coleman, associate editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

Although registered as an independent, Gross fits in the mold of moderate Democratic candidates running in many Senate races across the country.

Gross supports a public option for health insurance and expanding Alaska’s renewable energy capacity. As a hunter and fisherman in a state known for its outdoor recreation, he’s also a strong supporter of the Second Amendment.

“I would call myself a moderate; I do have some conservative values,” Gross told Vox. “I grew up on some commercial fishing boats here on Alaska and still do that part time. I don’t share the liberal views of the Democratic party when it comes to guns.”

Running as an independent may be a smart political strategy for the state. Coleman pointed out that even though Alaska traditionally votes Republican in presidential races, Senate races in the state tend to be more competitive, and that third-party candidates do well. In the 2016 presidential race, 12 percent of the vote went to third-party candidates, and in 2000, it was Green Party candidate Ralph Nader’s best state, with 10 percent of the vote, Coleman said. Another potentially smart strategy for Gross is to emphasize his longtime roots in the state; one of his ads was filmed on a commercial fishing boat, while the other features Gross skiing down a glacier.

“Sullivan, as Gross points out in one of his ads, is from Ohio originally,” Coleman said. “He spent time in Alaska earlier in his career as a judicial clerk, left the state, then only returned in 2009, to work for the Palin administration. So, fairly or not, Gross — whose father was state attorney general decades ago — is tying to ‘out-Alaska’ Sullivan.”

It’s hard to know the state of the race as Alaska is notoriously difficult to poll. An early July Public Policy Polling survey found Sullivan 5 points ahead, while a more recent Alaska Survey Research poll found Sullivan 13 points ahead.

In order to win, Gross will likely need the support of Alaska Native villagers and independent voters as well as registered Democrats. He may be the underdog of the race, but Alaska is looking more competitive this year.

Alaska’s At-Large Congressional race, briefly explained

Young fended off a challenge from Alyse Galvin in the 2018 midterms — a wave year for Democrats.

Although Young is currently slightly favored to win in 2020 (Cook Political Report rates the race “leans Republican”), this year could be an even tougher one for the GOP. Young has already received heat for early comments he made about the novel coronavirus, calling it “the beer virus” in front of constituents in March, and blaming the media for making a big deal out of it. Young also skipped a House vote on coronavirus relief aid, according to the Anchorage Daily News.

As far away as Alaska is from the mainland United States, it certainly hasn’t been immune to Covid-19. Alaska has seen around 5,021 coronavirus cases and 28 deaths, per NBC News, and the economic toll on the state due to a loss of tourism has been grim, according to a report from Alaska Public Media.

Even though she hasn’t held an in-person event since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Galvin has out-fundraised Young, and has significantly more cash on hand — giving her financial power to go up on Alaska’s airwaves. Galvin lost to Young in 2018 by around 7 points. But the needle could be moving; the same early July Public Policy Polling poll that showed Gross five points behind Sullivan showed Galvin two points ahead of Young.

On Tuesday, she’ll be going up against candidates William Hibler and Ray Sean Tugatuk, while Young will face Gerald Heikes and Thomas Nelson in the Republican primary. Should both Galvin and Young win their primaries, as they are expected to, they will face off in what will likely be a fierce rematch of their race two years ago.

Correction: An earlier correction to this story said that in 2008, Ethan Berkowitz was the Democratic candidate who came the closest to beating Young. The candidate who actually came the closest was former Valdez Mayor John Devens, who came within 3.82 points of beating Young in 1990.

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