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Al Gross is hoping to ride Alaska’s independent streak to the Senate

Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan is facing an unexpectedly close reelection bid in 2020.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, center, with Sens. Lamar Alexander, Lisa Murkowski, and Mitt Romney on November 15, 2018.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Alaska hasn’t voted for a Democratic candidate for president since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, and hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1998. But the state also has a fierce independent streak and sometimes bucks the red trend. Independent candidate Al Gross is hoping the state does so once again in the Alaska Senate race this year.

In a typical election year, Republican incumbent Sen. Dan Sullivan would be breathing easy. And if he looks at certain indicators — like the Cook Political Report, which rates the race Lean Republican — he might still be. But a strong challenger, coupled with a historically difficult year for Republican incumbents and closer-than-expected polling, has drawn the attention of political observers from across the country to the state’s Senate race.

More than 55 percent of the state’s electorate are registered unaffiliated with either party, the highest percentage of any state in the country. And Gross, who rejects parts of the Democratic Party agenda despite being endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is hoping to tap into Alaska’s independent spirit to unseat Sullivan.

“When Alaskans register as unaffiliated, they’re signaling that they’re not bought and paid for by either political party,” Forrest Nabors, chair and associate professor of political science at the University of Alaska Anchorage, told Vox. “Republicans do outnumber Democrats, but [the parties are] fighting over a minor share of the registered electorate.”

In short, there’s precedent for Gross’s approach.

After losing the Republican primary for Senate in 2010, Lisa Murkowski mounted a write-in campaign in the general election and successfully defended her seat. Similarly, Democrat Mark Begich became the first Democrat to win a statewide race since 1998 when he won in 2008.

Polling in the state is notoriously difficult, but what few polls there are have shown that Sullivan could be in trouble in this year’s race. He previously defeated Begich by just 3 percent in 2014, a Republican wave election, and recent polls show this year’s race could be fairly close as well. A Harstad Strategic Research poll of 602 likely voters in the state at the end of September showed Sullivan with a narrow 1 percent lead, 46 to 45 percent. More recently, a New York Times-Siena College poll found Gross trailing by about 8 percentage points.

And recent events are only making the race tighter, local Democratic operatives told Vox. As Republicans in the Senate are poised to rush through a fiercely anti-abortion Supreme Court justice, they said it has created an opening for Gross among Alaska’s pro-abortion-rights and pro-oil libertarian-minded residents.

Sullivan, who did not support Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland in an election year, has flipped his position now that it’s a Republican nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, up for confirmation to the Court.

In turn, Gross raised over $3 million in the hours after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. But the Supreme Court isn’t the only issue at play in Alaska this year.

The pandemic has seriously harmed the Alaskan economy

Some local concerns, like a scandal over a seemingly too-speedy approval for a gold and copper mine that could ruin the state’s largest salmon run, and resources for tribal communities are important to the race. But Sullivan, whose campaign declined a request for comment, is facing a lot of Covid-related questions.

While Alaska has largely avoided the massive coronavirus outbreaks seen in other states, thanks in part to its rural landscape and low population density, the pandemic has still kneecapped the state’s economy.

Tourism in the state is way down — there were 13,800 fewer leisure and tourism jobs in the state in June compared to the same month last year — because of travel restrictions and the viral risk involved with travel at the moment. Overall, according to state government statistics, the increase in unemployment from last June has spelled a loss of 37,700 jobs.

The state’s oil and fishing industries also rely heavily on seasonal workers from out of state, which has also brought on a second wave of Covid-19 infections.

“Our fisheries would not function if we did not have non-resident residents coming here to work for the summer,” said Nabors. “In some of these fish processing facilities, people work cheek to jowl, and you could imagine that [the virus] would spread very easily.”

The pandemic has only exacerbated an ongoing health care problem in the state and Gross, a medical doctor, has made the issue central to his campaign against Sullivan, who has voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act on several occasions.

“Issues such as climate change, our crumbling infrastructure, and a lack of access to affordable healthcare are devastating our state and making it harder and harder for Alaskan families,” Gross told Vox in a statement. “Alaskans are being left behind in Washington because of partisan politicians like Dan Sullivan who put the needs of the special interests first.”

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