Since Alaska became a state in 1959, only eight senators have ever represented it in Washington. And only one of those — Democrat Mark Begich in 2014 — failed to win a second term, being ousted by Republican Dan Sullivan by just 6,014 votes in a GOP wave year.
Now, Sullivan is looking to continue the trend of electoral longevity instead of befalling the fate that he bestowed on Begich. And in a state that has only ever voted once for a Democrat for president (Lyndon Johnson in 1964) and that President Trump carried by nearly 15 points in 2016, Sullivan hopes to have an easier time. Still, an independent candidate running under the banner of and with the blessing of national Democrats who has a unique political pedigree is causing many to give this once-sleepy race a second look.
Al Gross, 57, was born and raised in Juneau. His father, Avrum, was a Democrat chosen by Republican Gov. Jay Hammond to be the state's attorney general in 1974. That was a controversial pick at the time, and in 2004 Hammond recalled that "a lot of folk cussed me out for appointing Av Gross," a "long-haired, hippie-type Democrat from New York." But Hammond defended that choice, seeing him as the best person for the job, and together the two helped establish the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend. Funded in part by oil revenues, it's an amount paid out every year to legal Alaska residents (in 2019, it was $1,606). The younger Gross recalls discussions between the two unlikely political allies over establishing the Permanent Fund taking place sometimes at his family's dinner table. His mother, Shari, was involved in state politics too, becoming the first executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska and founding the Alaska League of Women Voters.
Gross has said health care was a major issue that pushed him to run, and he's emphasizing his background as a doctor, magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic, in that message. Gross went to Washington state to attend medical school, where he became an orthopedic surgeon, and where he also met his wife, Monica, who's a pediatrician. The two moved back to the state after residencies in Michigan, and Gross opened a practice in Juneau. He left that in 2013 though to get his Masters in Public Health, moving to Anchorage to become a consultant, where he helped spearhead efforts to add popular ACA protections for pre-existing conditions to Alaska law, along with Medicaid expansion. Gross is also a commercial fisherman, buying his first boat at the age of 14. As an intro video from top Democratic ad maker (and Anchorage native) Mark Putnam intones, he's also "killed a grizzly bear in self-defense after it snuck up on him."
Gross is taking advantage of the same ballot loophole that allowed 2018 congressional nominee Alyse Galvin to run in the Democratic primary but also as an independent; Galvin came within 6 points of longtime GOP Rep. Don Young, and she's running again in the same manner in a race that the Cook Political Report rates as Likely Republican. Now, Gross is trying the same strategy, though he'll also still have to first win an August 18 primary against two other candidates: 2016 Senate candidate Edgar Blatchford, who finished second in the primary, and 2018 House candidate Chris Cumings.
Gross outraised Sullivan in the most recent fundraising quarter and has put in $600,000 so far of his own money. He could reach even deeper into his own pockets with an estimated value of between $10 and $25 million according to financial disclosures. As of the end of March, Sullivan still held just over 2-to-1 cash on hand advantage over Gross, $4.5 million to $2 million.
Recent Democratic polling shows the race is tied, with Sullivan not well-defined among voters. The same poll also has Trump and Biden in a statistical dead heat and puts the president's approval rating slightly underwater. However, Alaska is a state that is notoriously hard to poll and Republicans are, perhaps rightly, skeptical of such numbers. They say their own polling doesn't worry them in regards to Sullivan, but that they're taking the race seriously.
Democrats also argue that Alaska isn't as much Republican as it is more independent and say voters want someone who doesn't toe the party line as much. For instance, Sullivan differs both stylistically and ideologically from Alaska's senior senator, Lisa Murkowski; overall Sullivan votes 91.7% with Trump, while Murkowski does only 74.4% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight. Murkowski is not as beholden to the national GOP after losing a 2010 primary, but winning a write-in campaign nonetheless. And unlike other Republican senators, Murkowski has been one of the few who do sometimes criticize Trump. Just this week, she echoed former Defense Secretary James Mattis's concerns about Trump's fitness for office. She suggested she may not back him for re-election, which earned her the ire of Trump on Twitter, along with a promise to back a primary challenger to her in 2022. However, depending upon the outcome of the presidential race and the race that Murkowski has overcome intraparty turmoil before, that threat doesn't carry as much weight. Sullivan, overall, has largely been a loyal Trump ally, though he has broken with him on some trade and tariff issues, particularly on Alaska seafood exports. Alaska also has a high concentration of active and retired military, and Sullivan should do well again with that bloc given his own and continued service.
Sullivan, 55, grew up in Ohio — a refrain against him in his 2014 race and one that Gross also resurfaces in another video. While at Georgetown, he met his wife, Julie, who was from a prominent Alaska Native family, and the two married back in Fairbanks. Sullivan then joined the Marines (he still serves in the Reserves) and clerked for a federal judge in the state, and then went into private practice in Anchorage. He then moved to Washington to work in the George W. Bush White House on the National Security Council, National Economic Council and then the State Department, where he was Condoleeza Rice's assistant secretary for economic, energy and business affairs. He would return to Alaska, where then-Gov. Sarah Palin appointed him as the state's attorney general; later, he was chosen to lead the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.
Even though the state has, at times, broken with its GOP lean in presidential politics to split on statewide races, Republicans argue this isn't the year. In 2008, Begich won by just under 4,000 votes, defeating a scandal-plagued Sen. Ted Stevens just days after he was found guilty of seven felony counts of making false statements in a corruption trial (just months later, that conviction was overturned for prosecutorial misconduct).
Begich's upset came even as President Obama lost the state by more than 21 points. Republicans will also tie Gross to national Democrats, and raise the specter of a Chuck Schumer-controlled Senate. Gross will point to areas where he disagrees with Democrats — he's pro-gun rights and opposes an assault weapons ban and supports a public option instead of Medicare for All.
In 2016, Alaska implemented automatic voter registration, and Democrats are hopeful that could bring out more younger voters, for whom climate and conservation issues are important. They also believe that while Alaska is as nontraditional a state geographically as you can find, that the college-educated population is growing. However, Republicans believe that increased participation in what's ultimately a more Republican state can boost their side too with the new voter registrations. But Alaska's economy was struggling even before COVID hit, and it may take longer to recover, especially in a state that relies heavily on tourism. That is an added uncertainty that could increase the number of persuadable voters.
Ultimately, Democrats see this race as a possible set of states that could not only break late, but also as further evidence of them expanding the map with unusually strong candidates in even what are typically tough states. This race fits that bill, and while it's one that Sullivan remains heavily favored in, it merits watching and a move in our ratings. We are moving Alaska Senate from Solid to Likely Republican.
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