A news analysis
Five quick takeaways from the 2018 Alaska election:
Number one: Two Alaskas
The rural-urban divide is bigger than ever in the 49th state, but the idea that a statewide candidate needs to win the Bush to succeed is history. Republican Governor-elect Mike Dunleavy and running mate Kevin Meyer carried only a handful of small, rural voting precincts, but their power in the Railbelt and the Kenai Peninsula gave them a big victory. The 50,000-foot view of the state election map tells it all:
Number two: The danger of good intentions
Well-intentioned environmentalists naive as to the politics of the 49th state may have set salmon protection back years if not decades. Almost all fisheries biologists agree the habitat protection standards in Title 16 of the Alaska Fish and Game code need updating, probably most especially as they apply to small-stream standards in developing urban areas where the protection of salmon habitat has been often overlooked. Instead of trying to amend the law in the Legislature, however, salmon advocates decided to take to the ballot in an effort to make sweeping changes that would have allowed ordinary citizens to challenge almost any development involving water anywhere for any reason.
Some saw Proposition 1 as, at best, a lawyer employment act or, at worst, a new plan to lock up Alaska by shutting down any sort of future development, starting with death to the long-proposed Donlin and Pebble mines.
As a result, Prop 1 didn’t just go down in flames; it burned to the ground. Only about a third of Alaska voters backed it, and again the big-picture state election map offers a telling visual.
Outside the Bristol Bay/Kotzebue River region, the hotbed of opposition to Pebble, and northern Southeast Alaska, an area dominated by the liberal enclave surrounding the state capital in Juneau, there was very little support for the measure.
Number three: The company you keep
The ghost of the late Sen. Ted Stevens and the reality of independent Gov. Bill Walker might have driven a stake through the political heart of former Alaska Sen. Mark Begich. Going into this year’s governor’s race, many saw the Democrat’s late entry into the campaign as a preparatory step toward a 2020 effort to win back the U.S. Senate seat Dan Sullivan took away after a tightly fought competition in 2014.
That election went undecided for a couple of weeks with the race close enough that Begich wanted every vote from every outlying area counted before conceding. In the end, he lost the election by 7,700 votes to the state’s former Attorney General.
This year it was all over before midnight.
By then, Begich was down almost three times as many votes with only a handful of remote precincts left to count, and Dunleavy had won a statewide majority, something Sullivan had been unable to accomplish. He garnered only 48 percent in a race in which two, third-party candidates siphoned off about 7 percent.
This time, Begich began in a serious three-way competition with the Walker “Unity Ticket” and Dunleavy. The Unity Ticket blew up after Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott apparently tried to proposition a teenage girl through her mother. Details on what happened have been pretty well covered up, but Walker in the days before the election told KTUU news that the “victim” in the case was not the teenager.
Whatever happened, Walker told Mallott, the one time head of the Sealaska Native Corporation, that he needed to resign. Mallott quit and went into hiding, while the collateral damage took out Walker.
His negatives already large before the Mallott affair, Walker read the handwriting on the wall after and withdrew from the race, narrowing the field to Begich and Dunleavy. But Walker didn’t leave the stage. He took an active role in supporting Begich.
The support of the least popular governor in the country doesn’t usually help anyone’s campaign. And Alaska voters weren’t in some sort of lukewarm, well-we-could-have-a-better governor state of mind with Walker. Oh no, a majority of Alaskans flat-out disapproved of the governor. A lot of people wondered from the start why he even attempted to run for re-election.
And then there was the ghost of Stevens, the longtime Alaska senator Begich bested in 2008. Only about three months prior to the election, Stevens was indicted by a federal grand jury on corruption charges.
Stevens protested his innocence and stayed in the race. Begich leveraged the accusations to help pull out a 3,700-vote victory.
Stevens was subsequently convicted, but a later investigation found federal officials withheld information in order to frame Stevens and his conviction was vacated.
An already iconic Alaska figure, the image of “Uncle Ted” as many in Alaska knew him only shone brighter after he was cleared. It took on Godly status after he died tragically in a 2010 plane crash while still trying to fully rehabilitate his reputation.
Some in Alaska still blame Begich for some part in Stevens’ downfall, though the Democrat had nothing whatsoever to do with the FBI case against Stevens. The lever he used on it, however, follows him.
And now, as a two-time loser, a comeback in the Senate would be doubly hard.
Number four: Toughen up
Unfortunately for Democrat Alyse Galvin, Alaska is no place for the weak. She this year looked to have the best shot anyone has had in a longtime at unseating 85-year-old, 23-term, Republican Rep. Don Young.
Some early polls showed her neck-and-neck with Young in the race and steadily gaining, and then they shook hands after a debate at the convention of the Alaska Federation of Natives.
It turned out to be the handshake felt round the state.
“The final moments of a recent debate led to the most buzzed about encounter of the campaign,” Anchorage Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins later wrote. He then described Galvin “reaching to shake Young’s hand. As they make contact, Galvin says ‘Please don’t hurt my hand’ and winces, telling Young he hurt her.”
Galvin later called the allegedly painful handshake a “cheap bully tactic” – bully being the label Young opponents have used for decades now to derail the campaigns of the longest-serving member of the House.
Regularly confrontational and acerbic, Young was something of a gentler version of President Donald Trump long before Trump even thought about entering politics. But Young’s rough-and-tumble style is offset by the excellent constituent services provided by his Washington, D.C. staff.
If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them….
Young keeps getting re-elected because tens of thousands of Alaskans – Republican and Democrat – have found him, and his staff has helped them in battles with a faraway federal bureaucracy. Almost everyone in Alaska has been helped by Young or knows someone, or multiple people, who have been helped by Young.
The idea of replacing him with a woman intimidated by the handshake of an 85-year-old man – “Don Young uses death-grip handshake against Alyse Galvin,” liberal, Fairbanks blogger Dermot Cole breathlessly headlined – apparently didn’t do much to endear Galvin to Alaska voters.
Though one poll actually showed her leading Young on the weekend the Daily News handshake story appeared, she was way behind early on election night and stayed there. Young took 53 percent of the vote in the end.
Number five: No more Mr. Bad Guy
Bogeyman politics was supposed to be the undoing of Dunleavy. The Dunleavy opposition tried to tie him to his wealthy brother and to hugely successful Alaska businessman Bob Penney, one of the founders of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association and because of that the favorite target of Cook Inlet commercial fishermen for decades.
Bob the Bagman has been their mortal enemy since he helped get Democrat Tony Knowles elected governor in the 1990s. Penney came under fire again in this election cycle.
“Meet the two men who have spent $700,000 trying to make Mike Dunleavy Alaska’s governor,” Alaska Public Media headlined only a week before the election. The story below the headline was fair and balanced, but other stories and advertising weren’t.
One radio advertisement claimed Dunleavy had a plan to turn the Port of Alaska (formerly the Port of Anchorage) over to brother Francis who would then boost port rates in order to get even richer off Alaskans.
The ad was built on the groundwork Cole laid in summer. He called the Dunleavy advocacy group funded by Francis and Penney a “shadow campaign” and took issue with the U.S. Supreme Court’s “astonishing claim that unlimited ‘independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption, or the appearance of corruption.'”
Cole blasted the Court’s “naive view of communication and ignorance about what it takes to coordinate with a candidate.”
Because of such naivety and ignorance, he wrote, “Anyone can start a shadow campaign and put unlimited amounts of money to work buying influence. Just keep the candidate out of the formal process. No matter how much is spent, the activity will never give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption. The Supreme Court tells us so.”
Cole later went farther, suggesting that Francis was a crook trying to “buy the election” for his brother, and demanding Mike Dunleavy explain his brother’s role in a Federal Regulatory Energy Commission investigation in Texas.
Cole cited Francis’s connection to a JP Morgan investment firm’s manipulation of electricity rates in California and the Midwest.
“Some have compared this to the much more costly ENRON debacle of 2000-2001,” Cole wrote. Cole provided no hint as to who the “some” might be. ENRON was a huge, national scandal that led to company shareholders filing a $40 billion lawsuit and a federal investigation that led to the indictment of 11 Enron executives, and three people who profited from working with the company.
Company president Jeff Skilling was eventually convicted on charges of conspiracy, insider trading and securities fraud, and spent 11 years in prison. Company founder Kenneth Lay was convicted of 10 counts of securities fraud but died of a heart attack before he could be sentenced.
No one connected to the JP Morgan Ventures Energy Corporation case in which Francis was involved was indicted, although the Principal Investments Unit led by Francis clearly found and exploited loopholes in the law, according to a July 2013 consent agreement with the federal government, which saw JP Morgan pay a $285 million fine and return $125 million in “unjust profits.”
Neither the evil brother accusation nor the Bad Bob claim appeared to stick to Mike Dunleavy, however. He collected the most votes in the parts of the state where news and advertising consumers were most broadly exposed to those accusations.
And he carried all of the precincts in or near the Kenai River and nearly all of the precincts on the Kenai Peninsula. Either nobody there cared about his association with Bad Bob Penney, or there’s a silent majority of non-commerical fishermen who don’t think Penney is that bad.