Commentary

A fumbled pitch

Make Alaska Great Again

One of the most misguided political campaigns in Alaska state history was drawing to a close today with Dr. Al Gross still holding out hope for a miracle upset of incumbent Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan.

A Gross victory remained statistically possible as this was written. He needed only about two-thirds of approximately 83,000 outstanding votes to oust Sullivan if, of course, Sullivan got no more votes.

Realistically, to close a 52,000 vote gap, the remaining votes would have needed to break better than 80/20 in Gross’s favor. Still, he had not conceded, even though the Associated Press early in the day called the election for Sullivan. 

Given the monstrous amount of money Gross and Gross-minded interests spent on the election, the candidate’s reluctance to throw in the towel is probably understandable.

As of mid-October, Gross had reported raising $16.9 million – $7.1 million more than Sullivan – to fuel his campaign. And the campaign-money-tracking website Open Secrets was reporting Outside interest groups spent another $14 million attacking Sullivan and $4 million supporting Gross.

Nearly $35 million is a staggering amount of money to pay for about 100,000 votes. But then there were pre-race indications that Gross, born and reared in the Alaska state capital as the son of an attorney general for a Republican governor, had a solid chance of beating an immigrant Sullivan, the interloper from “Outside” as Alaskans commonly refer to the Lower 48 states.

“Ohio Dan,” as Sullivan’s critics liked to call him, was linked to the state primarily by marriage. His wife, the former Julie Fate, was a young woman from the Central Alaska city of Fairbanks when the couple met at Georgetown University in the nation’s capital in the early 1990s before Sullivan began a career spent largely in government service.

Aside from being a Marine, Sullivan’s Alaska cred isn’t great. He comes from a wealthy family who saw to his prep school education. From there it was on to Harvard, Georgetown and a political appointment as a U.S. Assistant Secretary of State before being tapped as Alaska Attorney General in 2009 when then Gov. Sarah Palin was in the midst of a minor scandal called “Troopergate” and needed a lawyer far removed from Alaska politics; and finally Alaska Commissioner of Natural Resources under former Gov. Sean Parnell.

Clearly the Gross campaign looked at Sullivan’s resume and tried to make the election a contest between a real Alaskan – grizzly bear slayer, commercial fisherman, outdoorsman, big-mountain skier, teenage entrepreneur and independent thinker – and an Outside product of privilege willing to kowtow to the Trump administration.

The pitch was a mistake that underlined how badly out-of-touch with average Alaskans the state’s Democratic party.

Three words

The reality here is that Gross had a realistic chance of unseating Sullivan if he’d stolen an idea from President Donald Trump (God forbid) and listened to the decade’s old advice of political consultant James Carville, the man largely responsible for the election of Democrat Bill Clinton as the nation’s 42nd president in 1992.

“The economy, stupid” – a phrase widely misquoted since as “It’s the economy, stupid” – was Carville’s political advice to Clinton.

Gross should have listened.

Alaska started the new year still struggling to break out of a recession that began in 2015, and then COVID-19 torpedoed tourism, the state’s largest employer; monkey-wrenched commercial fishing, the state’s second-largest employer; and sent the price of oil, the state’s largest source of revenue, plummeting.

Gross should have accepted these realities and launched a campaign to “Make Alaska Great Again.”

Instead he tried to make issues of climate change; his Alaska roots;  that grizzly bear it appears he might merely have peppered with bird shot as former Vice President Dick Cheney once did a hunting companion; his status as a physician, one of the most secure jobs in the country; and his second job as a commercial fisherman in a business Alaska voters long ago granted state-protected job security.

These are not great sells in Alaska at the moment.

The struggle against climate change is to jobs in the state what conservation is to subsistence, a fine idea until your family is starving. When you’re on the verge of starvation, it doesn’t matter that the moose you shoot today might mean no moose next year because what happens next year doesn’t matter if you’re already dead.

Not to mention that despite several degrees of warming, Alaska in winter remains a cold, dark place and nobody really complains much if the temperature is 20 degrees instead of 5 degrees or 20-degrees-below instead of minus-50.

And yes, a MAGA campaign would likely have irritated some Gross supporters registered as Democrats, but so what?

If a few of them had expressed some public anger it might actually have helped Gross sell the image that he was running as an “independent” against a diehard Republican more interested in Republican politics than the problems of working Alaskans, which is how the Gross-campaign tried to portray Sullivan.

And it’s not like going MAGA was going to send any Ds rushing to Sullivan’s camp. They’d had their front men out there for a long time pounding the theme that Sullivan was a Trump pawn, and all true Democrats detest Trump.

Unless you came down with Trump Derangement Syndrome at some time in the past four years, you could hardly consider yourself a Democrat.

Gross could have declared “global warming” a fraud and promised to convince a newly elected Senate majority to see to it that oil drilling went forward in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and it wouldn’t have changed anything.

Democrats, and those strongly aligned with the Democratic party no matter the designation on their voter registration, would have held their noses and voted for Gross.

Being that many of those same voters also think they’re way smarter than the rest of the electorate, you could probably even have counted on a fair segment of them figuring out the posturing was all but a ploy to get Gross elected, and thus a necessary approach in the battle against the devil in the White House.

There are plenty of people to whom the end justifies the means. There were already plenty of them willing to push the idea Gross was an “independent,” knowing full well he was in near-perfect alignment with the Democrat party.

Fair share

And it’s not like many of them, if any, would have been opposed to Alaska continuing to get its fair share of federal spending. That funding grew steadily from $3.3 billion in 1990 to $12.6 billion in 2010, according to the state Department of Labor.

Then it slowed, and since Sullivan was elected it has pretty much flatlined. The $17.3 billion spent in fiscal year 2020 is only a 2 percent increase on the $16.9 billion spent in FY2015. 

Clearly Sullivan is not cut from the same cloth as the late Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, a Senator revered for the pipeline of cash he kept flowing north from Washington, D.C.

CBS News in 2007 labeled Stevens “The Senate’sKing of Pork,” and quoted Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense saying that “his ability to bring home the bacon to Alaska is legendary. and he doesn’t make any bones about doing that.”

Alaska could use some of that bacon now in the form of national investments to secure the Arctic. The Russians are continuing full-speed ahead on their Northern Sea Route across the Arctic Ocean and south through the Bering Strait into the Pacific. 

It’s only a matter of time before a marine accident there fouls the Alaska coast. When that happens, neither the state nor the federal government is in a position to do anything about it.

The country needs an Arctic port somewhere along the Bering Seas for both environmental and strategic reasons as a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study concluded five years ago. 

A railroad to connect Alaska to Canada and the Lower 48 wouldn’t hurt either. A rail line would allow Canadian companies access to Alaska ports with shipping benefits for both countries.

Sullivan has been a backer of both projects, but nothing has happened. The Republican has done a good job of maintaining the Department of Defense spending in Alaska, but most of the money has gone into the little-peopled Central part of the state – home to his wife’s family.

Anyone truly wanting to win a statewide election in Alaska should have recognized the soft underbelly. Gross would have been a lot better off attacking Sullivan for not delivering federal spending than for being soft on climate change.

Nobody really knows for certain what the future will bring in terms of climate because it’s in the future. But what hasn’t been delivered in the past can be documented.

Stevens wrote the script for this sort of campaign. He spent much of his career lamenting the lack of running water and sewer systems in rural Alaska and the health consequences.

Instead of referencing Republican Gov. Jay Hammond, who slipped out of the news after his death 15 years ago and is thus likely unknown to many new Alaskans, Gross should have been paying homage to “Uncle Ted,” who died only 10 years ago and has remained off and on in the news since.  

All Gross needed to do was his doctorly best to pick up the health ball. Alaska certainly needs more federal money given the pandemic. It’s hard to do all the necessary hand washing to stop the SARS-CoV-2 virus if you lack running water.

Sure, Sullivan had some data with which to push back. He did help secure a lot of military funding for the Central part of the state, which kept the Fairbanks economy from tanking. But putting Sullivan on the defensive on federal funding would have been way better than letting him take the offensive on jobs.

Sullivan actually had the sense to promote the idea of job growth in Alaska. What did Gross do?

He filmed some slick commercials that showed off his pricey fishing boat, his glacier-skiing prowess, and his skills at driving an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) down a sandy Cook Inlet beach. And he proclaimed over and over that he’d be an “independent” voice for Alaska which his supporters didn’t want and his skeptics didn’t believe.

For better or worse, politics is the art of selling yourself to the many, not the few.

Gross and his allies, sadly if you were a Gross supporter, used a staggering amount of money to sell the candidate to a few when instead he should have been out there trying to sell himself to the many with a  pitch to Make Alaska Great Again.

Because who, after all, doesn’t want Alaska to be great, or at least on an economic track forward rather than backward?

9 replies »

  1. When noneligible to vote, young, teenagers complain of multiple irritating, Gross ads throughout every short youtube video they want to watch, you know “freewheeling” outside ad money is practically unlimited…. Several actually told me if they could vote, they’d vote against him for ruining their videos. Made me smile.

  2. Thanks Dr Gross !!! You brought in millions in campaign money to help the Alaska economy, Ad buys on local networks , hotel rooms and food for out of state campaign canvassers. And you entertained me with your chuptzpah. You own a modest anchorage home and a multi million dollar California mansion. Enjoy the sunshine but watch out those communists in California are floating a wealth tax, dont give up your Alaska residency.

  3. Craig,
    Great capsule, heres something some like ag are overlooking,Mark Begitch is looking pretty useful now in hindsight.The idea that double barrel Rep senators was going to be great guns for the state has been wanting.
    This is something that I posted when Lisa stabbed him in the back,but to be fair, thats how potitics works.
    ANWR ,(unless the Saudi’s or Russia cut off oil which they aren’t likely to do since its a depreciating asset that can’t get pumped out of the ground fast enough because of pricing constraints), is fairly dismal asset going forward.Especially since like NPR-a its on federal land not state.As economist Ed King has posted several years ago.
    For the states sake I hope thats not our only avenues so far as economic growth potential go.
    This plus all the other important topics considered here place the State on a knife-edge as far a real growth opportunities go.
    We’ve had a good 10yrs of planning for divestment from N.S,and unfortunately haven’t gotten very far.
    For the most part, one party has been in control of the elected powers of the purse for an easy 10 yrs.Guys like Mike Doogan were calling it unreal along time ago.

  4. Thing is, Dr Al (the Kiddies Pal) was never interested in making anything great again other than senate democrats. Last time we tried that, Mark gave us O’BamaCare which Dr Al wanted to save.

    He consistently campaigned against Pebble, a rare earth mine and never mentioned either our dependence on China for those metals or the fact that Juneau is a mining district. If the Big Lie of the anti-Pebbles is accurate, there ought not to be any salmon in Juneau after 140 years of mining. Yet they are there. Why is that?

    He spoke of climate change and never mentioned either Watana or Gen IV nukes.

    He blithely stayed far away from hit boy Chuckie (Schumer) promise to pack the SCOTUS with another 5 Justices, add 2 states, and kill off the filibuster. All of these, every single one, would cut Alaska’s footprint in the US Senate a lot.

    He and his fellow spent $35+ million in one of the ugliest campaigns I’ve seen up here in 30 years. Congratulations on money well spent (/sarc). Cheers –

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