With veteran Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) facing the toughest re-election race of his career, his top primary opponent, Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, slipped into Washington, D.C., during the Congressional recess last week to meet with several conservative leaders.
With Young under the cloud of a federal investigation and in real danger of losing, Parnell is hoping to ride the wave of reform that swept him and another young Republican to statewide office in 2006.
Although Young has been challenged many times before in his 35 years in Congress, he hasnt had a close contest since 1990. But recent publicly released polls showed Parnell within striking distance of Young, and his trip to D.C. last week to court conservative leaders showed hes serious about the challenge.
In a phone interview Monday, Parnell said he met with conservative groups in the capital, such as the National Federation of Independent Business, Citizens Against Government Waste Political Action Committee, the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation. Parnell said he also attended Americans for Tax Reforms weekly off-the-record meeting.
This was not your standard, go look for money political trip that most candidates make, Parnell said. This was really an effort on my part to find a philosophical principled kinship, you know, with others who think we need to move our country forward economically.
He said he did not pursue a meeting with the National Republican Congressional Committee, which has a policy of not meeting with any candidate challenging a GOP incumbent unless he wins the primary. The NRCC, however, confirmed that one of its staffers always attends ATRs weekly meeting and therefore also came in contact with Parnell last week.
Some of Parnells associates describe him as a nice-guy social conservative, though perhaps not as charismatic as popular Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), who has endorsed his candidacy. Nonetheless, Parnells softer, milquetoast image is in stark contrast to Young, whose style can be defensive and, at times, combative especially with the media.
One person who interacted with Parnell during one of his meetings last week described him as methodical and thoughtful. The operative said that even though hes running an insurgent campaign, he doesnt necessarily have a fiery, insurgent personality.
He struck me as a very smart politician, like he knows exactly what hes getting himself into, the operative said. He knows that incumbent races are never a walk in the park, but he knows Don Young is incredibly vulnerable.
Yet others say that Parnell pales in comparison to Palin, who came to office as a reformer in 2006, defeating an incumbent governor in a three-way Republican primary.
Hes not without charm, but I wouldnt say hes the slickest, most charming person in the world, said the operative. Some candidates suffer from an ego problem, and I did not get that impression.
Whether the conservative groups decide to get behind Parnell is another question, though it is clear that some are less than enamored with Young. The Club for Growth, a power in Republican primaries, has yet to endorse in that race, but would likely consider Parnell because it has steadily attacked Young for his prowess securing earmarks for his home state.