Young Faces Toughest Fight

Posted June 3, 2008 at 6:33pm

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 hasn’t 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 he’s 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 Reform’s 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 ATR’s weekly meeting and therefore also came in contact with Parnell last week.

Some of Parnell’s 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, Parnell’s 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 he’s running an insurgent campaign, he doesn’t necessarily have a fiery, insurgent personality.

“He struck me as a very smart politician, like he knows exactly what he’s 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.

“He’s not without charm, but I wouldn’t say he’s 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.

Although Parnell, a former state legislator, ran on a separate ticket from Palin in the 2006 GOP primary, he and the governor are close: Palin endorsed him as soon as he announced his candidacy in mid-March and accompanied him to the secretary of state’s office to file the paperwork.

What’s more, Parnell said he intends to run a campaign similar to that of his 2006 bid with Palin. In that primary, a unpopular and entrenched Gov. Frank Murkowski finished third while Palin received 51 percent of the vote.

A spokesman for Young, Michael Anderson, said it’s no surprise that Parnell would pull his campaign out of the Palin playbook.

“And I say this with all respect, the lieutenant governor and the governor are linked,” Anderson said. “When you’ve got that kind of mentorship and leadership that you follow, then it would make sense then that you follow that kind of campaign.”

But at least one operative pointed out that Young is no Murkowski: Young is feistier, more competitive and has a more seasoned, meaner operation than Murkowski. And unlike the former governor, Young can claim his seniority in the House has brought home bacon for Alaska for more than three decades.

And Parnell, in fact, is not too similar to Palin. Palin is a former mayor and outsider in Alaska Republican politics, while Parnell has a history in the Legislature — and therefore a track record of votes for Democrats and Republicans to call upon for negative campaign commercials.

Whoever emerges from the Republican primary, Young or Parnell, could face a top-tier Democratic candidate this November. National Democrats recruited former state House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz to run for the House, though he must first defeat 2006 nominee Diane Benson in the Aug. 26 primary.

When asked whom he’d rather face this fall, Parnell or Young, Berkowitz said either Republican would suffice, especially because Parnell has a record in the Legislature.

“There’s no question that Don Young has baggage, but Sean Parnell has carry-on luggage,” Berkowitz said.

Berkowitz had $287,000 in the bank at the end of March, a healthy but not overwhelming amount for a challenger. Young had $604,000 in cash on hand at the end of March — a less-than-outstanding number due in part to his legal fees over the past year. According to his campaign, Young spent $230,000 on legal fees alone from December 2007 to March 2008.

And in what Parnell said was four days of online fundraising, he raised $25,000 before the end of the first quarter of the year.

“I’m anticipating it will take about $500,000 in the primary and significantly more in the general,” Parnell said.

But that’s also why Parnell’s trip to Washington could be especially important to his campaign. The anti-pork conservative wing of the Republican Party could aid his campaign fundraising significantly. Otherwise, Parnell will mostly rely on smaller in-state donations, Anchorage-based Republican pollster David Dittman said.

“He obviously went back there to raise money,” Dittman said, referencing the D.C. trip. “[Palin is] a good fundraiser at the grass-roots level. Nearly all of the money was from very small numbers from the public at large.”

The Club for Growth, for example, which has a history of slamming Young for his penchant for government-funded projects, could likely endorse Parnell and bundle hundreds of thousands of dollars to his campaign.

Anderson defended the Congressman’s use of earmarks because Alaska, unlike many other states, has an undeveloped infrastructure craving publicly funded projects. He said Young’s campaign does not agree with the club’s philosophy of being against earmarks at all costs, but instead believes in practicing government grants in a responsible, transparent manner.

“They’re not in our corner,” Anderson said. “They’re not our advocates because Mr. Young … has stood for earmarks for Alaska. Club for Growth does not like earmarks.”