Can firing up the partisan base backfire in Alaska?

Sullivan, Murkowski split on vote to fill court seat

Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan faces a competitive reelection campaign against orthopedic surgeon Al Gross, a registered nonpartisan who won the Democratic primary. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan faces a competitive reelection campaign against orthopedic surgeon Al Gross, a registered nonpartisan who won the Democratic primary. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 24, 2020 at 10:59am

Some vulnerable Republican senators have seized on the battle over the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat on the Supreme Court to fire up their conservative bases. 

But in Alaska, which leads the country by far with 58 percent of voters registered as nonpartisan or unaffiliated, Democrats are hoping to use Sen. Dan Sullivan’s support for quick action a new nominee — and fellow Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s call to wait until after the election — as a cudgel in this year’s election.

Sullivan, who according to CQ VoteWatch has voted with his party 96 percent of the time since his current term started in 2015, faces a serious challenge for reelection against orthopedic surgeon Al Gross, a registered nonpartisan who also won the Democratic nomination.

Murkowski, whose CQ VoteWatch party unity score was 85 percent for the same period, endorsed Sullivan on Friday, which could give him entree to the state’s independents and moderate Republicans.

Sullivan’s campaign says that by quickly supporting President Donald Trump’s right to pick Ginsburg's replacement, he is standing up for Alaskans, whose interests in federal land and water management and other federal issues would be better represented by a conservative justice on the court. 

‘The independent spirit’

But Democrats say the issue will remind voters of Sullivan’s record as a party-line Republican and allow  Gross to sharpen his position as the real independent in the race.

“It just highlights that Dan Sullivan doesn't have the independent spirit that in Alaska a senator should,” said state Democratic Party Executive Director Lindsay Kavanaugh.

The Alaskan Senate race--along with another competitive race for the state’s sole House seat that has been held for decades by Republican Don Young--only recently started attracting national attention as contests that could help decide the majority in both chambers in 2020. 

Trump won the state by 15 points in 2016, but Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales shifted both the presidential and Senate races in July toward the Democrats, Solid to Likely Republican. And Trump himself may not have a complete lock on the state, with public and private polling showing him leading Joe Biden by just single digits.

The battle over the Supreme Court seat is a reminder of what sets both races apart from those in states Alaskans refer to as “The lower 48.” 

The huge bloc of voters who are not part of either party makes it an open question whether appealing to either party’s base is enough to swing an election. 

Democrats in the state and nationally are betting that it isn’t. They have thrown their support behind Gross and House candidate Alyse Galvin, both of whom won their respective Democratic primaries in August but are running as independents. It is the second congressional election since the state Democratic party won a lawsuit allowing independent and unaffiliated voters to seek party nominations. 

Ballot identification changed

In what Democrats said is a tacit admission that the strategy is working, the Republican-led state administration last week unilaterally decided to drop party affiliation from the November ballot. Galvin and Gross, who both appeared on the August primary ballots with a letter indicating their independent status, now appear only as the Democratic nominees. 

That decision was upheld by the state Supreme Court, which declined a challenge from Galvin because 800,000 ballots had already been printed, though Judge Jennifer Henderson acknowledged that Gavlin would be irreparably harmed. 

Kavanaugh said the change to ballots does a disservice to voters because being unaffiliated carries a special meaning in Alaska.

“It’s not providing voters with the information they need to make an educated vote at the polls,” she said. “That is the responsibility of the Division of Elections.”

Both Gross and Galvin have taken pains to point out areas where they diverge from the Democratic platform, often on issues that are important to Alaskans. Galvin, for example supports oil drilling,  and her husband works in the oil industry. Gross, who announced his campaign with a story about the time he killed a grizzly bear in self defense, has said he would vote against any gun ban. 

Accused of being ‘fake independent’

But Sullivan and Young say their opponents’ identification as independents is disingenuous and voters can see through them regardless of how they appear on the ballot. They point out that both Gross and Galvin have received substantial support from national Democratic groups intent on flipping the Senate and maintaining control of the House.  

“Al Gross has attempted to mislead Alaskans from the onset about his independent label, which we know is frankly not being upfront with Alaskans,” said Sullivan campaign manager Matthew Shuckerow. “Al Gross will empower national Democrats and their agenda, which is anti-Alaska, anti resource development and anti-second amendment.” 

That’s a message both Republican campaigns have sought to hammer home in ads calling their opponents “liberal Democrats” who have taken support from Democratic campaign committees in Washington. The Senate Leadership Fund, a Super-PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, last week joined the fray with a $1.6 million investment in ads TV, radio and digital ads calling Gross a “far-left, fake independent.” 

Alaska has a long history of candidates from both parties breaking political molds, with Republicans embracing abortion rights and Democrats touting gun ownership. 

Murkowski famously tapped into that tradition when she lost the Republican primary in 2010 and proceeded to defeat the Party’s nominee in a write-in campaign. 

Notably, Susan Collins, the other Republican Senator to break with her party in the Supreme Court appointment, represents Maine, another state with a large percentage of unaffiliated voters. The other Maine Senator, Angus King, is an independent who caucuses with Democrats.

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Sullivan, though, is a different animal. A marine and former state attorney general, he staked his first race, in 2014, on opposition to what he described as federal overreach under the Obama administration. He defeated Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, who touted his independent voice. Since then, he has largely avoided public disputes with his party. 

“Even when he has an opportunity for Sullivan to be independent he doesn’t take it,” said Jim Lottsfeldt, a consultant who has worked for Murkowski in the past and now is affiliated with a super PAC that supports Gross and Galvin. He pointed to Trump’s alleged derision of fallen and captured members of the military as a natural opening for Sullivan, who defines himself as “Marine. Husband. Father. Senator.” “He didn’t have one word of rebuke, not even a mild rebuke on the ‘suckers and losers' comment. He just refused to address it.” 

Lottsfeldt and other analysts said such choices show that Sullivan is playing to the state’s most conservative Republicans, and that his fortunes in the election will rise and fall with Trump’s.

That leaves opportunities on the table for his opponent. 

Independents outpoll partisans

Lottsfeldt said polls consistently show that Gross and Galvin perform better, by a matter of a few points, when they are identified as independents versus just as the party nominees. 

A poll conducted by Public Policy Polling in September, before the change on the ballot, found Sullivan and Gross tied at 43 percent, and the same firm conducted polls in the summer showing Galvin with a lead over Young. 

And in a sign of potential enthusiasm,  both Galvin netted more primary votes than her Republican opponent in August, when 20,000 more Democrats came out to vote than in 2018

Both have been outraising their Republican opponents and using the money to saturate the Alaksan airwaves with ads intended to cement their reputation as independents, enough to potentially blunt the impact of the change to the ballot, state political insiders said.

Gross raked in an additional $3 million in donations in the days after Ginsberg’s death, after raising just $5.1 million total in the first year of his campaign. 

But Galvin and Gross will need more than Democratic support alone to overcome the state’s Republican lean, longtime Alaska Democratic pollster Ivan Moore said. 

With registered Democrats making up 13 percent of the electorate, Moore says the two need to capture at least 60 percent of the nonpartisan and unaffiliated voters. For Gross, he said, that opportunity might have come with the open Supreme Court seat:

 “He’s got a gift-wrapped thing with the Ginsburg seat,” Moore said.

Jacob Rubashkin with Inside Elections contributed to this report.