Races To Watch: Alaska’s Senate Election Is Closer Than Expected

Thanks to some ads by the Lincoln Project and self-inflicted wounds, Republican incumbent Senator Dan Sullivan is on the defensive in Alaska — his challenger, Dr. Al Gross, an orthopedic surgeon, is making a strong run for the seat.  Dr. Gross is an Independent running as a Democrat, and emphasizes his rugged side — he worked as a commercial fisherman and even wrestled a grizzly bear — to draw a stark contrast with Sullivan.  Sullivan has been rocked by scandal after the release of the so-called “Pebble Tapes” a series of secret recordings by the Environmental Investigations Agency.  In the tapes, the former CEO of the controversial Pebble Mine project said that Sullivan was hoping to keep his support for the mine on the down-low during the election.

Why This Matters:  The Pebble Mine project is opposed by a majority of Alaskans because of the harm it could cause to the extremely valuable Bristol Bay commercial salmon fishery, and to pristine Alaskan wilderness.  The Pebble Tapes also reveal the extensive scope of the mining project.  Sullivan has taken tens of thousands in contributions from the mine without making his position in support of it clear. Now that support could cost him the election.

The Challenger — Dr. Al Gross — Is Strong

The notion of an Independent running on the Democratic side winning a Senate seat in Alaska is not farfetched — Democrats previously held the seat (Sullivan unseated a Democrat, Mark Begich).  But Trump won the state by double digits in 2016.  Gross has outraised Senator Sullivan and the Cook Political Report recently changed its rating of the race from “likely Republican” to “lean Republican.”  Gross, a native Alaskan, has portrayed himself as a rugged outdoorsman who opposes the Pebble Mine and is a vocal advocate for taking action on climate change.  Gross’ website makes no bones about his position — “It’s clear: man-made climate change is occurring, and Alaska is Ground Zero.” Gross’s candidacy has mostly been built around health care reform because Gross is an MD and has worked to reform Alaska’s health care system.  One particularly effective Gross ad has him racing down an Alaska River until he can “see Canada” and make the point that drug prices in Alaska should be commensurate with the lower prices across the border.

The Incumbent — Dan Sullivan — Is Weak Like Trump

The Lincoln Project’s ad backing Gross is called “Strong” and it paints Sullivan as completely beholden to President Trump.  On its website, the Project explains that “Alaskans know what hard work, honor, and integrity mean. When a moment of challenge showed itself, Dan Sullivan showed none. Sullivan is no longer a Republican nor a conservative. He’s a Trumpist.”  Inside Climate News’ take on Sullivan is that he “didn’t make much of a name for himself” and has been in the shadow of his colleague Senator Lisa Murkowski except when she makes high profile breaks with the President, like her opposition to the confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court.  Sullivan voted in favor of Judge Barrett.  Similarly, even though climate change is highly evident in the Arctic, Sullivan parrots the Trump position — saying that “the verdict is still out on the human contribution to climate change,” and that there is no scientific consensus on the subject.

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