Analysis: Gross drops, and Murkowski to consolidate power as allies maneuver to put Sweeney on ballot

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The news began with startled text messages around Alaska Monday afternoon. With less than a week to go before candidates can drop their efforts to win election to the highest offices in the land, a massive shakeup throttled the race for the state’s lone seat in the United States Congress.

Al Gross, the son of a former state attorney general and the Democratic Party’s standard bearer for the United States Senate race in 2020, suddenly and suspiciously dropped his bid to succeed the late Congressman Don Young. 

Earlier this month Gross had fetched the most votes from Alaskans on the center to left side of the political spectrum during the first ever jungle primary system.

An Al Gross ad that ran four days before he pulled out of the race.

Former Gov. Sarah Palin topped the rankings, followed by first-time candidate Nick Begich, who combined nearly half of all eligible votes. Gross and former state legislator Mary Peltola rounded out what was shaping up to be the four options in August for the special general election. 

Gross entered the race with the highest name recognition of any non-conservative candidate. Coupled with the scar tissue of a recent bout at the ballot box, Gross had activated his network throughout all corners of the state, as evidenced by the cropping up of his campaign signs throughout liberal Alaskan bastions. 

Those campaign signs are now headed for the crawl space. In a prepared statement Monday afternoon, Gross all but encouraged his supporters to go for either Mary Peltola or Tara Sweeney. Both are prominent Alaska Native women.

Sweeney, the highest ranking Alaska Native to hold office in the federal government, was an undersecretary for the Department of Interior under President Donald Trump. Sweeney finished 5th in the rankings during the special primary election, though at a considerable distance from Peltola. The assumption in Gross’ statement is, by withdrawing from the race, Sweeney will automatically be elevated to the next spot, and therefore eligible for the special election in August. 

If it’s true that Gross has allowed Sweeney to ascend to fourth place, Monday’s announcement likely harkens to one of the great political maneuvers in the past decade. Sweeney, a registered Republican, is the proverbial darling of resource development organizations throughout Alaska. Her empassioned advocacy on behalf of the North Slope and the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation put her distinctly at odds with the crunchy environmentalism that defined Gross’ campaigns. One of the few things either camp had in common were relationships to opponents of the Pebble Mine project in western Alaska. 

Those opponents share something else in common: an affection and devotion to the current senior senator from Alaska, Lisa Murkowski. Murkowski, an incumbent since 2002 when she was appointed by her father, the outgoing U.S. senator and incoming Gov. Frank Murkowski, has made no secret of her opposition to the large gold and copper deposit. Some of Murkowski’s most vigorous supporters have pointed to Murkowski’s staunch resistance to the project as proof of her independent bona fides. Those same supporters are some of Sweeney’s greatest surrogates. 

What was made abundantly clear this week is that, though the news is about the congressional race, the story is how these events are colluding to assist in the race for the United States Senate.

The parallels to the circumstances that kept Murkowski in office and conspiring to install Sweeney are eerie. In 2010, after she lost the Republican Primary to Joe Miller, Murkowski launched a write-in campaign. With support from centrist Republicans, Democrats, and a huge turnout of the Alaska Native vote terrified of a Miller senatorial career, Murkowski won the first write-in for Senate since Strom Thurmond in 1948.

That victory untethered Murkowski from the Republican party, and to a new ad hoc coalition that composed eccentric bedfellows. Byron Mallott, a future lieutenant governor (before resigning under sexual harrassment allegations) was her write-in campaigning co-chair, as was former Republican state legislator Andrew Halcro. 

By the time she faced re-election again in 2016, Murkowski had laid the groundwork to crowd out a primary challenge, assisted by the massive war chest her coalition had helped swell. However, Miller returned as a Libertarian to fetch the second highest vote count in the state. That same election saw the upset of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton for President, and the beginning of a collision course with the Alaskan senior Senator. 

Despite working on the landmark Tax Reform of 2017 which, among other achievements, opened up ANWR to oil and gas exploration, Murkowski waged an open war on the former President Donald Trump. Those skirmishes included denouncing the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, and ultimately voting to impeach President Trump in 2021. These, combined with other bouts, brought the mercurial American President into the Alaskan orbit, and with a targeted vengeance for Murkowski. 

Murkowski’s supporters and powerful proxies anticipated a hard fought primary in 2022, her next scheduled election. In 2020, a ballot initiative narrowly passed the Alaskan public into law.

Characterized as a reform to make elections more accessible for independents, the initiative, written by lawyers openly allied with Murkowski, have the effect of gutting the traditional party primary, and coupling it with the ranked choice general election. During the 2020 debates, the initiative, opposed by both Republican and Democratic party officials, was seen as an obvious ploy by Murkowski to protect her from a repeat of her defeat in 2010. 

This year, Murkowski faces Kelly Tshibaka. A Harvard Law School graduate and former Inspector General and state commissioner, Tshibaka represents Murkowski’s most formidable opponent to date. Tshibaka also has the seal of approval from President Trump, and much of the Republican Party faithful. Despite that, Murkowski is looking to the benefits of the new election law to assist her, relying on the coalition of centrists, soft liberals, Alaska Native allies, and trade association Republicans to carry her.

A massive distortion that could affect this would be the turnout in any other race, drawing in voters who would likely also be skeptical of retaining the sitting senator. Enter Sarah Palin. 

The former governor and vice presidential candidate and no fan of Murkowski herself, Palin stormed into the top of the polls after entering the race on the very last eligible day. It was Palin’s support from the sidelines in 2010 that heavily tilted against Murkowski. Over a decade later, it is clear that a Congressional race with huge enthusiasm from the populist right has the chance to swamp into the Senate race, and give Tshibaka the edge she needs.

The only way this dynamic would change is if traditional Murkowski voters had a candidate they could support financially and at the ballot box.

Unfortunately, that candidate was Sweeney, who despite record levels of fundraising, came up short in the primary. Barring a massive change, Sweeney appeared to be blocked from August, and with that likely the general elections as well. 

Sweeney’s parallels with Murkowski run deep. The political consultants who have orbited the D.C. circles of the Senator are around the Sweeney Camp. It goes even deeper, with Sweeney and her husband at various points either working for Murkowski or being supported by the Senator for federal posts. Sweeney is the Murkowski camp’s candidate, and it was crucial for her to have another shot at populating the Congressional ballot. 

It will likely never be known what is the true story behind Gross’ sudden departure. Perhaps his public statement can be taken at face value, and the Bear Doctor who was an idol of the Lincoln Project sincerely wants to clear the path for two prominent Alaska Native Women. But the facts on the ground point to different circumstances. Something was suddenly — over the weekend — very persuasive to Gross and in politics that usually means an opposition research file.

What happens next seems clear: The Senate race will have a proxy war open up in the Congressional race, as camp Sweeney and camp Murkowski can now overtly join forces for a D.C. centric ticket that appeals to centrist voters. With less than 6,000 votes that went her way in the primary, however, Sweeney has her work cut out for her.

The Republican territory in the conservative bastions have already been split between the Palin and Begich camps. And Peltola, the farther-left Alaska Native candidate, performed the best with the least amount of financial backing. The resources that will now be brought to bear to raise Sweeney up will be on another level. 

All the events Monday affirmed the concerns of opponents of the new electoral system brought by Ballot Measure 2, thanks to “Alaskans for Better Elections.”

By having more candidates and variables through the jungle primary and ranked choice general, the options for political operatives to engage in legalized gamesmanship — or worse — has never been higher. Voters know less today about who is asking to represent them in Congress than at any time in the state’s history.

It is hard to say that Alaska now has better elections. 

22 COMMENTS

  1. I had thought to vote Begich but in light of the fear Democrat-in-denial Gross and RINO Murkowski feel about Ms. Palin that’s all changed. Good test to choose among conservative candidates: Which candidate makes the ultra-libs scurry for their safe spaces?

  2. Interesting column. Loaded with fascinating speculation and opinion like: “The resources that will now be brought to bear to raise Sweeney up will be on another level.” Personally, I think there is a fat chance in hell for the prospect to raise Sweeny. This race comes down to whether Nick Begich will represent Alaska in Congress or if Sarah Palin will represent herself in the Congress of the United States of America.

    • Joe, a truly wonderful observation! I bet the establishment swamp is wringing their hands over their loss with Sweeny.

      I concur with your analysis about Alaskans either electing Sarah, “dresses like a Strumpet” Palin to further her media/ glamor career or will they lay hold of the opportunity to elect an intelligent, energetic , successful and principled young Nick Begich. I trust Alaska folks will not elect the G.O.P. version of A.O.C., despite what Trump says and I twice voted for Trump!

  3. Frankie and I still support KELLY, even though our daughter’s career is on the line. We do what’s best for Alaska, and that means identifying and outing the RINO candidates. However, we do not support Sarah Palin as she has shamed our family. It’s very difficult to support Tara Sweeney because her loyalty will be first to the Native Corporations, not the general Alaska population. We are backing Nick Begich. Our family is supposed to be conservative, Catholic Republicans. Not a bunch of pompous, undisciplined, privileged, RINOs.

    • Politics is interesting. Joe Miller and Kelly Tshibaka both with far better credentials than Lisa. Joe with West Point Academy, Gulf War military combat officer, Yale Law School. Kelly T as Harvard Law superstar and top Alaska official.
      Yet, our Lisa couldn’t pass the state bar exam for years until after she received the test answers before the 5th exam re-take. Just goes to show you that old bluebloods like the Murkowskis can still keep wearing their crowns in 2022.

  4. Lots of conjecture since at last report Sweeney was weighing her options for the Primary Election, not the Special Election

    • Who’s report? What do you use to support your conjecture? This is a political blog Frank, maybe you don’t understand that.
      Where do you pull your information that you use to attack Suzanne?

    • Frank, Political Campaigns are nothing if they are not full of conjecture served up with a healthy dose of rumor, innuendo, outright falsehoods and did I mention Money?

  5. So much conniving. TaraLisa’s DC heavies must be elated with these “better elections.” Sorry to Alaskans of any political persuasion, voting is no longer about your will or representation.

  6. We the People DESPERATELY need that opposition research file. It may be the only way to head-off Gross Dr. Al’s odious presence in each of our elections for the rest of our lives.

  7. My dislike of Sarah Palin has nothing to do with her leaving the Governors office, that was the best thing she could have done for the State of Alaska! She always talked a good talk however her actual policies almost killed our industry!
    Maybe her stint as a “tea party” politician will keep her in line but whether she will be true to the State and a Conservative will be a matter of question….

  8. Al’s tweet was spot on about Palin. She does not care about Alaska. I can’t believe how quickly people forget that she has already failed us once. She doesn’t deserve another chance. Trump didn’t do his homework before endorsing the Hollywood wannabe.

  9. Interesting read that Bear killer Al Gross is attacking Palin for quitting her job as Governor and then he quits the race after his supporters campaigned and funded his bid to replace Young. They were successful in getting him 3d place! He had a decent chance of getting the seat in a ranked choice election where to two GOP candidates will go at each other. Gross did exactly what he accused Palin of. He Quit!!
    I do not forgive Palin for quitting and those who supported Gross with time and money should not give him a pass.

  10. This doesn’t answer the Q: Does the 5th place move up to fill an election ballot already decided?

    All we need is another joker to quit the ballot and we’ll have Santa move on up into it then. Oh brother.

  11. This is pretty clear to me. Rank choice gives the minority power with certain circumstances and the minority party doesn’t want Al Gross. They want Mary Peltola. And really it doesn’t matter if they wouldn’t have minded Al Gross. For the minority to have power, the last place person has to have something in common with the best shot for the minority party and Al Gross and Mary Peltola don’t intersect as well as Sweeney and Peltola. Democrats know that Sweeney and Peltola will probably get a lot of the native voters and the centrists (and of course Democrats), and voters that pick either one of them will likely pick the other as a second choice. So as soon as Sweeney’s votes are tossed, it will give Peltola a bump and may even give her a lead over the two Republicans that split the majority of the voters. So yes, this is very parallel to Lisa’s write-in win.

    It’s like my leftie cousin who registers as a Republican in Utah and tells all of her leftie friends to do the same so they can vote for softest Republican in the republican primaries. And the saddest thing about that is that this strategy coming out of the Democrats is getting well known and if the softy Republican ends up winning he or she remembers how he or she won and continues to pander to the left and a RINO is born, much like Murkowski.

    So we could have 32 for palin, 28 for Begich, 30 for Peltola, and 10 for Sweeney. 70% of Sweeney voters might go for Peltola as a second choice and that would give Peltola 37% and a lead, causing Begich votes to be tossed next. Of course, we all assume most of Begich voters second choice would be Palin, but if too many of those voters stubbornly don’t vote for anyone as a second option maybe because the really don’t like Palin or because they really don’t like the rank choice system, then that would give another edge to Peltola. But even if Palin were to end up winning over 50% after Begich votes are tossed, Democrat voters won’t forget that Peltola actually had a lead over both of them and will become confused and frustrated that she didn’t win, which will activate those voters more.

    This rank choice system really needs to go and “Alaskans for Better Elections” needs to be exposed. I would really like to see MRAK do an in depth report on the identity of that organization and the people involved. Everything they do is nefarious, starting with the lie of claiming they are “nonpartisan” and against dark hidden out of state funding for campaigns. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the token republicans that support the organization and allow it to claim it is “nonpartisan” are in fact in the Murkowski circles.

  12. You write of the 2010 elections and specifically of factions “terrified of a Miller senatorial career”. That wasn’t the only such instance that year. Remember when Craig Campbell decided against running for a full term as lite guv? Obviously, people were terrified of the thought of Eddie Burke or Jay Ramras winning and possibly winding up as governor some day. That’s the only explanation I can think of for Mead Treadwell appearing out of nowhere and winning, considering his less-than-spectacular showings in other statewide elections.

  13. Excellent analysis, Suzanne! You keep topping yourself. I have to agree with Justin Erickson and hope you will do an in-depth expose’ of “Alaskans for better elections” and their connections. Somehow I won’t be surprised if they point to both Murkowski and Walker. I am really wondering about why the lawyers involved seem to be in bed with both of these politicians. Love your analysis. Keep up the good work. As soon as I get my tax situation settled down here, I will be glad to donate that $100. You are well worth it!

  14. Nepotistic Lies A Lot Strikes Again:

    Senators who have joined with all the Democrats to sell you out.
    Here are the 14 Republicans who voted with New York’s Chuck Schumer last night to allow the Senate to begin debating this anti-gun bill:

    Blunt (MO)
    Burr (NC)
    Capito (WV)
    Cassidy (LA)
    Collins (ME)
    Cornyn (TX)
    Ernst (IA)
    Graham (TX)
    McConnell (KY)
    Murkowski (AK)
    Portman (OH)
    Romney (UT)
    Tillis (NC)
    Young (IN)
    NOTE: Toomey (PA) missed the vote but said he supports it

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