Targeting Conservative Terrain, Democrats Look to Independent Challengers in Alaska

PALMER, Alaska — Reaching into remote territory where they usually have little chance of victory, Democrats are mounting serious efforts to pick up Senate and House conservative-leaning seats here, reflecting rising hopes about their chances of winning control of the Senate and tightening their grip on the House.

And the party doesn’t even have candidates on the November ballot.

The candidates challenging incumbent Republicans, Senator Dan Sullivan and Representative Don Young, who is currently the longest-serving member of the House, are both running as independents. Their bids, once viewed as long shots, have become increasingly competitive in recent weeks, and are shaping up as crucial tests of whether a centrist label can overcome resistance to Democrats in a conservative-leaning state that has been rocked by the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.

That steep downturn — and a grim national political environment for Republicans that has tracked with President Trump’s sagging approval ratings for much of the year — have helped put the challengers, Al Gross in the Senate contest and Alyse Galvin in the House fight, in striking distance of incumbents who were once considered safe. Those candidates say that, if elected, their lack of partisan allegiance will allow them to focus more on what is best for the state in a Congress in which there is rapidly dwindling tolerance for daylight between lawmakers and their parties on policy matters.

“I would say I am not a very good Democrat and I’m not a very good Republican,” said Dr. Gross, a former orthopedic surgeon and commercial fisherman who has not previously sought office but whose family has a political pedigree in Alaska. “Some of my values are in alignment with the Democratic Party and some are in alignment with the Republican Party. As a senator, I will always do what I think is best for the state, irrespective of partisanship.”

Their opponents are toiling to tie them as closely as possible to Democrats, noting that both Dr. Gross and Ms. Galvin have been endorsed by the party’s leaders in Washington and have said they would align with their caucuses in Congress if elected.

Republicans call the centrist label a charade intended to distract voters from the fact that if Democrats swept into power, the two independents would be members of Democratic majorities led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York.

“I think they are absolutely pretending,” Mr. Sullivan said last Sunday as a largely mask-eschewing crowd enthusiastically greeted him at an agriculture fair in the conservative Mat-Su Valley about 40 miles outside Anchorage. “If people identify him with the policies and being part of a Chuck Schumer Senate majority, I think they will reject it.”

“It is way to try to get votes,” said Mr. Young, who called the independent status “nonsense.” “I think it is a little bit dishonest.”

Ms. Galvin, an education activist who lost to Mr. Young two years ago, is the latest to try to dethrone the irascible dean of the House, who has repelled many challengers over his 24 terms. But polls show a close race.

Ms. Galvin said that the terrible economy, crushing expense of health care in Alaska and the erosion of Mr. Young’s power because of committee term limits and minority-party status have provided an opening to topple the only person the vast majority of Alaskans have ever known as their congressman. He was first elected in a special election in 1973.

“Unfortunately, he can no longer deliver,” she said, adding that with only a single House seat, Alaska cannot afford to surrender influence. “There is only one voice there for us. It has to be somebody who is energetic, passionate, knows Alaska.”

With most voters in Alaska unaffiliated with either party and state residents famously embracing rugged individualism, the independent label can be powerful and has bolstered candidates for governor in the past. In 2016, Democrats began allowing independents to run in the party’s primaries, opening the door to candidacies like those of Ms. Galvin and Dr. Gross, who both easily won the Democratic contests in August.

The congressional battle in Alaska is being waged against a backdrop of a suffering state. Alaska’s economy was in recession and hurting before the onset of the pandemic, at times recording the highest unemployment rate in the nation. Now, the virus and its consequences have devastated three pillars of the state’s economy: the oil industry, commercial fisheries and tourism.

It was a lost summer for the state, which typically draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to experience its sweeping vistas and abundant wildlife — many via cruise ship. The shutdown of the tourism industry was painfully visible over Labor Day weekend as downtown Anchorage was virtually empty, devoid of the usual throngs of people browsing at souvenir shops and enjoying fresh seafood at craft breweries and restaurants.

“It is like a ghost town,” Ms. Galvin said as she sat outside her aging motor home plastered with campaign signs.

Dr. Gross, who said he had been drawn into the race by Mr. Sullivan’s vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, said his opponent had failed to come to grips with the depth of the state’s economic plight.

“There is not a lot of hope for jobs and new opportunities here in Alaska and Dan is not recognizing what is holding back the economy and doing anything about it,” said Dr. Gross, who wrote an op-ed asking, “Where are the cranes?,” referring to the sight of construction cranes as a sign of economic growth. “There is fricking construction all over the place. There is none here.”

Mr. Sullivan conceded that Alaska had “taken it on the chin” and agreed that the struggling economy could encourage some voters to consider a change. But he said a Democratically controlled Washington would be disastrous for his state, pointing to the Green New Deal, which would restrict energy development.

Working to leverage his relationship with President Trump, Mr. Sullivan, who remains a colonel in the Marine reserves, said he had won gains for Alaska in Pentagon funding, federal law enforcement presence and energy projects that would be endangered by a Democratic takeover and what he called the party’s “anti-Alaska agenda.”

“The question for Alaskans in this election in my view is, ‘Do you have a senator who is going to continue to fight it, or empower it?’” he said.

In a state that prizes Alaskan heritage, the Senate candidates have both sought to establish their bona fides. Dr. Gross, whose father was attorney general in the 1970s, has emphasized a personal history that includes killing a grizzly bear he says sneaked up on him as he was duck hunting. Mr. Sullivan, a native of Ohio, opened his campaign with an ad featuring his wife, Julie, a member of a native Athabascan family that she says “goes back generations with deep ties to our land and culture.”

In the House race, Ms. Galvin, who lost to Mr. Young by six points in 2018 while running as an independent, has assembled a grass-roots campaign, using her activist background to organize more than 150 virtual meetings with groups of Alaskans gathered in their homes.

Her campaign material is careful to note that she is a third-generation Alaskan. She is promoting a “cradle all-the-way-to career” education system and, noting that her grandmother had to ration prescription drugs, a push to cut health care costs that are consistently among the highest in the nation. She has raised more money than Mr. Young and received more total votes in the primary than he did.

Mr. Young, 87, acknowledged that he was in a fight and had begun behaving accordingly. He flew back to Washington last month during the House’s summer recess to vote in favor of a Democratic bill to bolster the Postal Service, one of only 26 Republicans to support it over Mr. Trump’s veto threat. (Mr. Young has been outspoken in defense of Alaska’s bypass mail program, which subsidizes shipments to the state.)

But he dismissed his opponent’s claim that he had lost his clout in Washington, and said that Ms. Galvin would accomplish little if elected because she lacked seniority.

“I have the expertise and the know-how,” he said in an interview. “She has never held elective office. Freshmen cannot deliver,” he added. “You don’t hang around that body that long and not make friends on both sides of the aisle.”

As for how long he intends to remain in office, Mr. Young replied, “God will decide that, or the voters.”

In his new television ad titled “Allegiance,” Mr. Young argues that Ms. Galvin would be beholden to Democrats, noting that she has been endorsed by Mr. Pelosi, who he says would “shut down Alaska.”

But Ms. Galvin said the influence she held with Democrats would give her stronger standing to promote Alaskan views on energy and other issues.

“I will be in the majority as an independent, helping them to understand Alaska,” she said. “Their ears will be open more.”

“Fresh voices right now are needed,” she said.