As the 2020 election finally
unwinds, Democrats seeking a majority in the Senate have turned their eyes
south, to the two pending runoff votes in Georgia, which could produce an even
50–50 split in the upper chamber. In that scenario, Vice President–elect Kamala
Harris would wield the tie-breaking vote for the Democrats—and put a slew of
ambitious legislative projects back in play for the Biden White House.But
there’s still one more Senate race in the balance, well to the north: Alaska,
where election officials will begin counting absentee ballots on Tuesday. The
country hasn’t paid this much attention to Alaska politics since then-Governor Sarah Palin discovered fame and fortune in her losing run for vice president on
the Republican ticket in 2008.At
first glance, the race doesn’t look especially close. Alaska’s first-term
Republican senator, Dan Sullivan, was easily ahead 62 percent to 32 percent in
his reelection bid against Al Gross, a quasi-Democrat, after almost 193,000 Election Day and some early voting ballots were counted. Yet there were more
than 134,000 absentee, early, and questioned ballots still to count as
of the Sunday, leaving Democrats hopeful that their guy could overcome a 58,000-vote
deficit.This
prospect looks plausible on paper. Judging by anemic in-person Election Day vote
tallies in strongly Democratic districts across the state, it appears that many more Democratic and independent voters cast absentee ballots than Republicans
this year. (A potential spoiler candidate, John Wayne Howe of the Alaskan
Independence Party, polled over 5 percent in the in-person balloting.)The Tuesday
start to counting the outstanding votes is not a mistake: The state decided to
do it that way, giving workers time to check the absentee ballots against the
list of Election Day voters.Any absentee
votes postmarked by Election Day will be counted, as long as they arrive within
10 days of the election (by November 13, which is also Sullivan’s fifty-sixth birthday). Overseas absentee voters get an additional five days, to November 18.
The target date to certify the election is November 25.It’s
easy enough, after witnessing the dramatic surge in mail-in Joe Biden ballots
putting the Democratic president-elect over the top in a fistful of swing
states, to imagine that a similar come-from-behind count could catapult Gross (a
nominal independent candidate who plans to caucus with the Democrats) into the
Senate.Gross
boasts a campaign biography as a former orthopedic surgeon and, before that, a
commercial salmon fisherman—a combination that he’s touted as health care wonkery
mixed with traditional Alaskana. He’s also the son of a former state attorney
general (a Democrat, who served a Republican governor in the 1970s, before
bipartisanship was banished from the country’s governing playbook).Democrats
hoped that Gross’s bona fides as a homegrown Alaskan would play well against
their efforts to portray Ohio-bred Sullivan as a political carpetbagger from
the Lower 48 (as the continental United States is known up here). In
reality, though, the odds that Gross can make up his election-night deficit are
slim. More than 35,000 of the uncounted 134,000 ballots are from voters in
heavily Republican districts. Assuming he manages to break even in those
conservative districts, Gross would have to carry the rest by a better than 3-to-1
margin to win the election. That’s a mathematically possible outcome but not one
that looks to be politically possible.Alaska
is a conservative state. The electorate is strongly pro-development—especially
for the oil and gas industry, which has put so much money into the state
treasury that Alaskans have lived free of state sales or income taxes for more
than 40 years.Voters
here are also fiercely pro-military, thankful for all the federal spending on
bases and payroll in Alaska. However, despite this big flow of cash from
Washington, many are opposed to nearly any other sort of federal intervention.Sullivan
has his own bona fides as a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves and an
assistant secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration. He was also head
of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and was the state’s attorney general—appointed by
Palin. His family manages a publicly traded $5.5 billion paint, coatings, and
sealants company in Ohio, and family and company executives have been big
donors to his two Senate campaigns and to Sullivan-supportive PACs.Sullivan
has generally backed President Donald Trump’s policies, in particular on
resource development in Alaska, with some minor dissents. (His most
high-profile departure  from Trumpist
orthodoxy came when he called on Trump to drop out of the race in October 2016, after a video showed the GOP nominee boasting in crude language about forcing
himself sexually on women.)Alaska’s
senior senator, Lisa Murkowski, who has been on the job since 2002, when she was
appointed by her father, then-Governor Frank Murkowski, has been stronger in her
criticism of Trump policies, though she angered her many Democratic and
independent supporters in Alaska when she voted last month to confirm Amy Coney
Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court.Murkowski’s term is up in 2022, with speculation that the senator, who
will turn 65 that year, might decide to leave the Senate after 20 years. She
terms out as chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee at the end of
the current Senate but can remain on the coveted Appropriations Committee,
which was chaired two decades ago by Alaska’s most influential senator,
Republican Ted Stevens.Former Anchorage Democratic Mayor
Mark Begich defeated Stevens in 2008, days after the incumbent was convicted on
federal corruption charges, which were later dismissed. (Stevens died, in 2010, in a plane crash.)Sullivan brought the seat back to the Republicans when he defeated
Begich in 2014, after their campaigns and PACs poured $61 million into the
election. Sullivan won by 6,000 votes out of 285,000 ballots cast.This year’s cash push behind the
race is shaping up to equal or surpass that number. As of mid-October reports,
the Sullivan and Gross campaigns and their friendly PACs had spent more than $48
million, with still more to come in the final weeks. National PACs have been
big donors to Gross, including the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, which had spent
more than $4.2 million on the Alaska race as of mid-October. Not to be outbid,
the Republican Senate Leadership Fund reported almost $6.4 million in Alaska
spending in mid-October.This year’s final vote total in
Alaska will come in close to 330,000. Democrats had been hoping Gross, who
supports the Affordable Care Act and opposes the rushed Senate confirmation of
Justice Amy Coney Barrett, would win. But there is no evidence so far of any
anti-Trump coattails in Alaska—or shoelaces, for that matter, that might help
bootstrap Gross to victory: President-elect Biden collected just 3,000 votes
more than Gross in election-night tallies.So when the long-running ballot count up north winds down, Democrats
keen on retaking the Senate will probably be taking a crash course in the
intricacies of Georgia politics and writing checks to ensure their voters turn
out in those pivotal senate races with as much enthusiasm as they did on Biden’s
behalf in November.
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