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.