With the control of Congress in balance, the Alaska Senate race is expected to be one of the more high profile races in the country.
The Republican National Committee has gotten involved, and veterans of the Romney and McCain presidential campaigns are already working to unseat Democrat Mark Begich, but what about the House race?
The odds may be long, but two Democrats are already competing for the chance to take on Don Young.
Don Young has held the title of “Congressman for All Alaska” for 40 years. There’s a reason he’s earned the nickname “Teflon Don” – gaffes, changing political tides, federal investigations: Nothing sticks.
In the past two decades, Ethan Berkowitz is the candidate who has come closest to beating him in the general election. He had the support of the national Democratic Party back in 2008, and Berkowitz still lost by 5 points.
“Well, he’s the uncle who’ll say the outrageous things, and you’re like, ‘There goes Uncle Don again.’ But it’s Uncle Don.”
The past two elections, Young won by more than 30 points, and both of his opponents filed for office pretty late in the game, but this go round there’s not one but two Democrats who have already filed and are starting to fundraise on the normal election calendar. Forrest Dunbar is one of them.
”There’s been a couple of cycles where the Democrats were perceived as putting up sacrificial lambs, but when you want to run a serious campaign today, especially a statewide campaign in a place like Alaska, you have to start early,” Dunbar said.
Dunbar is 29-years-old and this is his first time running for office. He split his childhood between Eagle and Cordova, and he came back to Alaska after spending some time in the Peace Corps, in law school, and on Capitol Hill. Part of the reason he’s running now is because of frustration with a highly polarized Congress.
Dunbar says he knows it’s an uphill battle. He’s only raised about $20,000 so far. Young has more than half a million dollars in his campaign account, and he represents the dominant party in the state, but Dunbar thinks that with all the attention on the Senate race, there might be space to experiment with his campaign strategy and make inroads that way.
“Some of the more traditional forms of media, which are traditionally where you spend a lot of that money, are going to be purchased up by the Senate campaigns. So, $600,000 sounds like a lot, but it’s going to pale in comparison to the $20 or $30 million that are going to be spent on either side of the Senate campaign. And I think that sort of creates an opportunity to run a more grassroots campaign, to run a more social-media-oriented campaign, to connect with voters in different ways,” he said.
Matt Moore is the other Democrat to file. He actually tried to get his party’s nomination in 2012, but he started his campaign late and lost out to state legislator Sharon Cissna. When it comes to strategy, his angle is similar to Dunbar’s.
“The idea is – truly is – to work on building up the grassroots effort a lot earlier,” Moore said. “So, I’m starting now instead of a couple months before the primary.”
Moore is 53 and works as a health care administrator. He’s critical of Young’s leadership abilities and his attendance, and he’s hoping low approval of Congress works in his favor.
Moore says even though he lost the primary last time, he learned a few lessons about running a campaign. He’s scheduling fundraisers right now, and he’s got half a dozen staff and volunteers helping out with his campaign now. Their big goal at the moment is simply introducing Moore to voters.
“We’re working on the deficit of name recognition,” he said. “I don’t think you can do that in a real short period of time in a state this large.”
As a veteran candidate, Berkowitz says that both Dunbar and Moore have their work cut out for them. He says the U.S. Senate race, “is going to bury everything here,” in terms of money, attention, and press coverage, and that, “having run three Democratic primaries, primaries suck.”
Berkowitz says that having a contested primary means spending money fighting someone who’s effectively on your team and opening yourself to serious attacks before the real campaign has even started. He doesn’t think having a real competition will have some secret benefit of bringing attention to the House race.
“There is no benefit at all to the Democrats having a primary. I mean, it’s good in terms of being able to develop a coherent democratic philosophy. But in terms of keeping an eye on the final prize of winning against Don Young, I don’t see how this serves that purpose,” Berkowitz said.
Still, he’s glad to see people in this race already – that’s the point of democracy after all. Plus, strange things can happen in politics, especially if you have an operation in place to leverage it.
”Winning means being opportunistic for these guys, and they’ve got to put all of the mechanisms in place so that if an opportunity does materialize, they can take advantage of it,” Berkowitz said.
And as for Don Young’s thoughts on all this, his campaign did not respond to a request for comment