Senate Candidates Vie for Rural Support

This year’s U.S. Senate race in Alaska is shattering records for spending, with millions in outside dollars directed mostly toward TV ads. With less than two months before the general election, both campaigns are also aggressively seeking an edge on the ground in rural Alaska.

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kyuk rural vote
LaTesia Guinn and Barb Angaiak speak in Bethel. Photo by Ben Matheson / KYUK.

In a Bethel subdivision near the Kuskokwim river, Barb Angaiak is sacrificing this sunny Saturday for politics and she’s made a game plan.

“….two houses kinda down the hill, we’ll hit that, come up here, hit gwens, and hit 245 right there,” she says to herself.

Angaiak is a volunteer canvasser working on behalf of Democratic candidates, including the Begich campaign.

We visit the home of LaTesia Guinn. Angaiak knocks. When Guinn opens the door, the two women make small talk.

This door-to-door effort is a key part of Begich’s strategy for reaching the rural vote. The campaign has 13 field offices around the state, double that of his effort in 2008. They have staff in Bethel for the first time in decades, and the Alaska Democratic Party is advertising for part time village based staff.

Max Croes is the Communication director for the Begich campaign.

“That’ s a show of how committed he is to trying to win votes in rural Alaska and ask Alaskans in Bethel, and The Y-K delta, as well as across the state for the vote (and) have a conversation about the things he’s been able to do for rural Alaska,” Croes says.

The Begich campaign opened the Bethel office well in advance of the August primary which named former Attorney General and Natural Resources Commissioner  Dan Sullivan as his Republican opponent.  Sullivan recently hired a Nome woman, Megan Alvanna Stimpfle, as their rural coordinator to formally ramp up their rural efforts.

Ben Sparks, the campaign manager for Republican Dan Sullivan, says his candidate is also taking the rural campaign seriously.

“The Begich campaign has made it very clear they feel as though they have the Alaska Native vote locked up and nothing could be further from the truth,” Sparks says.

Sullivan has five offices; none in rural Alaska. But Sparks says they have tremendous support and organization in what they call Super Volunteers who reach out with their networks.

“Our campaign is not going to rely on paid staffers, we’re going to rely on prominent members of the Alaska native community going and spreading Dan’s message, and there’s nothing more effective that that.”

Both campaigns say nothing replaces having the candidates meet with voters in person.  Begich visited in July to open his Bethel office and travelled downriver a few miles to the village of Napaskiak. Sullivan has not made it in person during the campaign, but his team say he will be here soon.

Sen. Begich did the next best thing on KYUK’s Friday talk line show.

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist who currently serves as the Atwood Chair of Journalism at the University of Alaska Anchorage and is writing extensively about the Alaska Native vote this year.  He expects millenials – those voters roughly between the age of 18 and 33 – to be a pivotal force and social media to play a big role in the Alaska native vote.

“This won’t be a traditionally fought election, it will be based on turnout,” Trahant says. “And whichever candidate can build a better list of people to turn out is going to be the one who wins. ”

Back on the ground in Bethel, the conversation between Guinn and Angaiak isn’t restricted to the future partisan makeup of the Senate.

“I wasn’t sure why you were coming here, I posted on Facebook that I had a hummingbird in my yard so I’ve had all of these people come by,” Guinn says.

After an hour of door-to-door, Angaiak calls it a day.

“There’s something different happing this year, and that is this coordinated campaign, making sure they know what to do, getting staff out and about to the communities is really really important and impressive and i think it’s the way to go. It’s a different way of running a campaign.”

But in a year in which she expects the election to come down to minuscule numbers of votes, she plans to be canvassing again soon.