Mysterious mailer boosts Alaska’s third party U.S. Senate candidate at Sullivan’s expense

A flyer boosting John Wayne Howe
The back side of a flyer sent to Alaska mailboxes recently endorses Alaska Independence Party U.S. Senate candidate John Wayne Howe and criticizes incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan. (Nat Herz/Alaska Public Media)

Mysterious last-minute political mailers have arrived in Alaskans’ mailboxes seeking to boost an obscure third party candidate at the expense of Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan.

John Wayne Howe, a Fairbanks machinist running as the Alaska Independence Party candidate in the U.S. Senate campaign, finished a distant third in last month’s New York Times poll of the race, with just 10%.

But it appears that allies of Al Gross, the Democratic Party-endorsed independent in the race, see Howe as a possible spoiler for Sullivan and are now trying to boost him among conservative-leaning voters at Sullivan’s expense.

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A super PAC called Protecting Our Values sent a mailer in recent days that attacked Sullivan as “Washington’s top spender” and questioned his GOP loyalty by noting a rare case in which he lightly criticized President Donald Trump — calling his trade policy “misguided.”

The flip side of the mailer endorses Howe, saying he’ll cut taxes and help Trump crack down on China.

“Alaskans deserve a leader who’s fighting on their side,” the mailer says. “Vote John Wayne Howe for Senate.”

Protecting Our Values has reported spending $163,000 on its efforts to attack Sullivan; it’s also spent money in U.S. Senate races in Maine and Mississippi, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.

It was created less than a month ago, and its founders have not yet reported any of its donors. But it’s clear the super PAC is linked to the heavy spending in Alaska from progressive and Democratic groups that are trying to get Gross elected, said Sullivan’s campaign manager, Matt Shuckerow.

The reverse side of the flyer criticizes incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan. (Nat Herz/Alaska Public Media)

“If they know people are not going to vote for their candidate, they’re going to do everything they can to encourage them not to vote for Dan Sullivan,” Shuckerow said.

In a phone interview earlier this week, Howe said he’d been unaware that outside groups were sending mailers on his behalf. But he agreed with Shuckerow’s analysis.

“Politics is a dirty thing. And while I’m trying to get all the votes that I can, I also know that there’s people that think the more votes that I get, the more votes go away from Dan Sullivan,” Howe said. “There’s games being played everywhere.”

It’s rare, but far from unprecedented, for campaigns to invoke a third party candidate in an attempt to split votes off from an opponent.

In 2014, Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Mark Begich ran ads highlighting his shared beliefs with Libertarian candidate Mark Fish, as well as their differences with Sullivan — in an apparent attempt to both claim some of Fish’s voters for Begich, and to convince some of Sullivan’s supporters to abandon him for Fish.

And in South Carolina this year, the Democratic candidate in the U.S. Senate race, Jaime Harrison, is running ads attempting to boost the conservative credentials of a third party candidate at the expense of incumbent Republican Lindsey Graham — even though the third party candidate has quit the race and endorsed Graham.