Alaskans are already voting in the special U.S. House race. But the campaign is only just starting.
By Nathaniel Herz
Ana Hoffman is a corporate executive, tribal leader and church volunteer, with no shortage of stuff to do in this Southwest Alaska hub town of 6,500.
But as ballots began going out last week for an unprecedented, by-mail, 48-person special election for Alaska’s U.S. House seat, Hoffman was struck by how quiet things were. Candidates were still largely absent from the airwaves, and residents were more focused on spring break-up related tasks — not who would be their sole representative in U.S. Congress.
“People are busy putting away their snowmachines and winter gear and getting ready for summer,” Hoffman said. “We’re not, mentally, in the election mode. It’s out of season.”
But the federal government has huge power over the lives of rural residents, on issues like transportation, fish and wildlife management and global warming. So Hoffman, the chief executive of Bethel’s Native village corporation and a co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives, took it upon herself to convene a forum — one of the few public events on the Congressional campaign trail so far.
Former Gov. Sarah Palin and Native leaders Mary Peltola, Tara Sweeney and Emil Notti confirmed, and Hoffman lined up event space and a sound system. A week later, the candidates were set to hash out infrastructure policy and abortion rights in a hotel conference room before an audience of 40.
The do-it-yourself event was a sort of embodiment of the U.S. House race to date, which, with its lightning-fast timeline, mid-spring date and huge field, has left candidates scrambling for money and attention.
As of Sunday, hundreds of thousands of ballots had been mailed to voters, and thousands have already been returned. But not a single candidate had begun running ads on TV — and just a few had raised enough cash to pay for widespread radio ads, mailers and paid social media campaigns.
“My wife will tell you there is a lot of angst, because there doesn’t appear to be much to do,” said Jeff Lowenfels, the gardening columnist and energy lawyer running as an independent.
Lowenfels is one of roughly a dozen candidates running a conventional campaign for U.S. House. He’s paid for radio ads in urban centers, scheduled a couple of Zoom events, and timed a flier billing him as “so much more than a gardener” to land in mailboxes just before ballots did.
But he’s still bemused about how unoccupied he is for someone running a serious campaign for statewide office.
“There aren’t a lot of functions to go to and debate with anybody, and show you’re different,” Lowenfels said. He said he’s spending a lot of time meandering around his Anchorage neighborhood on foot, where he’ll find someone gardening to “chit-chat a little bit about the election.”
Cash and time are tight
Alaska’s special U.S. House race was set for June 11 — the last date ballots can be postmarked — after the sudden death in March of Don Young, who held the seat for 49 years.
Candidates to replace him emerged from all corners of the state. There were Native and tribal leaders, Palin, the former governor, veteran Republican and Democratic politicians, fringe candidates — and Santa Claus, a democratic socialist who serves on the city council in the Interior town of North Pole who changed his name from Thomas O’Connor in 2005.
Adding to the election’s novelty, it’s the first one held under a new system of voting that Alaskans approved in a 2020 citizens initiative.
The measure eliminated the state’s partisan primary system, so all 48 candidates are appearing on the same ballot. The top four advance to the general election, which uses a new system called ranked choice voting.
Most candidates filed on the April 1 deadline, leaving them with just over eight weeks to mount a statewide campaign.
A few of the politicians in the race, like Palin and independent Al Gross — who ran a multi-million dollar, unsuccessful U.S. Senate in 2020 — already command substantial name recognition and fundraising platforms.
But most don’t. And it’s not easy to raise cash when you’re competing with 47 other candidates. Privately, some said that many donors are sitting on the sidelines in the lead-up to the special primary in June, and waiting to see how the field narrows down.
Notti, the Native elder, said he paid for his own plane ticket to the Bethel forum.
State Rep. Adam Wool, a Democrat, said his fundraising haul of some $10,000 so far was only enough for radio ads in his hometown of Fairbanks, where he’s hoping to run up enough votes from his base to squeak into the top four.
“I don’t have enough money to spend a bunch in Anchorage,” he said.
Wool traveled to the Alaska Democratic Party convention in Seward this past weekend. But he stayed only briefly, citing the lack of a forum or debate for candidates to address each other directly.
Wool also bemoaned the absence of any high-profile events on statewide radio or television — there have been none so far — though he’s also not writing himself off, as he’s seen candidates win elections on a shoestring before.
“If the circumstances are right — and this might be one of those situations — the stars might align,” he said.
Advisors working for Peltola, who’s also a Democrat, say her campaign will be one of the first to run statewide television commercials, which are set to debut this week. Gross’ campaign is also set to launch its first TV commercials in the next few days, spending at a rate of $110,000 a week, advisors said.
Gross has already raised more than $1 million for his campaign, with help from the fundraising platform he built up in his 2020 U.S. Senate race. But Peltola’s platform is far smaller.
That makes her decision to launch TV ads, at a cost of $19,000, a bit of a risk. But rates are lower right now because there’s no demand from other candidates; the gamble could help Peltola stand out and ultimately raise more cash, her advisors said.
“We think that if progressives find out who Mary is, she’s exactly the kind of candidate they’ve been looking for,” said John-Henry Heckendorn, whose Ship Creek Group consulting firm is working on Peltola’s campaign. “It made sense to try let them know that there’s a candidate that they could be excited about, as quickly as possible.”
Nine of the leading candidates will appear at a more mainstream forum at Anchorage’s convention hall this week, which is sponsored by oil, mining, construction, fishing, forestry and tourism trade groups, among others.
Until now, though, most events have looked more like the one held last week by the University of Alaska Fairbanks student government.
Organizer George Thomas, a 45-year-old Los Angeles resident who finished his online political science degree this spring, said he sent nearly a dozen emails prodding each candidate to participate. The group ultimately held three consecutive 90-minute debates on Zoom, with 10 candidates apiece, and no audience except for a few campaign staffers and journalists. The student government plans to publish transcripts and recordings later.
“It was like a military mission to get this to happen,” Thomas said.
Alaska Republicans, meanwhile, held a five-member congressional forum for party faithful at their convention in Fairbanks last month, and Democrats invited U.S. House candidates to give short speeches at their convention in Seward.
Mark Begich, the Democratic former U.S. senator-turned-businessman and lobbyist, is convening his own Zoom forums this week; he’s inviting roughly 1,000 people by email, according to an invitation shared with a participating campaign.
Begich, who did a similar set of events for last year’s Anchorage mayoral race, recruited eight to 10 candidates to pitch themselves in 30-minute blocks, with “no gotcha questions” and a chance to ask for donations, the invitation says.
Meanwhile, Chris Bye, one of two Libertarian Party candidates, last weekend took his campaign to Anchorage’s Arctic Comic Con, which calls itself the state’s largest comic book and pop culture convention.
Bye dressed, with eerie verisimilitude, to a pirate character from the cult classic movie “The Princess Bride.” He did a ranked-choice voting demonstration where convention attendees were asked to choose from movie stars and superheroes.
“We had Senator Palpatine and Petyr Balish, and we had Deadpool and we had Aragorn from ‘Lord of the Rings,’ ” Bye said. “The winner was going to go on to be the supreme leader of the Metaverse.” (Spoiler alert: Aragorn won, with Deadpool’s alter ego a distant second.)
‘It’s really quiet’
At the Bethel event Friday, a flight delay forced the cancellation of a hospital tour planned for the candidates before the forum. Then, as the fog refused to lift, Palin canceled, leaving only Sweeney arriving on the midday jet — Peltola lives in Bethel and Notti flew in the night before.
Time was tight: The sound system was due at a late afternoon festival celebrating the previous day’s breakup of the ice on the Kuskokwim River, which flows past town. As they waited, Hoffman asked Notti to reminisce about his work helping to pass the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in the early 1970s, and a volunteer walked through the process of filling out by-mail ballots.
Outside the conference room, audience members mused about how little they’d been hearing from candidates.
“It’s really quiet — there’s no signage anywhere out in the streets,” said Perry Barr, a former Bethel mayor. “There’s no announcements from any of the candidates.”
Sweeney finally arrived just before 4 p.m. and was whisked straight to the forum.
Hoffman, the organizer, took the three participants through 45 minutes of questions on air travel, jobs, resource development, food security and abortion rights, with a live broadcast on the local public radio station, KYUK. Then it was time for a round of interviews before a pre-flight dinner at Hoffman’s home.
As she laid out the meal of moose chili, salmon dip and dried fish, Hoffman encouraged other Alaska organizations to help raise awareness about the special election, and said her efforts were worth it.
“Every part of the state is important, but sometimes the attention is spent in the urban centers. So, it’s good that the candidates had a desire to come out here to rural Alaska and bring light to issues of concern here,” Hoffman said. “We welcome people here. We value relationships. And that’s what the event was for.”
After dinner, the three candidates left for the Bethel airport for the evening flight back to Anchorage — which took off just five hours after Sweeney, a Republican, landed in town.
Sweeney’s candidacy is benefitting from a six-figure ad campaign from a super PAC, an effort led by a group of Alaska Native-owned corporations. But her own campaign hasn’t yet appeared on mass media, and, as she waited in the security line at the Bethel airport, she acknowledged that getting the message out “has been a challenge for everyone” in the race.
One of Sweeney’s unique campaign assets accompanied her to Bethel, in a cooler bag toted by a volunteer. Inside were 58 Ziploc bags filled with bowhead whale maktak: harvested by one of Sweeney’s friends in her North Slope home community of Utqiagvik, flown to Anchorage and sliced, with traditional ulu knives, by Sweeney the night before.
Sweeney handed out the bags to voters at Friday’s forum. She traded one of the last ones for some dry fish from Peltola — one of Sweeney’s rivals in the campaign.