Alaska is an unlikely chink in Senate Republicans’ armor as they fight to hold onto their majority in the chamber.
Senate Republicans are defending 23 seats on Nov. 3, and Democrats only need to gain three to four seats to clinch control, depending on whether President Trump or Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden wins at the top of the ticket.
The Alaska Senate race between first-term Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan and independent political novice Al Gross wasn’t originally considered a GOP vulnerability.
The Sullivan-Gross contest is rated as likely Republican by the Cook Political Report and RealClearPolitics after Trump dominated in Alaska four years ago by almost 15 percentage points and 51% of the vote. But recent polls suggest Gross, an orthopedic surgeon and commercial fisherman whose father was the state’s attorney general, is surging, with less than 30 days to go before Election Day.
Alaska is a notoriously difficult state to poll, given its small population and lack of telecommunications infrastructure.
An Alaska Survey Research poll published in July found Sullivan was 13 points ahead of Gross. But other surveys released put Sullivan in front by single-digits, including one last week that gave the former Marine, state attorney general, and Alaska Department of Natural Resources commissioner a 1-point edge.
That narrow margin is similar to the senator’s 2014 election, which he won by 2 points, or 6,000 votes, after a bid that blasted the Obama administration for overreach.
Gross also barely lags Sullivan in fundraising. Gross, who is the Democratic nominee despite still being registered as an independent, raised $5.2 million as of July 31 while Sullivan raised $7.8 million. He brought in an additional $3 million alone during the three days after Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death.
While Gross is backed by Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, anti-Trump PAC the Lincoln Project, and an outside group called Independent Alaska that’s been linked to national Democrats, Sullivan has Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s support. McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund has invested $1.6 million in Sullivan.
Sullivan’s been endorsed by Sen. Lisa Murkowski. The Alaska Republican has bolstered her colleague in the state, particularly after reports that Sullivan told a former mining executive he was behind a controversial project but declined to do so in public.
University of Alaska Anchorage political science professor Forrest Nabors said coronavirus-related shutdowns and the economy were the race’s most pressing issues because the state has had few COVID-19 deaths.
“Sullivan is emphasizing what he has done to bring relief and to Alaska,” he said of voters who have traditionally rewarded state loyalty over party loyalty when reelecting incumbents.
Gross, a pro-gun nominee who on his website celebrates killing a bear, has been underscoring his independent status in ads, according to Nabors. Gross, who has indicated he’ll caucus with Democrats, has pointed to Sullivan’s record of siding with Trump when the majority of Alaskans are registered as nonpartisan or are unaffiliated.
“In his ads, Sen. Sullivan is painting Gross as a liberal who is a disguised Dem,” Nabors said.
National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Joanna Rodriguez echoed the sentiment, describing Gross as “a complete fraud intent on misleading Alaska voters.”
“Gross is officially bought and paid for by extreme liberals, and if given the chance, he’ll go to Washington and be a rubber stamp for their agenda to eliminate private health insurance, wipe out Alaska’s oil and gas industry, raise taxes, and defund law enforcement,” she said.
While the Sullivan-Gross race flies under the radar, contests, such as that of Democrat Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, have picked up more attention.
Jones will likely lose his election against Republican Tommy Tuberville, the former Auburn University football coach. Meanwhile, Republican Sens. Martha McSally of Arizona and Cory Gardner of Colorado are on the precipice of being defeated by Democrats. Arizona astronaut Mark Kelly and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, both Democrats, have significant polling advantages.
Toss-up races deemed too close to call include that of Republican Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa, Susan Collins of Maine, Steve Daines of Montana, and Thom Tillis in North Carolina, as well as David Perdue’s regularly scheduled Georgia contest.
Democrats enter the final stretch with strong fundraising numbers.
Texas Democrat MJ Hegar raised $13.5 million in the three months ending Sept. 30 for her race against Republican Sen. John Cornyn. The Air Force veteran and teacher trails the former Texas attorney general and judge by an average of 8 points, according to RealClearPolitics.
Georgia Democrat Raphael Warnock brought in almost $13 million during the same period for his state’s special election. Appointed Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler leads the 21-contender field in the lean-Republican contest by an average of 2.5 points.
Michigan Democratic Sen. Gary Peters hauled in more than $14 million, “easily a record for a Democratic Senate candidate in Michigan.” Peters is 3.8 points ahead of Army veteran and businessman John James, a Republican, in the lean-Democratic race.