In many ways, the Republican Party is undergoing a self-driven implosion, led by the man at the top. Large majorities of Americans (up to three quarters in some polls) are at odds with President Trump and his cronies on practically all the major issues facing the United States (like the pandemic) and dislike the way he is handling — or not handling — the incessant wave of crises engulfing the country.
Trump’s incompetence, along with his party’s slavish inability to challenge him on anything, creates opportunities for the Democratic Party across the board, and nowhere is that more clear than in the U.S. Senate. Despite the fact that the upper house of Congress is practically custom-made to advantage the Republicans (because of the disproportionate power of low-population states), the Democrats are within reach of winning a majority there for the first time in a decade.
Trump’s unpopularity is opening doors for Senate Democrats in states that would have seemed stunning only a couple of years ago.
For example, the Kansas Democrat and U.S. Senate candidate Barbara Bollier has outdone all her Republican opponents in fundraising. Although Kansas seems to have been put out of reach by Republican primary voters’ rejection of the polarizing Kris Kobach, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) has its eye on another highly unusual target: Alaska, the Last Frontier.
At first glance, Alaska’s incumbent U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan might not appear to be vulnerable. Alaska’s congressional delegation is all-Republican, and the state went for Trump by a margin of almost 15%.
Furthermore, Alaska has a history of re-electing incumbents; the state has only had eight U.S. senators since becoming a state in 1959!
The Democratic argument is that Alaskan politics cannot readily be understood by looking at the red-blue divide, but by instead focusing on candidates that suit Alaska’s unusual and very specific needs as a state. Alaskans value politicians that put loyalty to their state over loyalty to party, which could be a major problem for Dan Sullivan. Unlike Alaska’s other GOP senator, Lisa Murkowski, Sullivan rigidly backs Trump; he has voted with the President over 90% of the time.
The DSCC has chosen to exploit Sullivan’s devotion to the Trump-enabling Republican Party by supporting an independent to run against him.
Dr Al Gross has a résumé that seems custom-designed for this political moment in Alaska. He reflects Alaskans’ self-image as tough and independent, having been a commercial fisherman since the age of fourteen and having once won a fight with a grizzly bear (according to his campaign ads).
He has deep roots in Alaskan politics; his father, Avrum, was the state’s Attorney General, and Al was friends with the late Jay Hammond, Alaska’s popular governor from the 1970s and early eighties. Best of all, Gross is a practicing doctor with a master’s degree in public health, running in the midst of a pandemic.
Last month, Gross won the Democratic primary with the backing of the DSCC. Between his self-identification as an independent and the DSCC’s insistence on embracing less progressive candidates (John Hickenlooper over Andrew Romanoff, Amy McGrath over Charles Booker, Sara Gideon over Betsy Sweet), progressives have good reasons to be wary of Gross as a candidate.
However, progressive Democrats would be advised to closely examine Gross’ policy priorities. While he does not support progressive strategic initiatives such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, Dr. Gross’ policies (or “prescriptions,” as his campaign website puts it) are all refreshingly positive:
- Gross supports Medicare as a public option and allowing Medicare to negotiate to drive drug prices down.
- He supports strong unions and is himself a member of the Union of Painters and Allied Trades, Local 1959.
- He describes Alaska as “Ground Zero” of the climate crisis and supports re-entering the Paris Climate Accords.
- He supports a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United (or more accurately, Corporations United) decision.
His supporters believe that his election – Grossi is a member of Alaska’s small Jewish community – would also be a fitting denunciation of the far-right antisemitism that has risen in the wake of the 2016 election.
Gross’ platform also shows his dedication to representing Alaska’s interests.
His support for increased military spending in the state might throw progressives off at first, but it is an expedient policy to have in a state where military spending is one of the largest sectors of the economy. On healthcare, Gross supports increased funding for telemedicine, an essential service for Alaska’s many remote communities. One of the key planks of his agenda is tackling domestic and sexual abuse, problems that have reached crisis levels in Alaska.
Gross also supports increased sovereignty for Alaska Native communities.
Does Al Gross have a chance? It’s hard to tell.
A recent survey from Public Policy Polling, NPI’s primary pollster, shows Gross within 5% of Sullivan, although Alaska is infamously hard to poll accurately.
The state went for Trump by 15% in 2016, but incumbent Senator Dan Sullivan won his 2014 elecion by only 6,000 votes. Although Sullivan is far ahead in terms of fundraising, Gross has a broad coalition of backers and has raised over $4 million. As well as the DSCC, Gross has received support from the Lincoln Project, a collection of anti-Trumo Republican operatives. The Lincoln Project have run pro-Gross advertisements in Alaska, as well as boosting his profile on social media.
However, some groups that Gross had been counting on for support – most importantly, the United Fishermen of Alaska – have opted to back Sullivan.
The election may well be decided by factors completely outside the control of either candidate. In 2016, Alaska decided to automatically register all voters, which Democrats believe will greatly increase the turnout of young and minority voters. On the other hand, Trump’s recent blatant attempts to sabotage the U.S. Postal Service are likely to have a detrimental effect on how many votes will even be counted, in a state where voting by mail is likely to be prolific.