Can Dan Sullivan hang on in the tightening Alaska Senate race?

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) spent a good portion of the five-week August Senate recess driving through Alaska and meeting with voters in an effort to boost his profile ahead of his November reelection battle. “I’ve been getting out with my wife,” he said in an interview with Jewish Insider as he drove north from Anchorage to the Matanuska-Susitna Valley on a recent September afternoon.

“We’ve covered well over 1,000 miles in my truck,” added Sullivan, estimating that he had interacted with approximately 2,000 voters at outdoor campaign events and rallies during his peregrinations through Alaska. “We were all over the state.”

The Republican senator is well aware that he needs to work hard to defend his seat this cycle. In 2014, the first-time candidate narrowly defeated the incumbent Democrat, Sen. Mark Begich, by just three points. 

Now, the roles have been reversed as Sullivan prepares to go up against a formidable challenger, Al Gross, an independent allied with Democratic Party leaders who has picked up traction in the state.

Though polls from June and July suggested that Sullivan, 55, was comfortably ahead of Gross, recent numbers have indicated that the race may be tightening. A Public Policy Polling survey, conducted in late August, found that Sullivan and Gross — both of whom have raked in millions of dollars in campaign donations — were tied with 43% of the vote.

The race has become increasingly acrimonious in recent weeks as the two candidates have traded barbs in an ongoing series of attack ads. A possible Supreme Court nomination and an in-state mining scandal have added to the high stakes in a contest that is drawing national media attention as well as significant outside spending.

Gross has run a strong campaign, experts say, casting himself as a political outsider in a state that favors them. The 57-year-old Jewish doctor has sought to play up his background as a commercial fisherman and gold prospector. Gross, who was born and raised in Alaska, is also an outsider of another sort: He was the first to have a bar mitzvah in the state’s southeastern portion. (His parents flew in a rabbi for the ceremony.) 

But despite his status as an independent, the playing field is still unfavorable to Gross in historically red Alaska, whose top elected officials are currently all Republicans. 

Gross’s odds further decreased last week when the Alaska Supreme Court rejected an appeal to reprint ballots to include candidates’ party affiliations and not only list how they got elected — meaning Gross, who ran in the Democratic primary, will likely be identified as a Democratic nominee rather than as an independent, which could diminish his prospects at the polls.

Sen. Dan Sullivan speaks to constituents. (Courtesy)

“Gross is fighting well and will likely capture a portion of the vote, but I have yet to see a key indicator that he is likely to win,” Amy Lauren Lovecraft, a professor of political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, told JI. “Sullivan just hasn’t had any large missteps that would turn his base against him or cause new folks to vote for him rather than his competition.”

Sullivan remains confident that he can win over voters, accusing his opponent of hoodwinking Alaskans by not adhering to any party affiliation as he campaigns for office. 

“He’s telling people he’s an independent, but then he’s caught on a national fundraiser telling people that he’s going to caucus with the Democrats,” Sullivan scoffed, implying that Gross was only running as an independent because it was politically expedient. “His values are to the left.”

In the interview with JI, Sullivan took aim at his opponent’s healthcare proposals — Gross supports a public option for Medicare — but reserved his harshest criticism for Gross’s foreign policy views, particularly on Iran. 

Gross opposed President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement and believes the United States should be brought back into compliance with the deal.

“I saw my opponent said he thought it was bad that we pulled out,” Sullivan said, alluding to a June interview with JI in which Gross expressed his disapproval of Trump’s abandonment of the deal. “I couldn’t disagree more.”

Sullivan declared that one of the primary reasons he decided to run for Senate in 2014 was because he so strongly disapproved of former President Barack Obama’s approach to Iran. 

“The appeasement that was going on with regard to Iran was shocking, it was dangerous, and it was something that I thought was not only bad for America but very bad for our most important ally in the Middle East — and that’s Israel,”  Sullivan told JI. 

Sullivan, who has not travelled to Israel during his time as a senator, touts his record when it comes to the Jewish state. He is, along with the majority of Senate members, a co-sponsor of a proposed bill, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which would give states permission to require that companies pledge not to boycott Israel. Sullivan said he signed on to the bill because he regards the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as part of a rising tide of antisemitism in the U.S.

“Part of the reason I was one of the original cosponsors of that was to show that, at least from the Congress’s perspective, we don’t find that acceptable,” he said, adding his disagreement that the act would infringe on free-speech rights. “I think it’s important to send a signal from the Congress of the United States that those movements on boycotting Israel are completely unacceptable.”

Dan Sullivan picture
Sullivan and his wife, Julie. (Courtesy)

The first-term senator previously worked as commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and as Alaska’s attorney general. Before that, the Ohio-born Republican served as an assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs in the George W. Bush administration. Sullivan, who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2013, is now a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve.

“When I got to the Senate, I didn’t need to be educated on the importance of the U.S.-Israeli relationship,” Sullivan said. “I also certainly didn’t need to be educated on the threat that the terrorist regime in Tehran posed to Israel and posed to the United States.”

His experience in the State Department, where he worked from 2006 to 2009, molded his view of international relations and diplomacy. 

During that time, he told JI, he helped push for Israel’s inclusion in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and traveled the globe as part of an effort to convince America’s allies, including France, Germany, Norway and Japan, to divest from the Iranian oil and gas sector.

Sullivan commended Trump’s actions with regard to Iran, singling out his decision to assassinate Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, whom the senator regarded as a grave threat to the security of American troops in the Middle East. 

“As soon as I got to the Senate, I started giving speeches about this guy Soleimani,” Sullivan said. “I’ve talked to the president numerous times about him. I’ve talked to the senior military. What the United States did with regard to the strike against Soleimani is that we reestablished deterrence,” Sullivan added. “This is really hard.”

Sullivan believes Trump’s tough posture toward Iran has helped the United States in brokering recent agreements between Israel and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. 

Sullivan on the campaign trail. (Courtesy)

“Most of this, of course, is driven by the recognition that the biggest threat in the region, whether it’s to Israel, or to Saudi Arabia, or to the UAE, is Iran,” Sullivan said. “The Trump administration has been very steady and focused on this in a way that has dramatically shifted the narrative,” he told JI, “in a way that, I think, takes advantage of the changing circumstances on the ground in a really important way.”

Sullivan added his concern that Trump’s diplomatic achievements would be in jeopardy if Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden — who has said he will reenter the Iran nuclear deal — is elected in November. “He would be undermining this progress,” Sullivan said. 

“This is what is at stake with regard to this election,” the senator concluded.

Sullivan can at least remain hopeful that he will hold onto his seat even if Trump isn’t reelected, though he told JI that he is operating on the assumption that he needs to run an aggressive campaign nonetheless. 

“Alaska, from my perspective, is a lot more purple than red,” Sullivan said. 

Ivan Moore, a veteran pollster who runs Alaska Survey Research in Anchorage, agreed with Sullivan’s appraisal of the state’s political makeup. 

“I think he’s still the favorite, but there is the potential for an upset,” said Moore, adding that the state has been trending purple in recent years as young transplants who aren’t interested in working in the energy sector move to the state.

While Sullivan appears somewhat vulnerable this cycle, Moore predicted that he would hold onto his seat. But whether that will be the case six years from now remains to be seen.

“The days when a Republican could run a weak campaign, not really pay much attention to it and still win by 10 or 15 points,” Moore told JI, “are kind of a thing of the past.”

Alaska Senate candidate Al Gross hopes his outsider status will propel him to D.C.

Al Gross is an ideal Senate candidate — at least by Alaskan standards. 

The 57-year-old former orthopedic surgeon entered the state’s Democratic primary race last summer as an independent. In an introductory ad, a gravelly voice-over narration touted his rugged background as a commercial fisherman, itinerant ocean hitchhiker and gold prospector who once killed a grizzly bear in self-defense. (It snuck up on him while he was duck hunting some 40 miles south of Juneau.)

Gross’s compelling story has caught the attention of the national media as he competes in the state’s August 18 primary for the chance to challenge first-term Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan in November. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report recently upgraded the race from “solid” to “likely Republican,” giving the Democrats a glimmer of hope as the party attempts to flip the Senate in November.

Though Gross is running as an independent, he has support from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), who attended Amherst College with Gross, offered an enthusiastic assessment of his former classmate in a statement to Jewish Insider

“He’s a lifelong Alaskan with a deep understanding of the complex policies that impact our environment, our healthcare system and our place in the global community,” Coons said in his statement. “Al is informed, passionate and will legislate in a responsible and progressive way to protect Alaskans — and all Americans. He will be a valuable ally who supports a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. He’s a different kind of candidate, and he will be a strong voice in the U.S. Senate.”

Gross is confident that he can defy the odds and oust Sullivan this cycle, pointing out that Alaskan voters have a strong tendency to favor independent candidates. The Alaskan-born candidate’s father, Avrum Gross, was a Democratic attorney general who served under Alaskan Gov. Jay Hammond, a Republican who represented the state from 1974 to 1982 and whom Gross described as a “role model and a friend” during his formative years. 

“That relationship and friendship is why I registered as an independent when I was 18,” Gross told JI in an interview, “because it was always about working together for the betterment of the state.” 

Gross, who is Jewish, has long felt like an outsider in a state that takes pride in them. His bar mitzvah, he said, was the first ever in southeast Alaska — his parents flew in a rabbi for the ceremony — and there were only a few Jewish kids in his Juneau high school. 

“I’ve been a minority, and that’s what I’ve known since I was a young kid,” he said. “We joke that we’re the ‘frozen chosen’ and the ‘extreme diaspora’ up here.”

He got the chance to explore his “cultural heritage,” as he described it, after graduating from high school in 1980, when he took a year off to travel and work odd jobs. During that time, he spent four months in Israel, three of them volunteering on Kibbutz Gat in southern Israel. 

“Spending those four months in Israel really had a profound effect on me,” Gross said, “coming from the biggest state in the country to one of the smallest countries in the world and seeing and understanding the security concerns of Israel.”

“It made me feel a part of a larger community,” he added. “It made me understand some of the issues that I’d been reading about from afar and seeing what Jews throughout the world were going through, and I’ve carried that knowledge back home to Alaska as an adult.”

When it comes to geopolitical dynamics in the region, Gross supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, arguing that President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have taken a unilateral approach that he sees as ineffective. 

“It’s critical that the Palestinians be part of that discussion,” Gross said. 

Gross has similar complaints about Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. 

“I was very disheartened to see Trump pull out of the JCPOA,” he told JI. “I think we should go back into negotiations with the Iranians to ensure that they do not develop a nuclear weapon. But we need to go back to the table with them and negotiate with them, rather than just unilaterally pull out of a prearranged agreement.”

Al Gross family photo
Al Gross, his wife, Monica, and their four children. (Facebook)

Gross believes that antisemitism is alive and well, even in a remote state like Alaska. 

“It’s something that we can’t ignore, and it’s something we’re going to be living with, probably, well into the future,” he said. In high school, he said, his son experienced antisemitism when a classmate wrote the word “Jew” on the back of his jacket in black magic marker. “Just when you think there isn’t any antisemitism, it rears its ugly head.”

“I’m not convinced that legislation by itself is going to solve the problem,” he said. “I think education is the best place to start. People are fearful of the unknown, and I think a lot of people don’t understand what the Jewish religion is or what Jewish people are like, and they’re afraid of them.”

If elected, Gross would be the second Jewish senator from Alaska in a state that has only had eight senators since it achieved statehood in 1959. The first was Ernest Gruening, who served from 1959 to 1969.

Though the coronavirus pandemic has hobbled campaigns across the U.S., Gross avers that his message has only become more relevant in the crisis. He left his profession in 2013, got a masters in public health and now advocates for lower healthcare costs.

“I felt like I had a wide open avenue to race with my platform long before COVID-19 came along,” he said. “Now that we’re in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, it really underscores the need to address some of the healthcare problems that we have in our country and to send people to the Senate who have an understanding of our healthcare system.”

Gross believes he is in tune with the concerns of everyday Alaskans. “I think I have some really good ideas as to how to develop an economy that succeeds in Alaska — that isn’t so critically dependent on natural resource extraction,” Gross said. “Dan Sullivan has nothing other than the status quo to offer, which isn’t working.” (Sullivan’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)

In the primary, Gross is competing against Democrat Edgar Blatchford, a former Alaskan mayor and an associate professor in the department of journalism and communications at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and another independent, Chris Cumings, who previously ran for Alaska’s House at-large seat in 2018, garnering only 8% of the vote in the Democratic primary.

Al Gross
Edgar Blatchford

Blatchford and Cumings both told JI that they have largely vowed to abjure political donations, which gives Gross a sizable advantage in the primary. He has raised more than $3 million in his effort to unseat Sullivan, according to the Federal Election Commission.

While experts say Gross is very likely to win the primary, his buccaneer bonafides may not be enough to give him a victory in the fall. 

“He ticks a lot of boxes,” said Amy Lauren Lovecraft, a professor of political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. But, she added, while Gross has strong and prominent advertising, “the odds are just against Al” in a state that consistently trends red and that went for Trump by nearly 15 percentage points in 2016.  

Forrest Nabors, a political scientist at the University of Alaska Anchorage, was also skeptical that Gross would emerge victorious in the general election, using a baseball analogy to suggest that he wouldn’t bet on the candidate’s prospects. 

“Right now,” he said, “it’s kind of like the Yankees playing Baltimore.”

Still, there are occasions in which the Orioles beat the Yankees, and Gross is banking on such a dynamic as he enters the final four months of the race. 

“I stepped forward because I thought I could win,” he said. “The state very much will swing to the middle if the right candidate is there, and I think I’m in a position to win.”

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