ANCHORAGE — Alaska, a state known for its beauty and its bears, garnered national attention this year for its high-profile political campaigns.
One election could decide which party controls the U.S. Senate. Another could shake up the state Capitol by sending an independent to the governor’s office. Voters will choose a U.S. representative and decide whether to raise the minimum wage and require legislative approval of the controversial Pebble Mine project.
Oh, and there’s also a vote on whether to legalize marijuana.
First-term Democratic Sen. Mark Begich is facing a strong challenge from Republican former state Attorney General Dan Sullivan, but they aren’t the only ones in the race. There’s also Libertarian Mark Fish, non-affiliated perennial candidate Ted Gianoutsos and at least four politically unknown write-in challengers.
Begich sought to have Fish included in debates in what he said was an effort to allow Alaskans to hear from a more diverse range of voices. But Sullivan’s campaign saw it as an effort to try to pull votes from their candidate. Fish shared the stage with the two together once.
The race has become the most expensive in Alaska history, with a lot at stake: Republicans need to pick up six seats nationally to win control of the Senate, and saw Begich as vulnerable. Begich and Sullivan alone raised more than $17.5 million. That doesn’t include the tens of millions spent by outside interest groups.
Begich played up his lifelong Alaska roots while casting Sullivan as an outsider with shallow knowledge of important state issues and rich parents and surrogates trying to “buy” him a Senate seat. Begich distanced himself from President Barack Obama, who lost the state by wide margins in 2008 and 2012, and touted his work across party lines, notably with Alaska’s senior senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski. Murkowski — in line to take over the Senate energy committee if Republicans take over — implored him to knock it off, and backed Sullivan.
Sullivan, like Republicans in other states, sought to tie Begich to Obama and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid at seemingly every opportunity. An Ohio native, Sullivan has roots in Alaska dating to the 1990s, when he moved here with his wife, an Alaska Native. He was away from the state for nearly seven years to work in the White House and serve overseas in the military, returning in 2009, when he was appointed attorney general. He later served as Natural Resources commissioner.
Republican Gov. Sean Parnell, widely considered a favorite for re-election just three months ago, is now the underdog.
His major challengers, independent Bill Walker and Democrat Byron Mallott, joined forces after the primary, with Mallott and Democrats putting aside their gubernatorial ambitions to join a ticket seen as giving Parnell a stronger challenge. Parnell also has been mired in a scandal over his response to allegations of sexual assault and other misconduct within the Alaska National Guard.
Since statehood, Alaska has only had one third-party governor, Wally Hickel, representing the Alaskan Independence Party. Walker, a Hickel protege, changed his party affiliation from Republican to undeclared as part of this run.
Voters in Alaska and Oregon are deciding whether to join Washington and Colorado in legalizing and regulating recreational use of marijuana.
The pro-pot forces outspent the opposition by a huge margin, funded largely by a national group that backs legalization, the Marijuana Policy Project.
Supporters of Ballot Measure 2 said legalization would free up law enforcement to focus on more serious drug crimes and bring in additional revenue for the state. Opponents, including local governments and Alaska Native and health care groups, worried about the effect of mass marketing on kids.
The most recent attempt to legalize pot in Alaska failed in 2004.
U.S. Rep. Don Young ran into a few snags — many of his own doing — during his bid for a 22nd term.
Young, the longest serving Republican in the House, over the last year has made headlines more for gaffes than his work. The latest were comments he made to high school students — who recently lost one of their own to suicide — saying lack of support from family and friends contributed to people killing themselves. He later apologized.
Young far outraised his Democratic challenger, 30-year-old Forrest Dunbar, but caught flack for his dismissive treatment of Dunbar during a major fisheries debate, in which Dunbar held his own against Young.
The Ivy League-educated Dunbar has run a buzzworthy, social media-centered campaign, with the tagline “Run Forrest Run” and crisscrossed the state.
Forrest Nabors, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alaska Anchorage, called Dunbar “the best candidate running for anything this year,” but he also thought it would be hard to knock off Young.