BARROW — Three children whiz by on a snowmobile as Gabe Tegoseak, crunching through icy streets in the town that’s as far north as you can go and still be in the United States, is hunting for votes.
He’s tired after a late night spent butchering one of three bowhead whales that subsistence hunters towed in from the pewter-colored waters of the Chukchi Sea. Slabs of blubber cover front yards all over town, and Tegoseak has some whale of his own to cut up and cook at home.
But not yet. There is an election coming soon, and doors await his knock. Harold Snowball answers one of them.
“Are you a Republican or Democrat, do you mind if I ask?” says Tegoseak. Snowball thinks he’s a registered Democrat but says he votes for who he believes will do a better job. In this case, that will probably be Alaska’s Democratic U.S. senator, Mark Begich.
“Yeah!” Tegoseak says with a fist pump, and later makes a note of this on a spreadsheet.
It takes 22 hours and four connections to get from Washington to Barrow, a place where the sun will set two weeks after Election Day and not rise for two months. Gas is $7 a gallon, off-brand milk nearly $11. Polar bears sometimes prowl the edge of town. The roads are dirt, because pavement won’t make it through the cold of winter, and the shortcut to downtown is a path across a frozen lagoon.
This is the Alaska bush, home to the hardest political ground game in America. And this election season, Republicans need to pick up six seats to win control of the U.S. Senate. They like their chances in Alaska. So, too, do Democrats, who are investing in an unprecedented effort in rural Alaska to get out the vote.
Though independent voters make up the largest voting bloc in the state, Republicans have expanded their edge over Democrats in registered voters since 2008, when Begich carried rural Alaska on his way to defeating Sen. Ted Stevens by less than 4,000 votes.
This time Begich faces former state Attorney General Dan Sullivan, who has largely focused his get-out-the-vote efforts in the state’s more populated areas, such as Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau. Sullivan, nevertheless, visited Barrow and its 4,700 residents as part of a recent rural swing, and has won the endorsement of leaders of the locally based Arctic Slope Regional Corp., with 11,000 shareholders primarily of native Inupiat descent.
“Begich doesn’t have rural support sewn up,” said Kyle Kohli, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
Begich has racked up endorsements from Alaska Native and fishermen’s groups, key constituencies. But in places like Barrow, it’s the door-to-door, face-to-face interactions that can make the difference, and why the ground game — no matter how arduous — matters so much.
Tegoseak, 29, was born in Barrow, moved away after high school and returned in the last two years with hopes of providing an opportunity for his young daughter to reconnect with their Inupiaq culture. He worries about drilling offshore and what that could mean for the whale hunts. Begich, he says, won him over with a measured approach to drilling and his support of alternative energy.
Now, Tegoseak is one of roughly 40 paid state Democratic Party employees working across rural Alaska to re-elect Begich.
They have an office — a rented two-story house — but Tegoseak often works out of a Ford Ranger with duct tape on the steering column, a hula girl on the dashboard, Marlboros on the floor and a dog-eared Begich sticker on the glove box. He worried when Begich was in town a few months back that he would have trouble unbuckling the sometimes sticky passenger-side seatbelt. (He didn’t.)
“It’s exciting that people in this small community could shape America,” Tegoseak said. “But it’s true.”
He set up recently at his usual spot, the entrance to AC, the main general store in town, his small table tucked between some carts and a man peddling jewelry. He tacked up handmade signs reading “Are you a whaler?” and “Vote Early.” But hunters had scored another whale, so, Tegoseak said, “I expect it to be dead.”
“Hey, are you registered?” he called out to a guy he wrestled with growing up. “I’m good,” the man responded, hustling out. Tegoseak made a note to follow up. He tried making eye contact with everyone who passed. Some avoided it. An old friend invited him to church.
Tegoseak doesn’t lead with the Senate race when asking people if they’re registered. He sometimes mentions that voters in Alaska also will decide next month whether to legalize recreational use of marijuana, in case that helps get people to the polls.
Amid the whale hunts and a recent election for borough mayor, a lot of the people Tegoseak meets believe voting is done for the year. Or they just haven’t been paying all that much attention.
After an hour at the AC, Tegoseak packed up. Time to go house-to-house.
“Hello, Beverly? It’s Gabe,” he called out at the door of Beverly and Patrick Hugo, both 61. She welcomed him in, reminding him to take off his snow-covered shoes. Patrick was flipping through mail. “Dan Sullivan’s in the trash can,” he said, disposing of a Sullivan mailer.
On the wall, amid family portraits, was a photo of Patrick with Alaska’s senior senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski. In 2010, Alaska Natives formed a political action committee to support Murkowski’s write-in bid after she lost her primary to tea party favorite Joe Miller. The Hugos were among her supporters. They also support Begich.
Tegoseak asked if they would like to vote early. “When is the election? Nov. 7?” Beverly said. Nov. 4, Tegoseak reminded her, before persuading both to fill out a request for an absentee ballot. They made small talk as ads attacking Begich flashed on TV during the 6 o’clock news.
“How’s your dad?” Patrick asked. “He’s still my dad, still acting like he’s 20-something,” Tegoseak said.
He offered to bring by some whale for the couple, a common gesture in the community. “You know where we live,” Patrick responded in thanks, as Tegoseak headed out. “You’re welcome to visit any time.”
“With elders, you have to have conversations,” Tegoseak later explained. “You may not have much time, but their time is important.”
With the day quickly fading, Tegoseak headed to his truck to get in a few calls and dialed Mike Shults, a local tour guide who favors camouflage clothing and wears a necklace made of polar bear and walrus teeth.
Tegoseak had heard that Shults was leaning toward Begich. Instead, he got an earful. Shults voted for Begich in 2008 but said he believed Republicans would do a better job addressing spending and taking on Islamic State militants. Point by point, he laid out why a change in leadership was needed as Tegoseak interjected where he could.
In the end, Tegoseak knew he wouldn’t sway him. Shults, it turned out, already had his absentee ballot.
“But that’s the beauty of all of this,” Tegoseak said. “That people can engage, really … for things they feel passionate about.”
He headed back to the office, with hopes of getting home early enough to be able to work on his slice of the whale, before starting another day looking for more votes for Begich.