Campaigning in Alaska has a distinct feel

  • By BECKY BOHRER and NICHOLAS RICCARDI
  • Sunday, August 17, 2014 8:59pm
  • Opinion

EAGLE RIVER — Wearing a fleece vest with his name and the logo of the northwestern city of Nome, Lt. Gov Mead Treadwell walked through this Anchorage suburb on a recent night, demonstrating how Alaska’s unique political culture makes the outcome of Tuesday’s GOP Senate primary anybody’s guess.

In this remote and lightly-populated state, where residents refer to the Lower 48 as “outside,” personal connections and loyalty to Alaska matter. Treadwell and tea party favorite Joe Miller are counting on the personal, Alaska touch to level the playing field against front-runner Dan Sullivan. The former state attorney general, a relative newcomer in state politics, is backed by national GOP powerbrokers like Karl Rove and has raised $4.2 million, nearly four times as much as either rival.

As he reminds virtually every voter he’s met, Treadwell has lived in Alaska for 40 years. Rather than just relying on voter-targeting data, he knocked on doors picked by a 21-year-old intern who had gone to the local high school and knew most of the families in the subdivision. Treadwell didn’t even need to make his pitch when attorney Dan Collins opened his door.

“I guess you’ve got to work hard when you’re fighting the outsiders,” Collins, an attorney, told Treadwell, pledging his vote before the lieutenant governor headed on to the next house.

Sullivan is countering Treadwell and Miller’s homespun approach with television ads that have run for months and a sophisticated get-out-the-vote operation that includes statewide field offices, a robust roster of paid staff with national political experience and his own cadre of local volunteers. The contrast in styles will be tested Tuesday in the state’s primary, with the winner expected to face Democratic Sen. Mark Begich in November. Begich faces no serious primary challenger.

Miller, a Fairbanks attorney, defied the polls and pundits and bested incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the 2010 GOP primary, but Murkowksi ultimately triumphed in the general election through a write-in campaign. This time, Miller is again running a threadbare operation, with just four paid staff. But his supporters are a constant, rambunctious presence waving signs on street corners across the state, and he frequently joins them.

“Joe’s going to win with the enthusiasm on the ground,” said Tim Zello, a Virginia minister who met Miller on a 2012 cruise, baptized Miller’s children in the Jordan River in Israel then moved his family to Alaska to volunteer for Miller’s campaign. “That’s what the media outside here doesn’t understand. They’re going to be shocked like in 2010.”

On Friday, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin endorsed Miller, as she did in 2010.

In Eagle River, the first voter Treadwell encountered after Collins was a man he had once met at an event in the town of Cordova. Treadwell later recognized an energy worker as a former seatmate on an airline flight. He happened on one family loading their truck with fishing gear on their way to a famed salmon run south of Anchorage. Another voter pulled up in boots and camouflage, about to go caribou hunting.

After leaving the doorstep of one voter who had been torn between him and Sullivan, but eventually pledged his vote, Treadwell said: “If only we can do that 50,000 times.”

Treadwell is a protege of the late Gov. Wally Hickel. Last week he rolled out an endorsement from a four-time winner of the Iditarod dogsled race. And Treadwell is hoping to hold people to their promises to support him if he ran for another office, said Peter Christensen, a longtime friend who volunteers as his campaign manager.

Andrew Halcro, a former Republican state lawmaker, said the personal approach to elections is endearing to a lot of people.

“But endearing doesn’t win you elections,” Halcro said. “Votes do.”

In a nondescript office building where the Sullivan campaign has one of its two Anchorage offices, campaign officials aren’t relying on honks and waves to measure their success at capturing those votes.

The office is filled with the murmur of volunteers phoning likely primary voters culled from a computerized database. The campaign says it has made more than 150,000 calls and knocked on 20,000 doors. Notes scrawled on a whiteboard remind volunteers that “a smile can be heard” and to direct undecided voters to Sullivan’s website.

Sullivan has traveled the state widely, too; he planned to spend the waning days before the primary driving to communities in a recreational vehicle. At a youth center in Juneau last week, Sullivan told a crowd of about 100 supporters, “In terms of Republicans, we are the ones with the grassroots, with the volunteers, with the offices open in Fairbanks, in Wasilla, in Kenai.”

Rebecca Kasten, a retired elementary school teacher, is one of Sullivan’s campaign volunteers. She was drawn to Sullivan by his service — he is a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Reserves — and his experience in Washington, where he worked in the State Department during President George W. Bush’s administration.

But there’s another big reason that Sullivan is her choice come Tuesday.

“It might come down to who can beat Mark Begich,” she said.

Bohrer reported from Anchorage and Juneau.

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