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Al Gross’ resume includes orthopedic surgery, commercial fishing and killing a grizzly in self-defense, according to a video produced for his latest endeavor: running for the U.S. Senate.
The grizzly episode is one of several cited in the campaign video to underscore that Gross, a lifelong Alaska resident, doesn’t shy away from a challenge.
His longshot bid to unseat Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan is a big one. The first-time candidate is running as an independent with the Democratic Party’s backing in a state that’s voted for the GOP in every presidential election since 1964. The Cook Political Report rates the race “solid Republican.”
Despite the odds against him, Gross has demonstrated surprising fundraising prowess, collecting more money than Sullivan in two of the past three quarters.
He’s brought in more than $3 million so far, including about $600,000 from his own pocket. The challenger has about $10 million to $25 million in personal assets, according to a financial disclosure form.
The coronavirus pandemic that has kept people at home has had an unexpected silver lining in a state that already features campaigning complications, given its unique terrain.
“You’d be amazed how many people pick up the phone on the first ring,” Gross said in a phone interview.
His success is part of a larger national story: Gross is one of nine Senate challengers to raise more campaign money than a Republican incumbent during the first quarter of 2020, according to the latest Federal Election Commission reports.
The cash advantage has buoyed Democratic hopes of winning back the Senate majority in November. Democrats need a net gain of three or four Republican-held seats, depending on who wins the White House.
Contributors “are more committed now than ever to flipping control of the United States Senate and having a check on the presidency,” while Sullivan and other Republican senators are simply toeing the party line in Washington, said Gross.
Sullivan’s campaign manager, Matthew Shuckerow, pointed to the the senator’s overall financial advantage as a better indicator of where the race stands .
Sullivan has been hauling in campaign money for six years, collecting a total of nearly $6.4 million and sitting atop more that $4.5 million in cash on hand at the end of March. Gross had $2 million in cash at the end of the first quarter — less than half of Sullivan’s total.
During the pandemic, Sullivan has suspended fundraising and other normal campaign activities. He has stayed in Washington and is “100% focused on official duties,” Shuckerow said in a phone interview.
“We’re confident that we’ll be able to do what we need to” for Sullivan to win re-election, Shuckerow said.
Gross said he’ll emphasize his independence and “deep roots” in the state to try to pull off an upset win.
His father, Avrum Gross, a Democratic lawyer who grew up in New Jersey, was appointed state attorney general by a former Republican governor, Jay Hammond, and helped secure an amendment to the state Constitution in the 1970s setting up the Alaska Permanent Fund, which relies on oil royalties to pay dividends to state residents.
Gross ended his medical career in 2010 and started campaigning to overhaul Alaska’s health care system. He initially was motivated to run against Sullivan, who unseated Democrat Mark Begich in 2014, because the senator voted repeatedly to scrap the Affordable Care Act and its coverage guarantees. With the coronavirus crisis, health care is now a more important issue than ever, he said
“Al is doing a spectacular job of fundraising,” said Jim Lottsfeldt, an Anchorage political consultant who’s worked for Republicans, Democrats and independents.
First-time candidates usually have a much harder time calling contributors all day to ask for money. Whether that means he could beat Sullivan in November is a harder question, Lottsfeldt said, because no one really knows how politicking during the coronavirus pandemic will play out.
President Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic could be the biggest factor, Lottsfeldt said. If voters lose confidence in him, “Trump has the ability to take Sullivan and others down.”
Art Hackney, a veteran Republican consultant in Anchorage, noted that Sullivan “works five times harder than anyone I know.” He added: “While there are constituencies for both men, Dan’s is more substantial and I expect that he will prevail.”
Sullivan is a lawyer and Marine Corps veteran and reservist, who grew up in Ohio and first came to Alaska in the 1990s. He was appointed Alaska’s attorney general by former Gov. Sarah Palin in 2009 and later served as state natural resources director before being elected to the Senate.
Gross said he expects donor enthusiasm might wane due to economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic, but that’s not what he’s hearing as he spends six hours a day calling potential contributors.
As for the deadly face-off with the grizzly, Gross said he had no choice.
“I never had a desire to shoot a bear, but that bear was a bad actor,” he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org