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Defeating the longest-serving Republican in the House is a tall order for a Democrat — so the party is banking on an independent, again.
In a state where more than half of voters in 2018 were unaffiliated or nonpartisan, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this month added the race, as well as five others, to its targeted districts list. That followed the Alaska Democratic Party’s endorsement of independent Alyse Galvin to take on the dean of the House, Rep. Don Young (R), who has held the state’s sole congressional seat for 47 years.
The state party amended its rules in 2016 to allow nonpartisan candidates to run in Democratic primaries and win the nomination. Two years later, Galvin became the first independent to do so, then lost to Young by 7 percentage points. The difference this year, supporters say, is that Democrats and independents are more united, citing Galvin’s lack of a primary challenger and the full support of the party.
“Alaska is at that inflection point where they’re getting ready for that purple or blue wave,” said Lindsay Kavanaugh, the executive director of the Alaska Democratic Party. “This is really the year.”
At a glance, Alaska isn’t the most obvious avenue for Democrats to make inroads. Aside from Young, both senators and the governor are all Republicans. In 2016, Hillary Clinton couldn’t crack 37% of the vote.
But as every Alaska insider interviewed was quick to point out, the state’s politics are different from the landscape in what they refer to as the “lower 48.”
“We have this tradition: The best thing you can say about a person is that they’re an independent,” said Jim Lottsfeldt, a strategist who has worked with candidates from both parties. “I’ve lived here my whole life, it’s something that has always been.”
The Last Frontier
The DCCC recently expanded the list of offensive opportunities it publicizes to include Young’s seat after the campaign arm announced raising $125 million in 2019. That showing surpassed its previous off-year fundraising, in 2017, by $20 million.
Young won in 2018 despite being out-raised by Galvin, and as House Republicans lost 40 seats net nationwide. The 86-year-old’s campaign manager Truman Reed said he isn’t concerned about the new attention.
“DCCC has raised a lot of money this cycle and they’re looking for places to spend it,” Reed said in a statement. “It’s puzzling though that they’re choosing to spend it on a candidate that isn’t actually a member of their own party. But Alaska is a great place for them to waste their money … again.”
House Republicans were concerned enough about Young late last cycle to steer their valuable resources toward The Last Frontier state. A super PAC affiliated with Republican House leadership jumped in at the last minute with a $75,000 get-out-the-vote effort. The National Republican Congressional Committee has also prioritized him as an incumbent to protect. Still, Young’s seat is currently considered relatively safe by political handicappers; the Cook Political Report rates it as “Likely Republican.”
Galvin supporters list several reasons 2020 will be better for her, including starting her campaign months earlier and running with more name recognition, which helped Young in a 1973 special election months after losing his first run. Galvin is the first person to face Young twice in a row in decades, and while 47% of the vote wasn’t enough to get her elected last time, it was close enough to offer promise of a better result now, Galvin campaign manager Malcolm Phelan said.
“Last cycle, Don Young had his closest race in 30 years because a coalition of Independents, Democrats, and Republicans came together to support Alyse Galvin after the 2018 August primaries,” he said in a statement. “This year, we are starting months earlier with a clear path to November that allows that coalition to come together much sooner.”
Galvin’s campaign has no illusions about how hard it will be to beat Young, said Mark Putnam, one of the lead strategists for Galvin. The key will be her ability to unite Democrats and unaffiliated voters, as did former Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, an independent who merged his campaign with the Democratic nominee as his running mate to win in 2014.
The way to win in Alaska “is to put together a coalition of independent voters and Democrats and moderates,” Putnam said. “That is exactly why Alyse is such a great fit for the state, because she can bring these people together.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org