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In Republican Alaska, GOP incumbents face strongest challenges in decades amid the coronavirus pandemic

In this 2016 photo, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), speaks to reporters in Anchorage.
In this 2016 photo, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), speaks to reporters in Anchorage. (Mark Thiessen/AP)
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Five months ago, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) appeared before more than 50 seniors in a town north of Anchorage and dismissed the surging coronavirus pandemic as “the beer virus” that was built mostly on “hysteria” by the media.

A chastened Young taped a message soon after from Washington doing the almost unthinkable — apologizing, sort of — for a lawmaker whose gruff demeanor has fit nicely with the Last Frontier. “Weeks ago, I did not fully grasp the severity of this crisis,” he said, urging Alaskans to follow all federal guidelines to stop the novel coronavirus’s spread. “This pandemic is dangerous and is threatening, especially threatening, to our senior citizens, which I am one.”

Young, 87, isn’t just any senior citizen. First elected in 1973, he is the dean of the House, the longest-serving member of Congress. He’s been nearly untouchable ever since, outlasting an FBI probe, an ethics investigation and several anti-Republican waves, including his 2018 win by nearly seven percentage points over education activist Alyse Galvin.

But 2020 is different, and Galvin, running as an independent with the blessing of Democrats in Washington, is back for a rematch and is raising far more money than Alaska’s longest-serving politician.

Galvin has company in Al Gross, a doctor who is also running as an independent with the blessing of Democrats, in his battle to unseat Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska).

Gross, whose father was state attorney general, has steadily outraised the incumbent this year, particularly after he released his first ad last month. It was a biographical piece that included very Alaskan behavior like killing a grizzly bear “in self-defense after it snuck up on him.”

He brought in nearly $600,000 in July, almost double Sullivan’s haul.

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Together, Galvin and Gross are putting up the toughest fights that incumbent Alaska Republicans have seen since 2008, the last time a Democrat won one of the state’s three seats in Congress, as Young won by just five percentage points.

The Republican incumbents remain favorites — Alaskans have voted out just two congressional incumbents in the past 40 years — but Tuesday’s primary will help measure just how rough the head winds are for Republicans this fall.

To independent analysts, these races will indicate whether it is a 2008-like environment — in which Republicans could lose in exurban and rural states they usually win comfortably — or whether it is an echo of 2018, when Democrats stormed through the suburbs to win the House majority but also saw conservative-leaning states break to Republicans in Senate battlegrounds.

Amy Walter, national editor of the independent Cook Political Report, noted that so far most of the potential pickups for House Democrats continue to come from suburban areas, unlike 2008 when Democrats were easily defending seats in the rural Midwest and gaining ground in Southern GOP strongholds.

“Instead of picking up seats in all kinds of rural and suburban districts, Democratic gains would be coming from outer suburbs of Dallas, Houston, St. Louis. This isn’t like 2008 where Democrats were able to hold onto southeast Ohio and Evansville,” Walter said.

Republicans also contend that the U.S. political landscape remains too polarized — too partisan — for a blowout like 2008, when Barack Obama won in an electoral landslide, Democrats gained eight Senate seats and won more than 20 House seats.

GOP strategists working on congressional races privately acknowledge that President Trump’s spring and summer slump served as a major drag on their candidates, but they say the environment this fall, at a minimum, will return to its 2018 setting.

If that’s the case, states such as Alaska — Republicans have won there in every presidential year except 1964 — will revert to form and simply make it impossible for down-ballot candidates to knock off Republicans as ticket splitting fades further away.

Such an outcome would reassure Republicans facing increasingly tough races in Georgia, Montana and Texas, leaving GOP incumbents fighting hand-to-hand combat in just a few states such as Maine and North Carolina to determine the Senate majority.

But, Walter warned, that late burst of conservative energy in 2018 came courtesy of the fight over Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation clash, against the backdrop of a soaring economy and nightly newscasts that didn’t mention mounting death tolls.

Galvin and Gross are ready to test that fight, asserting that America’s 49th state has maintained a more independent lean than its political veneer from presidential contests.

“It’s not labels,” Galvin said in a telephone interview Friday. “To Alaskans, it’s what have they done lately.”

“Alaskans want an independent voice in the Senate,” Gross said in a recent telephone interview, suggesting that GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s public break with Trump in June lived up to the state’s independent image.

Each candidate expects to win the Democratic nomination on Tuesday, through a quirk in the law that allows independents to win one of the party’s nominations. Assuming they both win, they will appear on the November ballot with the label “nonpartisan” but also a notation that they are the Democratic endorsee.

Gross and Galvin are using their personal backgrounds as the narrative issue for their campaigns.

Gross became an orthopedic surgeon, meeting his wife, Monica, a pediatric specialist, in medical school, only to both leave their practices to work on the business side of the industry looking for solutions to its prohibitively high costs, particularly in such a sprawling place as Alaska.

Gross, who says those health costs are holding back the state economy, has targeted Sullivan for his votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, an issue he says is only more relevant during the pandemic.

Galvin, who said she grew up with an abusive father, became an education activist in large part because she said educators helped rescue her family.

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With oil prices collapsing from lack of driving demand during the pandemic, Republicans are prepared to tie this duo to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, arguing that despite their independent label, they would support ideas that could crush Alaska’s biggest industry.

“Anyone who knows me knows I’m not liberal,” Galvin said. “My husband’s in the oil industry, hello!”

“I would be a hard break on the radical agenda,” Gross said of proposals such as the Green New Deal.

But in 2018, as some parts of the nation broke hard against Trump and his supporters, Alaska held on, not just with Young’s win, but also Republican Mike Dunleavy’s comfortable defeat of former senator Mark Begich (D) in the governor’s race.

Back in 2008, Begich stunned the political world by defeating Ted Stevens (R), the state’s most influential politician ever, who had been convicted in a federal corruption case just days before the election.

Begich is now serving as one of Gross’s closest advisers, and he and Galvin hope that it’s more like 2008 in Alaska than 2018.

Correction: A previous version of this article said that Alaska is the 50th state. It is the 49th. This version has been updated.

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