Senate 2020: In Alaska, a Controversy Over an Embattled Mine Has Tightened the Race

Independent Al Gross is hoping to defeat Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, who has a history of climate denial. (photo courtsey Al Gross)

This story is part of a series focusing on climate change in key Senate races on the ballot in November.

At a Glance:

  • Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska has a history of climate denial and was voted into office on promises of opening up more land to drilling. As the incumbent Republican in what has been a red state, his seat once seemed secure.

  • Sullivan's opponent, Al Gross, an Independent running on the Democratic ticket, is riding a wave of record-high donations and public support, branding himself as a rugged individual willing to stand up for Alaskans.

  • Sullivan is caught up in a scandal over the Pebble Mine—a project that a majority of Alaskans oppose—and some experts suggest the controversy could be his undoing in the race.

When Alaska orthopedic surgeon Al Gross told longtime state politician Fran Ulmer early last year that he was considering a run against incumbent U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, she told him it was like "mission impossible; you have to be very good to succeed."

"It is really hard to run against a Republican incumbent senator—I should know," said Ulmer, who served as Alaska's lieutenant governor from 1994 to 2002 and as the mayor of Juneau and a state house representative before that. She ran for governor in 2002, but lost to Republican Sen. Frank Murkowski.

But with just weeks to go before Election Day, the impossible is beginning to seem possible. Gross, an independent running on the Democratic ticket, finds himself a rising star with a deep-pocketed campaign, just as Sullivan finds himself in the midst of a controversy that could be his undoing in the race. 

Sullivan has been caught up in the uproar over the so-called Pebble Tapes: A series of secretly recorded conversations released last month by the Environmental Investigation Agency—a watchdog group—that were made by actors posing as potential investors to speak with the heads of the two companies behind the contested Pebble Mine project.

Pebble Mine would bring large-scale mining to the headwaters of Bristol Bay, which supports the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. It has been in the works for years, and has been opposed by a majority of Alaskans, including Gross, because of its potential to damage the fishery and the industries, tribes and wildlife that depend on it. Before the tapes were released, Sullivan had publicly remained mostly on the fence, only coming out clearly against the mine after federal regulators in August delayed issuing a key permit because of concerns about its environmental impacts.

In one recording, Tom Collier, who resigned as CEO of Pebble Limited Partnership after the release of the tapes, said that Sullivan's lack of a firm public stance on the mine would work in its favor. Collier indicated that he was in touch with Sullivan's camp, and that they supported the project—albeit from the sidelines. "He's gonna try to ride out the election and remain quiet," Collier said. 

Since the release of the tapes, Sullivan and his campaign have pushed back, expressing vocal opposition to the Pebble Mine project. But the incumbent's troubles aren't over. In early October, an investigation by journalists from Popular Information found that Sullivan had received $34,150 in campaign contributions from the mine—about 3.5 times more than what had been previously reported.

The optics of a senator quietly accepting significant donations from a contested project, and only weighing in after it appeared to be dead in the water were not good. "Pebble Mine could be his Achilles heel," said Amy Lovecraft, the director of the Center for Arctic Policy Studies and a political science professor at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. "When that stuff came out, that really was a wedge to show that he's putting national politics ahead of local politics."

Polls released this week show a mixed picture of how the race could shape up. One poll conducted after the revelation about Sullivan's finances and released this week, had Gross ahead of Sullivan by one percentage point. Another, by the New York Times and Sienna College, conducted in a similar time frame, told a vastly different story, with Sullivan pulling 45 percent to Gross's 37. "We're notoriously difficult to poll," said Lovecraft.

On Oct. 13, the Cook Political report changed its rating of the Alaska Senate race from "likely Republican" to "lean Republican."

Meanwhile, support from outside Alaska has brought the Gross campaign an infusion of cash. Since July 1, the campaign has reported a record $9.1 million in donations, a significant portion of which came from Act Blue, the fundraising platform for Democratic candidates. In early October, the Lincoln Project—a political action committee of current and former Republicans hoping to replace Donald Trump—came out with an ad supporting Gross.
 
But he is not the only one lining up outside support. The Senate Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC,  is spending more than $3 million in Alaska, after having made its first advertising investment in the state in September. And Sullivan's favorability rating—48 percent, compared with 39 percent unfavorable, according to the New York Times—indicates that many Alaskans still support him.

Gross, who in addition to being a surgeon is a lifelong commercial fisherman, has openly opposed Pebble Mine from the start of his campaign, and called for Sullivan to return the Pebble-related funds. Sullivan's campaign did not respond to a request for an interview, but in a debate on Oct. 10, Sullivan said he would return the funds.

Gross's candidacy has centered around health care reform, but he has been vocal about climate change. "It's clear: man-made climate change is occurring, and Alaska is Ground Zero," reads the first line of his climate change platform on his website. Gross's ad campaigns have branded him as a rugged outdoorsman who was born in the wake of an avalanche, killed a grizzly in self-defense and has prospected for gold. 

In one campaign ad, Gross hikes up a snowy glacier and then skis down. In the voiceover, he explains how Alaska is warming twice as fast the rest of the planet and how villages are falling into the sea. Sullivan, he points out in the ad, was among the senators who in 2015 voted against a resolution affirming that humans were contributing to climate change and has called Alaskans "climate change alarmists."

But Gross' climate bonafides are complicated, according to those watching the race, much as you would expect from an Alaskan politician. He supports an "all-of-the-above" energy strategy that prescribes a large-scale shift to a clean energy economy, but that includes the continued development of oil and gas resources in Alaska's federal lands, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

"As an independent candidate running in a competitive race in Alaska, you can't turn your back entirely on the oil and gas industry, which provides a lot of revenue for the general fund," said Louie Flora, the government affairs director for The Alaska Center, the state's largest pro-democracy and conservation organization. 

In a state with no income tax, oil revenue is critical to the state's budget. Even before the oil market was driven down by the one-two punch of the Saudi Arabia price war against Russia and the coronavirus, the state was facing regular budget shortfalls from declining oil revenues.

Despite being on the front-lines of climate change, "Alaskans really are inclined to support oil development because of the role it plays," Ulmer said. When it comes to the Arctic Refuge, she said, the only real difference between them is that Sullivan is more bullish. Gross "insists that it be done carefully or not at all," she said.

Though the idea of expanded drilling on federal lands in Alaska's Arctic may run counter to the climate stance of The Alaska Center (as well as most environment and conservation groups in the state), Gross has the group's endorsement because compared to Sullivan, Flora says, the choice is clear.

Sullivan has said that "the verdict is still out on the human contribution to climate change," and that there is no scientific consensus on the subject—despite the overwhelming consensus among scientists. 

According to FiveThirtyEight, Sullivan has voted with Trump nearly 92 percent of the time (this compares with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski's 75 percent). The League of Conservation Voters gives him a lifetime score of 8 percent. 

The Takeaway:

In his first term in office, Sullivan didn't make much of a name for himself and has been known for following in the footsteps of the more vocal Alaskan senator, Murkowski—except for when she has voted against President Trump. Now that he's embroiled in the controversy over Pebble Mine, he doesn't have a strong track-record for Alaskans to fall back on. In this largely conservative state, Alaskans still may end up voting for the incumbent, but Gross, against the odds, seems to have a fighting chance.

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