Monday, June 23, 2008
PA's Down With Tyranny Alaska Update
Howie Klein's blog Down With Tyranny posted this essay today. He wanted an Alaska political races update:
by Phil Munger
The Alaska primaries will occur on August 26, the same day the Democratic National Convention opens in Denver. Since my last update for Down With Tyranny on the two important statewide races, those for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Ted Stevens, and for the U.S. House seat currently held by Don Young, a lot has happened. And the Alaska Democratic Party, hoping to ride a wave of voter dissatisfaction over the combination of corruption and ineptitude exemplified by Alaska's GOP party and legislative leadership, is working hard to at least take control of the State Senate, if not the lower chamber.
The U.S. Senate Republican primary will pit Ted Stevens against former state legislator, banker and B-grade movie producer, David Cuddy. Cuddy spent a million dollars in his unsuccessful 1996 bid, challenging Stevens in the primary. Cuddy pulled in 27% of he vote for his efforts.
His platform is far more conservative than that of Stevens. Ted Stevens, for all his support for Bush's tax proposals, war funding, and deconstruction of Federal oversight, is more liberal than the average Alaska Republican. Stevens is pro-choice, has saved both the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts more than once, and has been known to make his share of bipartisan deals over the decades. The Ted Stevens platform doesn't bring any of that up, though. His platform is simple in its elegance - "Elect me and the pork will keep coming, throw me out and it will stop colder and quicker than a door slamming in an Arctic gale."
Cuddy's platform calls for national school vouchers, making the Bush tax cuts permanent, term limits, a ban on abortion, and an ending of citizenship rights for the children of aliens born in the USA. He also calls for the end of the Patriot Act, and is against real ID. His health care plan is to tweak the system to make it more efficient, more affordable.
On the Democratic side of the U.S. Senate primary contest, popular current Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich is running against ex-state representative Ray Metcalfe. Ray Metcalfe has been lauded in Alaska since May, 2006, as one of the people responsible for the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice coming down like a hammer on several key GOP legislative leaders, and on oil company service giant, Veco (better known as the Corrupt Bastards Club), for a series of searches, arrest, trails and convictions that have made state history, and left the GOP power structure quite shaken. One Federal marshall told me last year, "this wouldn't have happened without Ray."
But Ray Metcalfe's campaign hasn't gained traction. Although he's presented sensible, fairly progressive stances on most issues at his campaign site, the party machinery is irritated by his accusations of corruption against former Alaska governor, Tony Knowles, and his primary opponent, Begich. And his campaign organization is minimalist at best.
Mark Begich has assembled the most impressive campaign machine I recall ever seeing organized in Alaska by a Democrat. They actually have a two-story headquarters at the edge of the Spenard district in Anchorage, with several volunteers or staff in the place 18/7. Begich's internet presence goes far beyond that of any candidate in Alaska history from either party.
Begich has a reputation, going back to when he was on the Anchorage Assembly, of calling in to the local right-wing AM-Radio talk programs if a host or caller begins to complain about a government program run by or touted by Begich. In those situations, he can be very disarming, and does well. Begich's internet appearances, most notably one at the blog firedoglake on May 29, have been less sure-footed. Montana Senator Jon Tester was in Alaska with Begich, and the two commented at a Blue America session, hosted by Jane Hamsher. Tester became used to these appearances and the firedoglake ambience during his 2006 campaign. Begich, in his comments, didn't show the flair he's exhibited on Anchorage talk radio, or in his comments at the Anchorage Daily News's political blogs.
The most likely outcome of the senatorial primaries will give victories to Stevens and Begich. Pollsters all around the country are interested in this contest, as a Begich victory over Alaska's patron saint would be an almost seismic shift in Alaska and presumed Red State politics. This past week, two polls came out, one or the other showing each of the two in the lead - if the election were held "today." It is quite close, and Stevens is putting in more visits to tiny villages, and giving more speeches on "important" legislation he is backing, in the past month, than he usually pulls off in a good year.
The GOP AK-AL U.S. House race primary has Lieutenant Governor Sean Parnell, and Kodiak Representative Gabrielle LeDoux against Representative Don Young. Parnell announced his candidacy during the raucous first morning of the Alaska GOP convention last winter. Young, who was already losing a fundraising battle to LeDoux at the time of the announcement, jumped up for glee when Parnell declared his candidacy.
He's not nearly so happy now, as conservative groups, newspapers, magazines and blogs have come out in support of Parnell. The Club for Growth, the Wall Street Journal, National Review and their web-based NRO, are just a few of the Parnell supporters who have gotten so upset with Young, they're willing to paint a fake portrait of Parnell as some sort of conservative intellectual giant that appears quite ridiculous to Alaskans right and left, who know Sean better. But that isn't keeping conservatives from donating to Parnell.
And for Young, at least, the fundraising battle has been more of a fundraiding battle. Young's published reports from 2007 and 2008 show him spending over $1,000,000 on legal fees attendant to his being investigated for corrupt practices by various Federal agencies, including the FBI. In the last quarter of 2007, here's how the candidates' fundraising went:
Berkowitz (D) - $124,201
LeDoux (R) - $110,000
Benson (D) - $52,230
J. Metcalfe (D) - $31,000
Don Young (R) - $28,350
For Young, the first quarter of 2008 went better - $164,000. But he continued to have to pay substantial sums to attorneys. He's probably pushing $1.2 million in legal fees for 2007 and 2008 by now.
Polls consistently show Parnell beating Young in August. And the two Democrats running in August, have published polls beating Young. The only poll throwing Parnell in against one of the two Democrats, shows Parnell narrowly beating Ethan Berkowitz in November.
The potential Parnell-Berkowitz matchup seems to worry top Alaska Democrats less than it should, for two reasons: First, during the time both Berkowitz and Parnell served in the Alaska legislature - Berkowitz in the House from 1996 to 2006 (Minority Leader 1999-2006), Parnell in the House from 1992 to 1996, and the Senate from 1996 until he was elected Lieutenant Governor in 2006, Berkowitz and his fellow Democrats were up against one of the most tightly disciplined GOP machines in the USA. Parnell, as unimaginative as he is, was a part of that.
Secondly, in the 2006 gubernatorial race, Berkowitz was the junior partner in Tony Knowles' failed bid to once again be Alaska's governor. In a three-way race against Republican Sarah Palin, and ex-GOP state legislator Andrew Halcro, Knowles and Berkowitz lost to Palin and Parnell, despite outspending Palin's campaign by nearly $500,000, which is a lot of money in Alaska politics. During the same 2006 campaign, Diane Benson, Berkowitz's opponent in the 2008 Democratic primary, spending less than 20% of what the Knowles/Berkowitz ticket spent, pulled in almost 94,000 votes statewide, compared to Knowles' 97,000-plus.
Parnell will beat Young in August, unless Young can somehow pull a rabbit, or maybe a Polar bear, out of his hat. If I were Young, I'd be afraid to even reach into that hat. He's more likely to pull out Jack Abramoff's ghost than a rabbit.
The Alaska primary system is almost archaic, and as many polls that have been made over hypothetical matchups here, none quite seems to grasp what the reality might be on the ground on August 26. The most recent figures on statewide voter registration - from last month, show the following:
Alaska Independence Party -- 13,338
Democratic Party -- 71,832
Libertarian Party -- 7,401
Republican Party -- 119,031
Non-Partisan -- 72,871
Undeclared -- 178,325
Green Party -- 3,050
Other -- 6,508
One way to look at this is to match it up thusly:
Democrats -- 71,832
GOP -- 119,031
The rest -- 281,493
Unaligned and small party Alaska voters outnumber Democrats and Republicans combined by almost 150%! In the primary, there will be three ballots. Voters can vote on ballot measures only. Anyone can vote on the Democratic Party ballot (which includes the ballot measures). Only GOP, non-partisans and undeclared voters may vote on the GOP ballot (which also includes the ballot measures).
There will be four ballot initiatives, on establishing a gaming commission (Alaska is not very developed, gambling-wise), on amending same-day airborne hunting of wolves and Grizzly bears, on providing for public funding in campaigns, and one on regulation of water quality in the mining industry. None of these is likely to draw a huge crowd of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians, as some measures have in the past. It is likely that the ballot measures will draw potential voters fairly evenly from across the spectrum.
Back to the Democrats running in the AK-AL primary. At the beginning of 2008, there were three viable candidates registered for this race:
Diane Benson had challenged Don Young in 2006, after beating Ray Metcalfe in the primary. She received almost 41% of the vote in a race in which she was out-spent by over 5 to 1. It was the closest any candidate had gotten to Young since the early 1990s, and all this - in 2006 - before the seriousness of the liabilities facing Don Young had become at all clear to the average Alaska voter. She expected major challengers to notice her 2006 race's result, and to step up for the 2008 primary campaign.
In August 2007, Jake Metcalfe (no relationship to Ray Metcalfe, the U.S. Senate challenger), stepped down as chair of the Alaska Democratic Party, and announced - from Washington, DC - that he was filing for the AK-AL primary. His campaign failed to gain much traction. Even Diane Benson's grassroots campaign was pulling in more money and a much larger donor list than was Metcalfe's.
In early May, the Fairbanks News-Miner ran a story linking a Jake Metcalfe campaign worker to a scheme, whereby when one clicked on a web address that appeared to be connected to Ethan Berkowitz's campaign, one was redirected to one of two sites, one a LGBT site in San Francisco, another with baubles for rich kids. In the weeks before the News-Miner article, many of us had received e-mails that solicited us to check the sites.
It was a sad, almost silly way for Metcalfe's campaign to end. His campaign worker resigned, without admitting involvement in the scheme, and within five days of that, Metcalfe announced a suspension of his campaign.
At around the same time this happened, candidate Diane Benson was involved in one of many conferences she has participated in, during which Alaska Native or Native American women who have been victims of sex crimes speak out in order to help other victims, or to enlighten government functionaries on aspects of this awful problem. Up until May 1, Benson's participation in scores of these meetings, seminars and conferences in Alaska and other states had been kept confidential. But at an April 30 seminar in Anchorage, held by the Alaska Rural Justice and Law Commission, one of the organizers invited Anchorage Daily News reporter Lisa Demer to attend, without - as is almost always the case at these non-public meetings about abuse - letting the women who were testifying know that there was reporter present.
Demer's story featured some of Benson's testimony. The attention subsequently drawn to Benson in this regard helped her redirect part of her campaign platform toward the problems of sexual abuse in Alaska in general, and toward Alaska Native women in particular. Her campaign has received endorsements from several women's groups, including the Alaska Women's Political Caucus, The National Women's Political Caucus, and the National Organization for Women.
At the Alaska Democratic Party's state convention, held at the Alaska State Fair grounds over Memorial Day weekend, Democrats from across Alaska - hundreds of delegates and almost 1,000 participants in all - got a chance to compare Benson and Berkowitz. The two had appeared earlier at candidate forums that included AK-AL candidates from both parties. In March, Young, LaDoux, Benson, Berkowitz and J. Metcalfe attended a forum on Alaska fisheries issues in Kodiak. In mid-May, LaDoux, Parnell, Benson and Berkowitz attended a forum held by the Hispanic Affairs Council of Alaska.
At the convention, Benson and Berowitz didn't debate, but were given two opportunities each to give speeches to the delegates. Both gave excellent accounts of themselves and what they view their campaigns to be about.
Since the convention, the Ethan Berkowitz campaign has received a couple of important endorsements. In mid-June, the moderately Blue Dog DCCC committee, Red to Blue, announced support for Berkowitz. Last week, the head of Alaska's AFL-CIO, Vince Beltrami, announced that organization's support for Berkowitz. Benson has received an important endorsement by 21st Century Democrats, a progressive PAC.
On many issues Benson and Berkowitz see eye-to-eye, particularly on the Iraq War, education, and the need for more investment around Alaska, the country and the world in renewable resource use infrastructure and delivery. Both support "responsible development" of ANWR for oil production. The most stark contrasts between the two candidates are in the realms of health care reform and in approaches to fundraising.
Benson supports major health care reforms, hoping for a strong push in the direction of a single-payer system that covers everyone. Berkowitz is more of what I call a "tweaker" on health care. His solutions to this crisis are quite similar to those of GOP candidate Sean Parnell:
Expanding medical record-keeping technology to reduce administrative costs and improve safety through information sharing.
Promote preventative care and healthy living choices.
Expanding the federal SCHIP program to cover a wider range of children
Allow for small business insurance pooling.
Prevention is the best way to avoid continually escalating health care costs.
Next, early recognition and effective treatment are necessary to limit disease’s impact on the individual and on the community at large.
States need local flexibility.
Both of those primary race candidates - in separate races - are very health care industry-friendly in their approaches to the problem, and a scanning of both candidates' contributors will reinforce that fact.
Regarding the differences between Benson's funding approach and Berkowitz's, much of these differences are basically reflective of their political backgrounds and connections.
Benson is, as in her 2006 contest against Don Young, running a grassroots campaign. With a longer list of donors than Berkowitz, she is pulling in less money. She is relying on a lot of small in-state donations, money from Alaska Native and Native American groups, and out-of-state ActBlue donations from progressives.
Berkowitz is highly reliant on larger donations, many from people in the health care industry, attorneys, and longtime well-heeled in-state Democrats. He has been able to take advantage of the perception held by many old-school Democrats and independents that Benson is too liberal, and not well enough connected to existing political machinery, to carry the state against Parnell or Young.
At a debate held Sunday in Fairbanks by the Fairbanks Area Democrats, both candidates seemed to reinforce the growing perception that - even with his greater financial support - Berkowitz is in a real contest for the nomination.
There has been talk in Alaska and elsewhere of the possibility of Barack Obama carrying Alaska in November. Obama's campaign started running TV ads here over the weekend. Two of his top advisors have Alaska connections, and have all but promised that Obama will campaign here. The last Democrat to win Alaska was LBJ, the last candidate to campaign here, Richard Nixon. I've yet to see a John McCain sign in Alaska, but Obama signs - both official and home-made - abound. Here were the February 4th numbers, consolidating the Democratic Party caucus numbers with those of the GOP "voter preference" poll numbers:
Barack Obama --- 6,471
Mitt Romney --- 5,177
Mike Huckaby --- 2,596
Hillary Clinton --- 2,138
Ron Paul --- 2,004
John McCain --- 1,837
I heard several reports on February 5 and 6 by Ron Paul supporters, that the Romney people worked hard to disenfranchise Paul votes in the polling places, so McCain probably did even worse than that. McCain's flip-flops last week on opening ANWR to oil development - he was against it before he was for it - may have more than a little bit to do with concerns about our puny three electoral votes.
There is also a fair chance that Democrats will end up controlling the Alaska legislature in November. The current legislature has nine Democrats and eleven GOP in the Senate, 17 Democrats and 23 GOP in the House. The earlier 24th legislature had an 8-12/26-14 makeup. Since the 2006 election, severl GOP figures have gone to jail. Others are awaiting sentencing. Just last week, the current Senate President, Wasilla's Lyda Green, announced she will not be running again for the seat she has handily held since 1994.
There will be more such announcements soon after the next round of FBI indictments comes down.