Dems Aim For Last Frontier

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On election day the sun will rise over Alaska for just over eight hours. The days of the midnight sun will have long since passed. But the state that goes to bed last as polls close around the country may keep strategists from both parties awake until the final results come in. This year, in the only state with land inside the Arctic Circle, races for House, Senate - and possibly even President - could be among the most competitive in the country.

It seems like a ridiculous statement, given the state's history. In ten tries, only once has a Democratic presidential candidate won Alaska's three electoral votes, in 1964. No Democrat has represented the state in Congress since Mike Gravel lost his re-election bid in 1980. And the Democratic Party has been virtually a non-factor in recent years as Republicans continued their political stranglehold on the state.

But when one party dominates, it can succumb to laziness and even corruption - which is precisely what has happened to the Alaska Republican Party. Scandal and internal feuding among the state GOP, coupled with a year in which the dominant theme appears to be a desire for change, has given Democrats the opportunity to be competitive in one of the reddest Republican bastions in the country. Barack Obama's early commitment of resources to Alaska may further energize and boost the confidence of Democrats seeking to tackle the political equivalent of scaling the North Face of Mt. McKinley.

It may be known for bountiful fish harvests, the best crab in the world, and some of the most stunning sights a tourist could ever hope to see, but in truth, only one product makes Alaska one of the most economically productive states in that country on a per capita basis: More than 80% of Alaska's economy is derived from the oil and gas industry, far more than any other state. As is usually the case, with so much money to be made, corruption is sure to follow.

Enter Bill Allen, who served as chief executive officer of VECO Corporation, an oil services and construction company. Allen, along with two other VECO executives, were under investigation since 2004 for allegedly spreading bribes throughout the state legislature. Allen copped a plea deal, and as the investigation continues, three former state legislators have been sentenced for their roles, along with a former chief of staff to then-Governor Frank Murkowski. A fourth legislator awaits trial and rumors of other indictments flood the state.

Scandal in the statehouse isn't the only reason for the anti-incumbent mood that seems to pervade Alaska. Almost a year ago, as part of the ongoing investigation, federal agents raided Senator Ted Stevens' Girdwood home, seeking information about a remodeling project VECO officials oversaw on Stevens' behalf. Around the same time, reports surfaced that Stevens' long-time colleague, Rep. Don Young, was also under investigation for possibly accepting bribes and gifts from company executives. Both men deny wrongdoing, but in an atmosphere in which politicians are not afforded the benefit of the doubt, favorable ratings for both men have plummeted.

Stevens faces a well-known name in his race for a seventh full term in the Senate. His likely opponent, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, is a popular two-term incumbent whose father, Nick, represented the state in Congress almost four decades ago. Nick Begich died in a plane crash while campaigning for re-election, and his name and memory remain throughout the state.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman Chuck Schumer has listed Stevens' as one of five Republican-held seats in which internal polling suggests the Democrat leads, and recent public polls have shown Begich running ahead by nearly ten points. Stevens' favorable rating is an anemic 49%, with 40% who view him unfavorably. For a member of Congress whose service is so extensive that even the airport is named for him, that's a remarkable occurance.

"I'm never going to count Ted Stevens out. I don't think anybody ever would," said Democratic pollster Anne Hays, who has conducted polls for the state party. But, she said, Stevens "has never really had to mount a first-class campaign. And now they're going to have to do that." Stevens won his first election with 60% of the vote, and since then has not dipped below 66%.

If possible, Don Young is in deeper electoral trouble than Stevens. "Congressman Young is in a different position than Senator Stevens," says Republican pollster David Dittman, who works for Stevens. Young is "more combative, and he's spent most of his campaign money on his legal bills." Indeed, Young has spent more than $1.1 million on attorney's fees this cycle, according to FEC reports filed in April, and could spend more if the investigation heats up.

Public polls have shown him running up to twenty points behind former State House Democratic leader Ethan Berkowitz, and Young's favorable ratings make Stevens' look peachy: Only 35% of Alaska residents view the seventeen-term incumbent favorably, while 52% view him negatively.

Democrats shouldn't pop the champagne corks just yet. There is a real chance that Young will not make it out of the GOP primary, given Lieutenant Governor Sean Parnell's late, and surprising, entry into the race. Parnell swept into office on a reform ticket led by Governor Sarah Palin in 2006, and virtually every political watcher in the state thinks Parnell will upset Young in the Republican primary at the end of August, giving the Democrat a November opponent untouched by scandal. Republican sources in Alaska say they expect Palin -- who boasts a jaw-dropping 82% positive rating in an early-May poll -- to endorse Parnell over Young. A Palin spokesperson refused to comment on the Governor's endorsement plans.

Too, Berkowitz faces a primary of his own in which 2006 nominee Diane Benson could run strong. Benson held Young to a surprisingly narrow 57%-40% margin in 2006, though national Democrats have made their preference clear; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has added Berkowitz to their Red to Blue program, which aids targeted challengers with financial and institutional support.

Democrats hoping to make big strides in the state are looking for help from an unlikely source. Even though Republicans have won almost every single electoral vote the state has ever cast, Barack Obama has offered at least early indications that he intends to compete in the state. Recent polls have shown him trailing John McCain by a small margin, and the Illinois Senator has already run two advertisements in Alaska. Such an advertising buy is a drop in the bucket for a candidate who, according to conservative estimate, could spend $200 million in the general election. A week-long saturation ad buy in the state's three markets costs just $88,800, according to one estimate.

Obama isn't skimping on staff resources, either. In addition to the two Democratic National Committee-financed staffers who were sent to Alaska under Howard Dean's Fifty State Strategy, the presidential campaign will send a number of staffers, including a state director and a press officer, to the region, according to one source inside the Obama campaign. The source would not comment on the exact number of additional staffers expected to head to Alaska, but characterized the campaign's forthcoming effort as "robust." Whether the campaign keeps staffers in place through November, or if the Obama campaign decides to pull out of the state, the early help could go a long way in furthering Democratic organizing efforts.

Political watchers in both parties are wary at the notion that Obama might actually pull close, let alone win, in Alaska. "We're not naive about this," said one high-level Obama aide. "Alaska, to us, is at this point a targeted state that we think we can do very well in." But, the aide said, "I think we're clearly the underdog."

Still, many say it's a new experience. "Presidential campaigns have pretty much ignored Alaska, and so it's a definite change to have a major presidential campaign paying attention here," said one Democratic operative. "It'll be closer than in the past, where Republicans have always done really well," GOP pollster Dittman agreed, though he thinks McCain will still win easily.

Given Alaska's general Republican tilt, Democrats have a long way to go before November in order to capture either Don Young's House seat or Ted Stevens' perch in the Senate. Obama's chances of picking up the state's electoral votes look even more remote. But in a state that has spent 50 years in the Union and only once voted Democratic for president, the party is positioned this year to make at least some gains. In fact, taking just one of the Republican-held seats in the Congressional delegation may be the closest the party gets to conquering the Last Frontier.

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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