In the closing days of the 1960 presidential election, Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon were racing towards the finish line. In what turned out to be one of the closest elections in American history, the decisive state may well have been one of the newest: Alaska.
As Alaska and Hawaii were both admitted to the Union in 1959, the presidential election of 1960 became the first to feature all 50 states. In an anecdote that political analyst Kyle Kondik recalls in his 2016 book, Nixon pledged to visit every state. After putting it off, the Republican finally made the trek up to Alaska on November 6th, 1960, two days before the election. Nixon’s visit likely helped him secure the state’s three electoral votes, as he carried the state 51%-49%.
Still, what if Nixon had, instead, spent that time making his final pitch to voters in states with more electoral votes, like Illinois, Missouri, or New Jersey? Kennedy’s final victory hinged on his razor-thin margins in those states.
While Alaska is more safely Republican in presidential races these days, its politics is a fascinating mix of elastic coalitions, large personalities, and occasional family feuds.
A Right (Write?) of Center State
Since Nixon’s narrow 1960 win there, the Last Frontier has voted for Republican presidential nominees in all but one election -- Lyndon Johnson took it, in his 1964 landslide. The 2008 campaign put Alaska into the spotlight: its governor at the time, Sarah Palin, was tapped to be the GOP’s vice presidential nominee that year. The state's economic position on industries like oil has made it an odd fit for the Democratic Party, which has gradually embraced environmentalism from the mid-20th century onward. Owing to its history, Alaska's brand of Republican politics can be described as libertarian conservatism.
To understand the quirky nature of Alaska politics, look no further than its 2010 Senate election. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R) faced the challenge of a lifetime in her primary, from Tea Party-backed attorney Joe Miller. Miller had the support of notable figures like Palin (by then out of office) and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), two darlings of the nascent Tea Party movement. In the months and weeks leading up to the GOP primary, Miller began to close the gap with Murkowski in private polling. In what Palin called a ‘miracle on ice,’ Miller won that primary 51%-49%.
Following her primary loss, Murkowski carefully evaluated her options and made the decision to stage a write-in campaign for the general election. Framing herself as the pragmatic candidate, she cited the ‘extremism’ of Miller and the ‘inexperience’ of the Democratic nominee, Scott McAdams (then mayor of the small city of Sitka). As the Republican nominee, Miller received full support from both the Alaska Republican Party and the Senate Republican conference. Murkowski's write-in campaign led to an iconic ad which featured a young girl spelling out her name at a spelling bee.
Murkowski’s ad paid off: 39% of voters wrote her name in on their ballots, placing her ahead of Miller, who took 35%. As she pointed out frequently, that was the first successful write-in campaign for a Senate seat since the late Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 1954 effort in South Carolina.
As wacky as that election was, it was typical in one sense: Alaska voters have a history of doing their own thing.
Lacking counties, Alaska’s geography is more complex than that of other states. Alaska is divided up into five geographic regions and 20 boroughs (19 organized and one unorganized). The five regions of Alaska are:
- Southwest. With the bulk of Alaska's ports, the southwest region is home to commercial fishing and Native fishing villages that dot the landscape. The largest population center in this region is Kodiak.
- Far North. The home of the Inuit people, this is one of the more remote regions of Alaska. The annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race runs from Anchorage to Nome, covering the vast Alaska wilderness. Also of note in the Far North is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an area the state's congressional delegation has long pushed to open up to drilling for oil.
- Interior. Interior Alaska features much of the state's road network, which connects Fairbanks and its surrounding suburbs to Anchorage. As Alaska's second largest city, Fairbanks is home to the main campus of the University of Alaska and a number of military installations. The Interior region is one of Alaska's most educated.
- Southcentral. 65% of Alaska's population calls this region home. Anchorage is Alaska's largest city and one of the most politically divided areas in the state, with the city sending nine Republicans and seven Democrats to the Alaska House of Representatives.
- Southeast. This heavily-forested region houses the state capital of Juneau, along with indigenous communities and a once robust mining presence.
With just three Electoral College votes, Alaska has one of the smallest congressional delegations in the nation, but two of its members carry outsized importance in Congress. Representing all of Alaska in the House of Representatives since 1973 is the oft-cantankerous Rep. Don Young (R). Young is a colorful character known for his off-the-cuff comments and larger-than-life personality. Now Dean of the House -- due to his status as the longest-serving member of the body -- Young is a passionate supporter of Alaska's industries. He came to Congress in a 1973 special election, held in the aftermath of the death of Rep. Nick Begich (D). Young, then a state senator, ran for the seat in 1972, but Begich won reelection, despite disappearing during a plane trip weeks before (he was later presumed dead).
Young has been attentive to local concerns over the years, which has earned him the support of many Alaska Natives. Ideologically, Young is a moderate Republican with a history of bucking his party. Although he remains a highly influential figure in Congress, his status has declined in recent years. House Republican term limits means he no longer occupies the top spot on the Natural Resources Committee and the abolition of earmarks substantially reduced his clout. Unlike many of his GOP colleagues, Young is no stranger to the House minority -- he worked under Democratic rule for his first 22 years in the chamber.
In 2012, Young made waves with a rare bipartisan endorsement video of now-Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI). At the time, Hirono served with him in the House and was in a competitive Senate primary in Hawaii. The ad is a reminder that the delegations from the country’s two non-contiguous states often have reason to work together on Capitol Hill.
Young has faced a few close races over the years. Although he is a perennial prospect on national Democrats’ retirement watch list, the Dean of the House, at age 86, shows no signs of slowing down. Young is likely to remain in office as long as voters want him to.
In the Senate, after surviving that turbulent 2010 election, Lisa Murkowski is the state’s senior Senator. Her father, Frank Murkowski, served in the Senate from 1981 until his 2002 election as governor. Upon taking office as Governor, Murkowski appointed his daughter -- then-State Representative Lisa Murkowski -- to the Senate seat he was vacating. Her appointment was controversial and it resulted in voters later stripping their governors of the ability to fill vacancies in the Senate via appointment. Perceived nepotism may have been a factor in the elder Murkowski’s defeat -- in his 2006 primary, he placed third in a field led by then-Wasilla mayor Sarah Palin (the families have a rocky relationship).
Since then, Lisa Murkowski has had better electoral fortunes than her father, though her races have been competitive. She faced voters for the first time, at the statewide level, in 2004. She began by successfully turning back a primary challenge from then-State Senate President Mike Miller. Though President Bush carried the state 61%-36%, Murkowski faced a strong general election challenge from the state's previous governor, Democrat Tony Knowles. Still, she was elected in her own right, 49%-46%.
As one of the most moderate Republicans in the Senate, Murkowski is often a pivotal vote for the majority. In the summer of 2017, she was one three Republicans -- along with the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) -- who voted against repeal of the Affordable Care Act. In fact, Collins and Murkowski are the only two pro-choice Republicans currently serving in the chamber. When it comes to guns and environmental issues, Murkowski's views reflect her libertarian state well.
In 2016, running with the Republican nomination, Murkowski faced a rematch, of sorts. Her 2010 GOP opponent, Joe Miller, ran as a Libertarian. She was reelected with 44% to Miller’s 29%. As a result, Murkowski is the only senator to win three terms with less than 50% of the vote each time.
Alaska's junior Senator is Republican Dan Sullivan. Elected in the red wave of 2014, Sullivan defeated Democratic incumbent Mark Begich that year -- Begich is the son of the man Rep. Young replaced in Congress. Unlike Young and Murkowski, Sullivan is a reliable party line vote. During his 2014 campaign, Sullivan espoused a number of differences between himself and Murkowski. The previous year, Murkowski came out in favor of same sex marriage. Sullivan also ran on his opposition to abortion rights, another difference between himself and his state's senior Senator.
Sullivan's background in the Marine Corps is an asset in this military-heavy state. A lawyer, Sullivan clerked for several judges in the state before joining the Bush administration in 2002. He was appointed state Attorney General under Gov. Palin and then continued in that position until 2010. Palin’s successor, Gov. Sean Parnell, appointed Sullivan to Alaska's Department of Natural Resources, which he led until he launched his Senate campaign in 2013.
Senator Sullivan is up for reelection this year and could potentially face a competitive race. His likely opponent is neurosurgeon Al Gross, who is running as an independent with the support of the Democratic Party. He has fundraised well, outraising Dan Sullivan in the most recent quarter and Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball recently shifted the race from 'Safe Republican to 'Likely Republican'. Sullivan is still the clear favorite but the race merits watching.
Analyst Eric Cunningham last year wrote an article on the increasing trend of the parties running independents rather than a candidate with a party label. In the 2012 US Senate election in Maine, former Governor Angus King ran with no party affiliation just as he did in his two gubernatorial bids and did not receive support from either party committee. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) spent in Maine but did not endorse King or the Democratic nominee that year. In the Senate, King caucuses with Democrats but remains an independent.
State Level Politics
Alaska, at the state level, is quite unique. It is one of the few states in the nation that elects no statewide officeholders, besides the Governor. With one exception, Republicans have held the Governorship from December 2002 (in Alaska and Hawaii, governors take their oaths of office in December) to present.
From 2014 to 2018, the Governor was an independent, Bill Walker. Walker, a former Republican Mayor of Valdez, ran on a unity ticket with Democrat Byron Mallott. Owing to his unpopularity, Gov. Walker suspended his bid for reelection in 2018 and endorsed the Democratic nominee, former Sen. Mark Begich. The Governor’s Mansion fell back into GOP hands, as Begich lost 51%-44% to then-State Sen. Mike Dunleavy (who is currently the subject of a recall campaign).
In the legislature, Republicans hold a supermajority in the state Senate while the state House is controlled by a coalition of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. Whether the coalition remains depends on if its Republican members are successful in their primaries this year.
The Native Vote
Native Americans account for 15% of the population in Alaska, the largest in the nation. Alaska Natives have increasingly voted Democratic in the past few presidential races, but certain Republicans are able to win them over. In 2016, Sen. Murkowski was stronger in the Native-heavy western half of the state than in the whiter eastern parts. In the 2018 U.S. House race, Don Young was able to win some crossover support from this group while Begich easily won them in his unsuccessful gubernatorial bid.
There is little doubt that Alaska will vote for President Trump in the fall. One thing to watch, though, is the state’s affinity for third parties. In 2016, Trump carried the state 51%-37%, with the remaining 12% going to third parties. Only Utah, Idaho, and Vermont gave third parties a higher aggregate share. In 2000, Green Party nominee Ralph Nader -- who is often accused of spoiling the election in favor of Bush -- took 10% in Alaska, his best showing of any state.
Next Week: Montana
Reports in this series: