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Alaska's Senate race rocked by leaked videos, China ties and even a dead bear

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With just weeks to go before the November election, a sleeper U.S. Senate race in a deeply Republican state is starting to garner some attention.

A poll released on Sept. 28 showed Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan with a razor-thin 1 point lead over his main challenger, Al Gross, an orthopedic surgeon. 

While Gross is technically an independent, Democrats are backing him as part of the party’s efforts to gain a majority in the closely divided Senate. And their battle has been roiled by a series of controversies, including leaked videos and a dispute over an alleged bear attack. 

Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) speaks during a Senate Armed Services hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, U.S. May 7, 2020. (Al Drago/Pool via reuters)Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) speaks during a Senate Armed Services hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, U.S. May 7, 2020. (Al Drago/Pool via reuters)
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on May 7. (Al Drago/Pool via Reuters)

Gross, whose father was the state’s Democratic attorney general in the 1970s, has leaned on his colorful background in his effort to unseat Sullivan. His ads have described him as having been “born in the wake of an avalanche” and claimed he “killed a grizzly bear in self-defense after it snuck up on him.” 

Gross and his campaign recently faced accusations that he didn’t actually kill that grizzly. However, a newly released report from the Alaska Department of Public Safety would appear to back him up.

The race drew some national attention last month when secretly recorded videos leaked by an environmental group showed Tom Collier, the now-former CEO of a mining partnership looking to develop Alaska’s Pebble Mine, talking about his influence over Sullivan. 

While Sullivan had put out a statement indicating he was opposed to the Pebble Mine project due to its environmental impact, the footage showed Collier boasting about the company’s sway over local officials and suggesting the senator was hoping to “ride out the election” and would not ultimately be an impediment to the project. 

Gross has called on Sullivan to return donations from Collier. For his part, Sullivan has insisted he “unequivocally” believes the Pebble Mine project “cannot be permitted.” 

“Any suggestion otherwise is either wishful thinking, a blatant mischaracterization, or a desperate attempt to secure funding for a mine that cannot move forward,” Sullivan said in a statement. 

Sullivan and Gross have viciously sparred over these issues. And along with questioning each other’s character, the pair have taken shots at each other’s personal finances. 

According to candidate disclosure forms, Gross has a net worth of between $10 million and $25 million. Sullivan’s campaign has pointed out that Gross’s portfolio includes “stocks from Big Pharma corporations” and accused him of “hiding” this from Alaskans. Gross’s campaign declined to comment on the claim. 

During a contentious debate between the two on Saturday evening, Sullivan accused Gross of supporting “radical ideas” from congressional Democrats. Gross countered by bringing up Sullivan’s family business, RPM International, a chemical company that was founded by his grandfather and is currently led by his brother.

This undated file photo, provided by the Gross for Senate campaign, shows Independent candidate Al Gross. Gross is the leading candidate in the Alaska Democratic Primary, which will be held Aug. 18, 2020. (Gross for Senate Campaign via AP)This undated file photo, provided by the Gross for Senate campaign, shows Independent candidate Al Gross. Gross is the leading candidate in the Alaska Democratic Primary, which will be held Aug. 18, 2020. (Gross for Senate Campaign via AP)
Senate candidate Al Gross. (Gross for Senate Campaign via AP)

“You’ve been calling me a liberal this whole campaign, and I’m sick of that. You’re making up lies and falsehoods,” Gross said to Sullivan. “I’m a lot more fiscally conservative than you’ll ever be, with your tax cuts to your billionaire brother, and your father, and other superrich people.”

Financial disclosures show Sullivan has between $1 million and $5 million of stock in RPM, and the company has a manufacturing facility in China along with other operations in the country. While Sullivan, a Marine reservist, lawyer and former White House staffer under President George W. Bush who was first elected in 2014, has been a vocal critic of the Chinese government, he hasn’t mentioned the role the country plays in his family’s fortune. 

Rusty Gordon, RPM’s chief financial officer, told Yahoo News that its business in China represents “much less than 0.5% of consolidated revenue.” Nevertheless, Gross told Yahoo News he believes Sullivan has been “two-faced” when it comes to Beijing.  

“It’s shocking but not surprising that Dan Sullivan would talk a big game on China while at the same time his family company … was in business with the Chinese government,” Gross said. 

Asked about the critique, Sullivan’s campaign manager, Matt Shuckerow, pointed out that the senator has criticized Beijing but “hasn’t said that people can’t do business in China.” 

“He’s been a China hawk,” Shuckerow said. “He’s been very much advocating for holding China accountable.” 

Along with the other controversies, even the ballot itself has been called into question in the race. And it may be the drama that defines the campaign. 

Gross — who spent about a year registered as a Democrat, five years registered as a Republican and the rest unaffiliated — has said that, if he’s victorious, he’ll caucus with the Democrats, mainly due to his dissatisfaction with how Republicans have approached health care and climate change. However, he has said he’ll likely part ways with Democrats on guns and immigration. 

Despite his status as a registered independent, Gross won the Democratic nomination and is on the ballot for the general election as a Democratic candidate. Mike Carey, a columnist and former editorial page director for the Anchorage Daily News, said the party affiliation issue is a “big problem” for Gross. 

A "Closed" sign is displayed at the window of the Alaska Democratic Party headquarters in Anchorage, Alaska, U.S., April 11, 2020. (Yereth Rosen/Reuters)A "Closed" sign is displayed at the window of the Alaska Democratic Party headquarters in Anchorage, Alaska, U.S., April 11, 2020. (Yereth Rosen/Reuters)
A “Closed” sign is displayed at the window of the Alaska Democratic Party headquarters in Anchorage, Alaska, U.S., April 11, 2020. (Yereth Rosen/Reuters)

“The majority of voters here are independent, but this is a pretty conservative electorate, and it would really take a stretch to elect a Democrat,” Carey told Yahoo News. 

Sullivan’s seat changed hands in tight races during the last two elections. In 2008, Democrat Mark Begich defeated longtime Republican Ted Stevens by less than 2 points in a race that was defined by corruption allegations against Stevens. Six years later, Sullivan beat Begich by just over 2 points. 

Carey further noted that Gross’s independent status is a key advantage he might have over Begich. 

“In 2014, Begich had one thing wrong with him,” Carey said. “Better media, better in person, better in every way except one: his party identification.”

Sullivan’s camp argues that the fact Gross chose to run in the Democratic primary and has received support from the party shows he isn’t truly independent.

“He sought and secured the endorsement of the Alaska Democratic Party … and the national Democrats’ campaign machine. He has received their financial support,” said Shuckerow, Sullivan’s campaign manager. “I don’t know what else you’ve got to say. Al Gross is a Democrat. He’s running as the Democratic nominee.”

Polling has been sparse but indicates the race could be tight. Prior to last month’s poll showing Sullivan with a 1 point lead, a Public Policy Polling survey in August showed a 43-43 tie, with plenty of undecided voters left up for grabs. The Sullivan campaign, however, noted that both polls came from firms linked to Democrats. 

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report still rates the race as “likely Republican.” However, the University of Virginia Center for Politics only has it “leaning” Sullivan’s way. 

Larry Sabato, the director of UVA’s Center for Politics, said “people should be watching” those races that have a slight lean. He also alluded to the seat’s turbulent recent history as a reason to keep an eye on Alaska and said voters in the state “like to throw people out.” 

“Alaska is wild,” Sabato said. “Not just in terms of nature, but its politics is wild.” 

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