Is it a campaign advertisement, or the trailer for an episode of “Running Wild with Bear Grylls”?
For the first few seconds of a 1-minute television spot that began airing in Alaska in July, it’s hard to know for sure.
“He was born in the wake of an avalanche,” a narrator with a deep baritone informs viewers as the camera shows a boat traversing an Alaskan bay. “Bought his first fishing boat with a bank loan at age 14.”
After priming viewers to imagine a Paul Bunyan-like pioneer ― he shot a grizzly bear dead in “self defense”! ― the ad introduces Dr. Al Gross, a bespectacled orthopedic surgeon trying to unseat Sen. Dan Sullivan, a first-term Republican up for reelection in November. Gross, who is also a commercial fisherman and health care activist, is running for Senate as an independent, but plans to caucus with Democrats.
If it were Lisa Murkowski, Alaska’s other ― more moderate ― GOP senator, up for reelection, Gross wouldn’t even be running.
“Lisa stands up for Alaska,” Gross told HuffPost in an interview. “I don’t get that feeling from Dan Sullivan at all.”
“Alaskans very much pride ourselves on putting our state before national interests and country.”
Unseating Sullivan in a conservative-leaning state famous for sending politicians to Washington for decades at a time would be an uphill fight under any circumstances.
Gross’ shot at victory hangs on his argument that he, born and bred in the state, would more faithfully represent Alaska’s independent political tradition than Sullivan, a Marine veteran and attorney who moved to the state as an adult.
If Gross succeeds, he could swing the Senate for Democrats and chart a new path for moderate politicians trying to win in rural, red states. A victory would also attest to the enduring political price Republicans like Sullivan have suffered for voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
“It’s a perfect storm for Al Gross,” said Jim Lottsfeldt, a lobbyist and political consultant who has advised moderate Alaskan politicians from both parties. “There’s been no better time for him to say, ‘It’s time to send a doctor to Washington.’”
An ‘Alaska First’ Independent
To many residents of the lower 48 land-contiguous states, Alaska is almost synonymous with the rise of the contemporary, rural-focused Republican Party. After all, the oil-rich state, which last voted for the Democratic presidential nominee in 1964, gave the country Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee-turned-culture war avatar.
But as Gross’ own history reveals, Alaska’s politics are as quirky as its rugged terrain. Gross’ father, Avrum, a Jewish lawyer born in New York City, served as Alaska’s Democratic attorney general from 1974 to 1980.
What’s more, the state was represented by a Democrat in the Senate as recently as 2014, when moderate one-termer Mark Begich lost reelection to Sullivan. Murkowski is known for defying party orthodoxy; after losing the GOP nomination to a Tea Party conservative in 2010, she was re-elected anyway in an unprecedented write-in campaign.
That independent spirit — borne out of Alaska’s identity as a young, underdeveloped state geographically removed from its countrymen to the south — has motivated generations of Alaskans to prioritize electing politicians of either party capable of steering federal dollars back to the state for military jobs, infrastructure and economic development.
“Alaskans very much pride ourselves on putting our state before national interests and country,” Lottsfeldt said. “We are always Alaskans first.”
It’s not altogether surprising then that the state’s voters increasingly do not identify with either major party. While the state has more registered Republicans than registered Democrats, more people than in either group ― and a majority of Alaska’s voters ― now choose not to affiliate with any political party, according to official state data.
Former Gov. Bill Walker, an ex-Republican, won as an independent in 2014 ― the same year that Sullivan unseated Begich. Alyse Galvin, who nearly unseated Rep. Don Young in 2018 ― and is trying again in November ― also identifies as an independent.
Now Gross, who claims to have been an independent since he was old enough to vote, is following the same path. His father’s partnership with then-Republican Gov. Jay Hammond, who oversaw the creation of the state fund that sends all Alaskans oil revenue checks, inspired his decision not to register with a party, according to Gross.
Gross plans to caucus with Democrats because he wants to pursue “progressive changes” in health care that build on the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of coverage, pass legislation curbing greenhouse gas emissions and protect women’s reproductive rights.
At the same time, Gross described his views on some social issues as more “conservative.” When it comes to gun policy, for example, he supports universal background checks but opposed a ban on military-style “assault” rifles.
“We should be working first to get Americans back to work before allowing people from out of the country to come into the United States.”
He also favors strong enforcement of the U.S. border. “Right now, with so many Americans unemployed, we should be working first to get Americans back to work before allowing people from out of the country to come into the United States ― unless they have opportunities for jobs that aren’t fillable by people who live here,” he told HuffPost.
And while Gross wants action to mitigate climate change, he toes a careful line on environmental policy designed to reflect his “Alaska-first” philosophy. He supports opening the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR) to limited oil and gas drilling, but opposes the dredging of Pebble Mine, a proposed open-pit gold and copper mine that experts fear would endanger Alaska’s famously abundant sockeye salmon fisheries. More than 60% of Alaskans agree with Gross, according to a poll commissioned by Bristol Bay Defense Fund, a group opposed to the mine.
Gross cites Sullivan’s reticence about the mining project as a key example of his refusal to put Alaska above partisanship or corporate interests. “Dan Sullivan has had more than six years to speak out against the mine, representing the state, and he’s been in the shadows while the Trump administration has moved forward on the mine,” he said.
Unlike Gross, Sullivan has taken a neutral approach, citing the need to respect the federal government’s approval process.
The Trump administration’s extraction-friendly Environmental Protection Agency signaled in May that it planned to let the project proceed, but the Army Corps of Engineers, citing its own environmental concerns, stalled the mine’s construction in August.
Asked for additional comment, Sullivan’s campaign referred HuffPost to Sullivan’s statement approving of the Trump administration’s August decision. “I support this conclusion — based on the best available science and a rigorous, fair process — that a federal permit cannot be issued,” he said.
A Doctor Who Wants To Fix U.S. Health Care
Gross’ case that Sullivan is not prioritizing Alaska rests more than anything on the junior senator’s repeated votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, including a vote for a bill that very nearly passed in July 2017.
That vote inspired Gross to run against Sullivan. In lieu of the landmark law that expanded coverage to 20 million Americans, Sullivan “offered no solution,” Gross said. “Dan has turned his back on the health care issue.”
His critique of Sullivan is that much sharper because Murkowski, Alaska’s senior senator, provided one of three Republican “no” votes that ended up sinking the July 2017 repeal bill. At the time, Murkowski worried that “without a clear path forward,” repealing the ACA, which funded an expansion of Medicaid that has extended coverage to an additional 60,000 Alaskans since 2015, would have hurt Alaska.
Asked about his vote, Sullivan’s campaign manager Matt Shuckerow emphasized Sullivan’s work to stop parts of the law that he believes hurt the state, including the proposed tax on high-cost “Cadillac” insurance plans that cover many union members, a medical device tax, and the individual mandate to buy health insurance. (Democrats and Republicans united to repeal all three provisions in a Dec. 2019 spending bill.)
Sullivan also supports “protections” for people with preexisting conditions, according to Shuckerow.
The campaign did not explicitly address though why Sullivan voted for the repeal bill, particularly one that would have defunded Medicaid expansion and freed states from federal rules protecting people with preexisting conditions from being charged more for coverage. Sullivan “ran on improving the Affordable Care Act and I think he stood by his word,” Shuckerow said.
As an orthopedic surgeon, Gross had a front-row seat to witness the health care problems in the state, which has the second-highest health care costs per person in the country. He regularly made more than $2.5 million a year working three or four days a week. Gross told a columnist for Alaska Dispatch News in 2017 that a significant chunk of his income came from the outlandish fees that private insurers paid for tests and other services rather than his core work of operating on broken bones.
Fed up with profiting from a system that enriched him and other for-profit providers at the expense of patients, Gross quit his Juneau-based medical practice in 2013 and obtained a master’s degree in public health to study ways to reduce underlying costs.
In addition to curbing the influence of pharmacy benefit managers, he is running on creating a nationwide public health insurance option that would allow individuals and small businesses to buy into Medicare at cost.
He also wants to resume the now-dormant bipartisan project of eliminating “surprise” medical billing for patients that unknowingly receive treatment from doctors who do not participate in a hospital’s insurance agreements.
But Gross’ background as a health care reform advocate carries political risks, as well as advantages.
Medicare for All is a solution favored by the activist left for the way in which it would supplant for-profit insurance with a plan akin to what seniors currently enjoy that is free, or nearly free, at the point of service.
“Any change in our health care system has to be done pragmatically and incrementally.”
But moderate Democrats, like presidential nominee Joe Biden, have disavowed Medicare for All, citing concerns about forcing people satisfied with their employer-sponsored plans into a new program. Gross now justifies his embrace of a more modest solution as a practical way forward given the difficulty of previous reform efforts.
“Any change in our health care system has to be done pragmatically and incrementally,” he said.
When HuffPost asked in a follow-up exchange what had caused Gross’ change of heart, a campaign spokesperson reiterated Gross’ public option proposal and his critique of Sullivan’s vote to repeal the ACA. The campaign did not provide additional information about Gross’ evolution.
That’s not good enough for the Sullivan campaign, which has been attacking Gross as if he still supports the policy.
It’s also turned off some progressive activists who worked with Gross during his days as a Medicare for All advocate and member of Physicians for a National Health Plan. A new Gross TV ad that shows him declaring his opposition to Medicare for All and the Green New Deal while wielding his rifle in the Alaskan wild is a particular sore point.
“It looked exactly like a Republican ad,” said an Anchorage progressive who asked for anonymity for professional reasons. The progressive, who usually votes for Democrats, plans to skip the election this year out of frustration with what they see as the state’s Democratic candidates’ willingness to take the left-wing base for granted.
Sentiments like that could be a real problem for Gross in Alaska, where Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) won the 2016 Democratic presidential caucus with nearly 82% of the vote. (Biden bested Sanders by 11 percentage points this year in an April primary held after Sanders had formally withdrawn from the race.)
“Voters anywhere, but particularly in Alaska, will punish you if you say you’re something that you aren’t,” said Scott Kendall, who has advised Murkowski and served as chief of staff to then-Gov. Walker, the Republican-turned-independent.
The Donald Trump Factor
Alaska is on Senate Democrats’ radar as a reach state that could turn blue in a wave year. But party officials do not see it as a first- or second-tier priority for retaking the Senate ― and are wary of turning the race into a partisan proxy war with a premature cash injection.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has made six-figure investments in Arizona and Montana, transferred just under $50,000 to Gross’ campaign ― a fraction of the sum that Gross himself has contributed. The Senate Majority PAC, the Democratic Senate super PAC with ties to party leaders, has stayed on the sidelines entirely.
Other outside groups have been more eager to jump in on Gross’ behalf. The Lincoln Project, a super PAC run by anti-Trump Republicans; 314 Action Fund, which tries to elect Democrats with a scientific professional background; and Independent Alaska, a new super PAC of unknown origins, have together spent about $3 million boosting Gross and attacking Sullivan.
Public polling gives Gross’ allies reason to be upbeat. Gross was tied with Sullivan in a late August survey conducted by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm that sometimes overstates the chances of its party’s candidates.
The role that President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign will have on down-ballot candidates in the states is a big unknown, however.
Some Alaska election watchers maintain that Sullivan is more vulnerable than Trump, because of perceptions that he lacks independence. While the sparse polling data available in the state shows an unusually close race between Trump and Biden in Alaska, Trump generally polls higher than Sullivan.
“His strength and his weakness are that he’s been a loyal Trump bot,” said Lottsfeldt, who likened Sullivan and Trump to “Siamese twins.”
“Sullivan’s relatively secure in winning that race.”
Other analysts, who are more skeptical of Gross’s chances, maintain that Sullivan is in better shape than Trump in Alaska and will be far harder to paint as an extreme partisan than Gross thinks.
“Sullivan’s relatively secure in winning that race,” said Kendall, the former Murkowski adviser. “If there’s a shift such that that race’s outcome is in doubt, it will have been because there is a tectonic shift nationally that somehow drags Sen. Sullivan down.”
Contra Gross’ claims, Sullivan’s campaign points to other data suggesting he is a bridge builder. Sullivan ranks as the 14th-most bipartisan member of the Senate, according to the Lugar Center. He has worked with Democrats on a bill aimed at reducing plastic waste in waterways, and been outspoken in his calls for greater action to resolve the plague of missing and murdered women in Alaska Native communities.
Indeed, Sullivan’s support among some labor unions and Alaska Native communities that a Democrat would normally need to win does not bode well for Gross. (Sullivan’s wife, Julie Fate Sullivan, is Koyukon Athabascan.)
Megan Alvanna-Stimpfle, a tribal advocate who worked on Sullivan’s first campaign, plans to vote for Biden, whom she believes is better positioned to unite the country.
But she is splitting her ticket and sticking with Sullivan, whose work improving water and sewage access for Alaska Natives she especially appreciates. “He’s just been someone who works on our priorities relentlessly,” she said.
Kendall, a self-described moderate Republican, has been unimpressed with Gross’ ads highlighting his marksmanship.
“I don’t know how many times he’s shot the bear, but I’ve seen it in every ad. Stop talking about the bear already!” he said. “What Alaskan hasn’t run into a bear?”