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AK & SC-Sen: Sabato's Crystal Ball Downgrades Both Races From “Safe GOP” To “Likely GOP”

9 min read

Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball just released their Senate predictions section. They are identifying Senate races in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina as the top four toss up races moving in the Democrats direction. Sabato’s Crystal Ball also identifies both Georgia Senate races along with Montana and Iowa as races where Republicans currently have a slight edge but have great potential to move into the toss up category as we get closer to the election. But what’s surprising is they also downgraded two seats that were supposed to be safe Republican seats. First, Alaska:

Alaska is a GOP-leaning state in national races but is known for its local idiosyncrasies. Since 2004, Republican nominees for president have carried the Last Frontier by margins ranging from 14 to 26 percentage points.

During that same stretch, no Alaska Senate candidate has won with a majority of the vote.

In 2014 — a disastrous midterm for Democrats across the county — Alaskans didn’t seem to care about partisan loyalty when registering their discontent at the polls: it was the only state that year to oust both a sitting senator, a Democrat, and its incumbent governor, a Republican.

That 2014 Senate race became an expensive contest between incumbent Democrat Mark Begich and Republican challenger Dan Sullivan. Begich was a household name in the state — a theme of his ads was his late father’s service representing the state in the House. But Sullivan tied the incumbent to another leader: President Obama. Despite running especially well with the state’s Native American voters, who make up 15% of the population, Begich lost his seat in a narrow 48%-46% vote.

This year, Sullivan will have the state’s partisan lean on his side, as there’s little doubt Trump will carry the state. During his first term, Sullivan has been a low-profile, party-line conservative — which actually means Sullivan is a bit out of step with the two other members of the state’s all-Republican federal delegation.

Alaska’s other senator, Lisa Murkowski, can almost be seen an independent who caucuses with Republicans. She has a record of breaking with her party on key votes — she voted against the Republican Affordable Care Act repeal effort and against the confirmation of now-Justice Kavanaugh. In her third full term, Murkowski has run a gauntlet of three competitive races, but has cobbled together coalitions that cut across racial and partisan lines.

In the lower chamber, Alaska can claim the Dean of the House: Rep. Don Young (R, AK-AL), who has served since 1973. A colorful figure, he seems most interested in using his seniority to steer resources to the state, while tending to local infrastructure and land issues. Young has faced competitive races in recent cycles, but has held on thanks, in part, to uncommon support from Alaska Natives — a group that will likely be less open to Sullivan. The Crystal Ball rates Young’s race as Likely Republican.

Against Sullivan, national Democrats are again rallying around a candidate with some family political lineage in the state — though this time, with a twist. The Alaska Democratic Party endorsed Al Gross, a surgeon who is running as an independent; his father served as state Attorney General in the 1970s under Gov. Jay Hammond (R-AK). Gross outraised Sullivan last quarter, though Sullivan can claim a better-than two-to-one cash-on-hand advantage. Alyse Galvin, Young’s credible challenger in both 2018 and this year, is also a hybrid independent/Democrat.

In some ways, this race looks reminiscent of the 2014 Kansas Senate contest, mentioned above. In that scenario, Republican Sen. Pat Roberts seemed to be running an underwhelming reelection effort. In what initially appeared to be a three-way scenario, Democrats convinced their candidate to drop out in favor of independent businessman Greg Orman. In a race that appeared headed to photo finish, Orman posted slight leads in most final polls. On Election Day, though, his support seemed to evaporate, as Roberts won by a surprisingly decisive 11-point margin.

Democrats may point to another 2014 race as a template for 2020. Bill Walker, Republican-turned Independent, upset Gov. Sean Parnell (R-AK) that year. As Alaska’s fusion voting system allows, Walker teamed up with a Democratic running mate, Byron Mallott. Parnell entered the election under fire for his handling of abuse in the state National Guard. During the closing weeks of the campaign, the Walker/Mallott ticket got a boost from an unlikely ally: former-Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK), who criticized Parnell for some of his budgetary decisions (Parnell, formerly the lieutenant governor, took over for Palin after she resigned in 2009). In this wild race, the result turned on factors and personalities that were local — something unlikely to be replicated in a federal race for the Senate.

Alaska is more receptive to third party candidates than many other states are — after all, Murkowski was reelected in 2010 as a write-in candidate after losing the Republican primary. Even so, Kansas offers a cautionary tale for Alaska Democrats, and they would be unwise to rely on a redux of their state’s 2014 gubernatorial contest. We see Sullivan as a clear favorite, but downgrading this race from Safe Republican to Likely Republican seems reasonable given Alaska’s quirkiness and because Gross is at least a credible challenger who should run a real campaign.

Second, South Carolina:

Speaking of write-in campaigns, our other ratings change this week comes in a state that also saw a famous victory by a write-in candidate: South Carolina. In 1954, Strom Thurmond won as an “Independent Democrat.” This was six years after he had run as a conservative Democratic “Dixiecrat” alternative for president against Harry Truman, and a decade before he switched from the Democrats to the Republicans.

Thurmond would serve in the Senate from the mid-1950s all the way to 2003, when he was replaced by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

Graham, running for a fourth term, may face a more competitive race than we initially thought.

A longtime ally of the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Graham and McCain would frequently fashion themselves as mavericks. The duo irritated conservative elements of their party, especially on issues like immigration and climate change. In his 2014 primary — armed with a $12 million warchest and aided by fractured opposition — Graham polled at 56%. He went on to win the general election 54%-39%.

Since McCain’s death in August 2018, Graham has become a more full-throated advocate of the Trump administration’s priorities after initially being a major Trump critic during the 2016 presidential primary cycle (when Graham himself was a candidate). In a viral clip, Graham defended Kavanaugh during that contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearing. This maneuvering played well with his primary electorate, as did his defense of Trump during the battle over impeachment. An April 2019 poll from Morning Consult showed that 80% of South Carolina Republicans approved of Graham’s work — at the time, it was the highest intraparty approval rating of any GOP senator up for reelection in 2020.

If Graham’s rightward trek strengthened his hand with conservatives, it deadened his prospects for crossover support with Democrats — not exactly a bad trade for the senator, considering Trump carried the state 55%-41% in 2016. Still, Democrats have vowed to give him a more spirited contest than they have in past cycles.

Graham’s likely general election opponent is Jaime Harrison, who chaired the state Democratic Party from 2013 to 2017. Harrison’s fundraising has been excellent. After raising more than $7 million in 2019, he set up a joint fundraising operation with Cunningham, noted above as the Democratic nominee in the Toss-up North Carolina race.

In the first quarter of 2020, Harrison outraised Graham by roughly $7 million to $5.5 million, although Graham still holds a cash edge. The state’s partisanship should be enough to keep this seat in Republican hands. Still, Harrison’s fundraising hauls are an indication that this could be the most competitive senatorial race in South Carolina since the Bush era. Harrison’s internal polling from late March gave Graham a four percentage point lead, though an older public poll from NBC News/Marist College showed the incumbent up 54%-37%. Likely Republican feels like the most appropriate rating.

Democrats are hopeful that Graham will run behind Trump, in part because of some of Graham’s past apostasies and long history in politics, while also losing some usual GOP support in suburban Charleston and Charlotte. Meanwhile, Harrison will try to excite (and expand) the African-American electorate (Harrison is black).

South Carolina remains the most Republican state on the Eastern Seaboard. Harrison’s path is not an easy one, but it is also not an impossible one.

Sullivan and Graham are relying on Trump’s coattails and dark money to keep them in office but both Gross and Harrison are serious opponents. First, Gross:

Although Gross, like about half of Alaskans, is a registered independent, he’s running on a standard liberal platform – expanding Medicare with a public option, raising the minimum wage, fighting climate change, implementing campaign finance reform – and has been endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

However, he said, “While a lot of my values are to the left, and I will caucus with the Democrats, not all of them are. I think of myself as an independent thinker.”

He differs, for example, on the question of a universal basic income, espoused by some Democrats, such as former presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Yang’s “Freedom Dividend” is similar to the annual oil revenue payments that Gross’ father implemented in Alaska. But Gross says that what works for Alaska may not work for the whole country.

“The UBI check here in Alaska has been a great program, but any program like that, you have to be careful you don’t disincentivize going back to the workforce,” he said.

But if the state had problems when Gross filed to run last year, the coronavirus and its economic fallout have caused even more since. Gross said that Alaska’s isolation would actually make it easier to stop the spread – assuming, that is, that the state gets enough tests, which so far it has not. Gross said that he had a friend who didn’t get his results back for 18 days.

The state may also struggle to provide essential health services, he said, because Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy initiated “draconian budget cuts” so severe that there’s now a recall campaign – and that was before the oil crash, which will likely affect the state’s budget even more.

Gross said that the White House should be playing a larger role, not delegating to the states. “It’s horrifying to see what the federal government is doing,” he said. “There’s been no leadership. Our president is recommending to drink bleach and inject Lysol. It’s just scary.”

The pandemic has also hindered Gross’s ability to meet voters – already difficult in a state the size of Mongolia. But Gross has been holding tele-town halls and is frequently interviewed on local radio. “Given the fact that we’re hunkered down here in Anchorage, I think we’re being very effective, for fundraising and also for getting our message across,” he said.

Second, Harrison:

Though Graham still has more money, having raised $22.6 million this election cycle so far, Harrison has raised $15 million since jumping into the race and surpassed Graham in the last fundraising quarter: $7.4 million compared to the $5.6 million Graham raised in the first three months of 2020.

Now, Harrison is claiming support from at least one of Graham’s former, deep-pocketed allies.

Richard Wilkerson, the former chairman and president of Michelin’s North American operations headquartered in Greenville, is publicly switching sides to endorse Harrison for the U.S. Senate after being a reliable Graham donor for years.

A finance committee co-chairman on Graham’s short-lived 2016 presidential campaign, Wilkerson quietly made a $500 donation to Harrison’s campaign at the end of last year, Federal Election Commission records show.

The last contribution Wilkerson made to Graham was $2,700 in 2017. In all, he has given Graham over $20,000 throughout the years in a combination of a contributions to various accounts affiliated with the lawmaker — to boost his reelection campaign, his presidential bid and his political action committee.

“This campaign is not about Democrat versus Republican, it is about right versus wrong,” Guy King, Harrison’s spokesman, said in a statement to The State. “The people of South Carolina deserve leadership that will put them first instead of someone who plays Washington political games. We want everyone across the Palmetto State to join our movement to restore hope to millions of South Carolinians statewide.”

We need to make an aggressive play for the U.S. Senate and we need to keep an eye on both these races. Click below to donate and get involved with Gross and Harrison’s campaigns:

Dr. Al Gross

Jaime Harrison

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