A Gun-Toting Doctor Is Betting He’s Alaskan Enough To Win In A Solid Red State

Dr. Al Gross, an independent aligned with Democrats, says he has a real shot at unseating Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan.

9/16/2020 11:18:00 PM

Dr. Al Gross, an independent aligned with Democrats, says he has a real shot at unseating Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan.

Dr. Al Gross, an independent aligned with Democrats, says he has a real shot at unseating Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan.

Daniel MaransDr. Al Gross for Senate/FlickrDr. Al Gross has showcased his identity as an Alaskan outdoorsman in campaign materials. Some skeptics think Gross' schtick is over the top.Is it a campaign advertisement, or the trailer for an episode of “Running Wild with Bear Grylls”?

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For the first few seconds of a1-minute television spotthat 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.

Jim Lottsfeldt, lobbyist and consultantUnseating 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.’”Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

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Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republicans, consult on Capitol Hill. Murkowski has a more moderate record, including a key vote against repealing Obamacare.An ‘Alaska First’ IndependentTo 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 nomineein 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.

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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.

Dr. Al GrossHe 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.

Read more: HuffPost »

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