When it comes to who’s giving money to Alaska’s political candidates there’s plenty of interesting questions beyond the big ones such as what a hedge fund manager wants for his $1.5 million donation to help reelect U.S. Lisa Murkowski.
Questions such as why are so many of the $25 or $50 donations being given by lots of people to her Trump-backed opponent Kelly Tshibaka being made every month? And why is Planned Parenthood donating a whopping $8 each on behalf of a couple of independent congressional candidates and the same amount opposing a couple of them (including the late Don Young)?
The narratives and motives are often anything but straightforward in the tens of thousands of pages of reports for state and federal campaign financial activity the past few months. All the more so this year since the state’s $500 annual limit for donors was eliminated based on a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last year.
Legal unlimited individual donations has made it common, for instance, for campaigns to claim virtually all of their donors are Alaskans chipping in small amounts which, while numerically true, bypasses how a few huge donors may represent most of the actual money raised.
“Alaskans make up 90 percent of all donors. The other 10 percent are individuals who live out of state,” stated former Gov. Bill Walker, who is seeking the seat again as an independent, in a news release earlier this month announcing his fundraising totals. But more than 40% of the roughly $750,000 raised since February came from three donors.
A similar percentage of the $925,000 incumbent Gov. Mike Dunleavy raised also came from three donors. Democratic candidate Les Gara raised the least money at $575,000, but also could lay somewhat more claim to smaller individual donors since his largest contribution was $16,500 from Anchorage attorney Robin Brena.
Then there’s the oddities and glitches by the filers and in official online databases that can scatter efforts to put the puzzle pieces together. “Anchorage,” for instance, is spelled or abbreviated more than 30 different ways in Alaska Public Offices Commission (APOC) filings for the current elections.
Seizing the initiative
Examples of many of the above can be seen in the lone statewide initiative on the ballot, a yes/no vote on a constitutional convention. While an increasingly hot topic in today’s increasingly turbulent political climate, a first glance at APOC’s financial data suggests a tepid and lopsided campaign during the months ahead.
There’s no group listed as advocating for the constitutional convention, let alone any money raised or spent. A group opposing the initiative, Defend Our Constitution, shows little activity beyond the $30,000 raised as of February when doing a search for the 2022 reporting year.
Neither accurately represents the reality of the campaign trail.
Defend Our Constitution actually has raised about $320,000, nearly all of it since February, but it was errantly listed in APOC’s 2021 reporting year. Ira Slomski Pritz, the group’s campaign manager, states nearly all of the donations to date are from individual Alaskans. But $100,000 comes from two out-of-state PACs (the American Federation of Teachers and the IBEW PAC Educational Fund) and $50,000 from NEA-Alaska’s PAC.
“We are going to do everything we can do to defeat this ballot measure, and that includes grassroots efforts from Alaskans” as well as large nationwide donors, Pritz said. “I don’t think those are contradictory ideas. I think it’s still notable that we have a lot of Alaskans chipping in what they can.”
The state constitution requires the convention question to be placed on the ballot every 10 years and it was defeated by a two-to-one margin in 2012. But Pritz and others opposing this year’s ballot measure said they’re not counting on an easy victory despite past history or the lack of an official “pro” organization, due in part to increased agitation and desires for such conventions nationally for reasons ranging from the overturning of Roe v. Wade to parental or religious rights.
“I think we view the risk of a constitutional convention as high,” Pritz said. “It’s going to be such a crowded political cycle we just need to educate Alaskans on what this is about.”
Organizations favoring the ballot measure include the Alaska Family Council and Alaskan Independence Party, neither of whom shows raising or spending funds related to the issue during the recent APOC filing period. But there are prolific efforts so far to promote the measure via social and news media, particularly in “sympathetic” publications such as the conservative Alaska Watchman.
The tiny amounts add up
John Eilertsen, a Wasilla resident, said he gladly started donating $50 a month to Republican Kelly Tshibaka’s campaign for the U.S. Senate seat as she seeks to defeat Republican incumbent Lisa Murkowski. But the Federal Elections Commission database shows he’s actually making two monthly $50 payments and donated slightly more than $2,000 during Tshibaka’s campaign, which Eilertsen attributed to a glitch he’s happy accepting.
“I thought I was doing it once a month,” he said. But “I didn’t think she was getting it. I didn’t see it on my Visa bill.”
So Eilertsen signed up to donate for a second time and when both charges showed up decided to continue them.
“It makes a difference donating that the PACs don’t,” he said, when asked how his monthly amounts could help sway an election compared to the six- and seven-figure contributions from the largest federal donors. “There’s a lot more of us than there are of them.”
Recurring donations became a highly controversial issue during the 2020 campaign when many people contributing to former President Donald Trump said what they thought were one-time amounts were billed monthly without their knowledge. But while Alaska’s major congressional candidates all allow for recurring donations, the forms at their websites have clearly marked checkboxes for the option (Tshibaka’s is checked yes by default, while Murkowski and Democratic candidate Patricia Chesbro default to no).
Then there’s small donations from groups with seemingly big pockets such as Planned Parenthood, which in the case of candidates in Alaska (and elsewhere) appears to simply divide cumulative pools of money evenly. While the $8 donations may not pay many expenses, it does give campaigns (and their opponents) material for bragging/shaming rights. Attempts to reach Planned Parenthood for comment were unsuccessful.
The agenda of Murkowski’s biggest single donor (through a PAC advocating for her) seems clear: help mostly “mainstream” Republicans retake Congress.
Ken Griffin, founder and CEO of the Citadel hedge fund, has donated tens of millions of dollars the past couple of years to mostly Republican PACs nationwide, including $1.5 million this year to Alaskans for L.I.S.A during the most recent FEC filing period. The amount nearly matches the roughly $1.7 million raised by Murkowski’s official campaign, about $700,000 of which is from PACs and the rest from individuals.
Tales of generous personal affiliation are evident in the statewide reports for governor.
Dunleavy’s three large donors include $200,000 from his brother Francis, $100,000 from decades-long Alaska sports fishing advocate Bob Penney and $100,000 from Minnesota developer Armand Brachman (described by a campaign spokesperson to the Alaska Beacon as “a hunting and fishing buddy” with no business interests in Alaska).
Dunleavy’s brother and Penney also donated heavily to the governor’s campaign in 2018, and have come under heavy scrutiny for that and other past actions. Penney’s $300,000 donation to Dunleavy in 2018, for instance, was questioned when his grandson then got an $8,000-a-month no-bid contract. The sports fisherman’s donation also raised concerns among commercial fishing entities worried about being slighted by the new governor, although they were generous contributors themselves.
Walker’s three big donors were $100,000 each from Kansas political figure Greg Orman, trading firm partner Jason Carroll (who Walker originally confused with a CNN correspondent of the same name, briefly stirring up media scrutiny) and New York author Kathy Murdoch.
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at email@example.com.