Two Alaska governor candidates report big Outside donations. Another had more small in-state gifts

two people voting
The U.S. House primary special election was primarily conducted by mail, however voters could also cast their ballot in person at more than 100 sites across the state. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

It’s campaign season in Alaska, and candidates for state offices recently had to report the contributions they’ve received.

The amount of cash individuals can give to campaigns is unlimited this year, after an appeals court tossed out the relatively strict limits Alaska used to have. And while a couple candidates in the governor’s race have seen some big gifts from non-Alaskans, one is funding his campaign with mostly in-state donations.

That’s according to Alaska Beacon reporter James Brooks.

While it’s not always about the total amount of money each candidate has received, Brooks says the recent reports are an early indication of how much support they have.

Listen:

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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

James Brooks: We’re 30 days out from the Aug. 16 primary, and so this is our first look at how the candidates are doing before the votes are cast. It’s not a direct correlation with how they’ll do on the Election Day. It’s possible to raise a lot of money and get a few votes. But generally, if you’re getting a lot of donations from many different people, that’s a sign that people like you, and you’re probably going to do well at the polls.

Casey Grove: So how did they do? And I think, initially, we maybe reported this a little bit backwards. But what are the numbers for the top donation getters?

JB: So if you’re looking at just the period between Feb. 2 and July 15 … Mike Dunleavy finishes first, he’s raised more money than any of the 10 governor candidates. And Bill Walker is second, followed by Les Gara. But if you look at the numbers more deeply, you see that Gara has more contributions. So a lot of smaller contributions made up his total. And most of those contributions were from within the state. Whereas, if you look at Walker and Dunleavy’s numbers, they’re boosted by a handful of really large contributions. We’re talking $100,000 or more. So they all raised about the same amount of money if you exclude those big money contributions from rich people.

CG: Who were those rich people? I guess in the case of incumbent Gov. Mike Dunleavy, there were a couple of folks that gave him a lot of money that were not surprises. And who were they?

JB: Right. Back in 2018, the governor got a lot of money from his brother, Francis, and Bob Penney, an Alaska businessman who cares quite a bit about sport fishing, particularly on the Kenai River. And both his brother and Penney bankrolled Dunleavy’s 2018 campaign through a third-party group. This time around, they seem to be giving money directly to Dunleavy’s campaign. And they can do that because there’s not a limit on how much you can give to a particular candidate or campaign. If you remember, a few months ago, we learned that there would not be any contribution limit, or any significant contribution limit, for this year’s elections. Those got thrown out last year by a federal court. The state didn’t appeal that decision. And then the Alaska Legislature failed to enact new limits.

CG: And I definitely want to talk to you more about what you think the impact of that was, on these early numbers anyway, if you can tell at this point. But really quick, who were the big outside donors to former Gov. Bill Walker?

JB: Bill Walker got three $100,000 contributions, one from an independent politician and consultant from Kansas, one from a member of the Murdoch family who lives in New York City and another from a businessman in New York City. And all three of those people have been regular contributors nationally to candidates and causes that try to reduce political polarization. They’ve backed independence, they back things like ranked choice voting and generally efforts that try to keep people away from each other’s throats when it comes to politics.

CG: There was kind of a funny thing that happened in the initial reports, that third person you mentioned was sort of listed incorrectly as a CNN journalist, right?

JB: Right. It turns out that the CNN journalist and this New York City businessman have the same name and they live in the same neighborhood in New York City. And so the Walker campaign at first listed this person as the CNN journalist instead of the businessman, which, I mean, on one hand, it’s understandable. On the other hand, it’s kind of embarrassing, because this is one of your main contributors.

CG: Yeah. They didn’t know who it was right away.

JB: Right.

CG: So what are you seeing in these early numbers as far as any impact from that decision to throw out the campaign contribution limits?

JB: So there’s two main kinds of money that go into political campaigns. There’s donations directly to the candidate and to the campaign, and then there’s money that goes to a third party, and that third-party group under federal law can’t coordinate with the campaign. But that third-party group can accept unlimited contributions and spend an unlimited amount of money. And until this year, that was the main difference. That was the main advantage. If you were a rich person, and you wanted to really support a candidate or a cause, you could give $100,000 or $1 million to this third-party group that could then run ads on behalf of campaign.

But now, with no limit, a wealthy person can put all of that money directly to the candidate or campaign. And the thought was that they would do that instead of a third-party group. So far, that seems to be borne out. We’ve seen Bob Penney and Francis Dunleavy, for example, in 2018, they put a lot of money into a third-party group. This time around, they’re donating directly to Dunleavy. But I don’t want to say it’s a complete replacement, because we’ve seen the Republican Governors Association last year put $3 million into a third-party group that intends to back Dunleavy in the election. That $3 million is about as much as all three of the leading governor candidates have raised to date.

CG: Gotcha. Well, so the primary’s coming up here in several weeks. It’s on Aug. 16. And I wonder: At what point does my mailbox start to get clogged with mailers from these campaigns? My YouTube videos clogged up with pre-roll advertising? Have you noticed an increase in that sort of thing yet? Or is that still to come?

JB: You know, if I’m a governor candidate, I’m holding off until after the primary, because people might not be paying attention to the election yet. But I have started hearing more ads. I’ve started getting more mailers, but for the U.S. Senate race, rather than the governor’s race or legislative races yet. I know there’s plenty of legislative candidates out there knocking on doors, putting up signs and we’re seeing more signs out in public. But I wouldn’t expect things to start to pick up until after that primary.

CG: Some would say, “keeping their powder dry,” I would imagine.

JB: Exactly

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Casey Grove is the host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media with an emphasis on crime and courts. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org.