A Tiny Alaskan Island Halfway To Russia Could Decide Control Of The Senate

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October 20, 2014 6:00 am
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Russian fur traders came to Alaska’s St. Paul Island, about 300 miles west of the Alaskan mainland and about 500 miles from Russia’s easternmost coast, in the late 18th century. They enslaved the Aleut people, who lived in Siberia and on nearby islands, to hunt the fur seals that populate the island by the thousands. That is the only reason that this volcanic, treeless scrap of tundra in the middle of the Bering Sea became a permanent home for humans.

It was brought under U.S. control in 1870. Now about 500 people live on St. Paul, an island so small that it takes only 30 minutes to drive across it. And it is out there, at the edge of the world, where Democratic control of the U.S. Senate might turn.

Alaska is one of the standard-bearers of the 2014 midterms: a Democratic incumbent, Sen. Mark Begich, in a historically red state, relying on a robust and finely tuned ground game to carry him to what the polls would say is an unlikely victory. According to TPM’s PollTracker average, Begich currently trails Republican challenger Dan Sullivan, 47.6 percent to 44.6 percent.

So as in other key battleground states like Colorado, Democrats are relying on a get-out-the-vote effort that they’ve been building for years to make up for their current deficit in the polling. That means they have to turn out those Democratic voters whom the polling and the history show often skip non-presidential election years.

This is where Bill Briggs and people like him come in. Briggs (pictured above left with fellow volunteer Lauren Divine, right, and local resident Jiggs Bourdokofsky, center) is the Begich campaign’s volunteer on the ground on St. Paul Island. He is one of the hundreds of such volunteers who dot the far-flung Alaskan landscape. If what the Begich campaign says about its ground game is right, the election will turn on what Briggs and his counterparts in various native villages, fishing outposts, and isolated communities hundreds of miles apart from each other are able to accomplish.

St. Paul Island epitomizes Democrats’ midterm drop-off problem, Briggs told TPM in a phone interview (he needed advance notice so he could stand in the right spot for reception). The numbers are stark. About 400 people voted in the 2012 election — and the heavily native electorate votes almost entirely Democratic, according to Briggs — but only 90 voted in the 2010 midterms.

When you remember that Begich won his 2008 election by less than 4,000 votes, it is no exaggeration to say that those 300 votes in St. Paul Island could swing this year’s race — and by extension, Senate control. Early voting starts Monday in Alaska, including in St. Paul, and there are 130 new early voting locations across the state; the election will be officially underway.

“I tell people that this election literally could come down to 300 votes on St. Paul Island that could save the Senate. I tell people that,” said Briggs, 58, a Washington state native who moved to St. Paul for a fishing job. “Pointing out the horrible turnout in 2010 compared to 2012 really opens people’s eyes, though. ‘You’re kidding!'”

Even as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pours $60 million into the data-driven Bannock Street project, designed to get Democratic voters to the polls instead of skipping the midterms as they characteristically have, Begich’s operation stands out, perhaps in large part because of the degree of difficulty in what is by far the biggest state geographically.

As the Washington Post reported earlier this month, the Begich campaign has 16 field offices and 90 paid staffers. They also have hundreds of volunteers like Briggs, who range from Barrow, the northernmost city in the United States, to Savoonga, another tiny village on St. Lawrence Island, about 400 miles north of St. Paul in the Bering Sea.

“We’ve contacted every potential voter in rural Alaska. Every voter in Alaska who might not be politically active, but thinks Mark Begich is a good guy has been contacted by our field operation,” Max Croes, Begich’s communications director, told TPM. “It has been a crazy undertaking. It’s never been done before.”


The village of St. Paul on St. Paul Island, Alaska. (Wikipedia).

Begich hasn’t been to St. Paul — only three flights come in a week and they book up months in advance, Briggs said, while a barge brings supplies every six weeks. The campaign says the senator has still logged more than 11,000 miles on the campaign trail since the beginning of August. But Begich is relying on people like Briggs to make his case in the most remote dots on the map of the state to those voters who might otherwise stay home.

Democrats have become renowned for their sophisticated software that microtargets voters with incredible precision. But Briggs’s operation, aided by a couple of friends he recruited, is decidedly low-tech. He remembers telling one neighbor: “I’ve listened to you bitch all summer long about the government. Now here’s your chance to something about it.” That’s the personal touch that Briggs, and by extension, Begich, is banking on.

For now, they have a list of the 300 or so voters they want to reach, he said, but they are largely meeting them where they are, whether that’s at the one bar on the island, at the fishery that powers St. Paul’s economy or at the only church on the island, a Russian Orthodox congregation that is leftover from those pre-American days. As early voting gets underway, they’ll start to make dedicated home visits or phone calls. Then they plan to follow up with all of their contacted voters in the week leading up to Election Day to make sure they know they can still vote early or remind them to show up at the polls.

The Begich campaign gave the volunteers the voter registration list and a script, Briggs said, but he has his own pitch. He reminds his contacts about Katie John, a legendary Ahtna elder from the Alaskan mainland who fought with the state government over her rights to fish on public lands. As the Alaska Dispatch News reported in August, the GOP nominee Sullivan participated in the lawsuit against John while he was Alaska’s attorney general. For the heavily native St. Paul population, Briggs believes it is a compelling message.

“Nobody’s ever going to forget that. … I tell them, ‘Here’s somebody who fought against your best interest and here’s somebody who fought for them,'” Briggs said. “That’s as stark a difference as it can be.”

The Begich campaign agreed. “Just use what you’re using,” they told Briggs. He hasn’t bothered with the script.


Sen. Mark Begich campaigns in Anchorage this August. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer.)

As far as he knows, Briggs is out here alone, too; he said he hasn’t seen or heard about the Sullivan campaign doing any canvassing on St. Paul. Per the Washington Post, the Republicans have five campaign offices and 14 staffers, a much smaller operation than Begich claims. Outside groups have poured millions into the state for TV air time, though, in an effort to tie Begich to the unpopular national Democratic Party brand and to counter his relentlessly Alaska-centric campaign messaging.

Which brings up the other unusual thing about trying to rally support in one of America’s most remote villages. Potential voters aren’t thinking about control of the Senate, Briggs said.

“I don’t so much worry about control of the Senate nationally so much as I worry about who we have here,” Briggs said. “That’s kind of the way I put it to people. I think that’s what hits them at home.”

But they just might have a big say anyway.

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