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Cameron Joseph

Cameron Joseph is Talking Points Memo's senior political correspondent based in Washington, D.C. He covers Capitol Hill, the White House and the permanent campaign. Previous publications include the New York Daily News, Mashable, The Hill and National Journal. He grew up near Chicago and is an irrationally passionate Cubs fan.

Articles by Cameron

Rep. Don Young (R-AK) has come back from the dead more times than Chucky, surviving a number of scandals and grinding out tough races in each of his five decades in Congress. But this election just might be different.

Young, the cantankerous dean of the House, appears to have a late-breaking dogfight on his hands against independent Alyse Galvin. Three different pollsters have found a margin-of-error contest in the state in the last month.

Alaska is notoriously difficult to poll, some of those pollsters don’t have great track records, and Young has trailed in polls in past years only to grind out a win. But there are signs that he’s in a tough battle.

Young predicted earlier this year that he would “beat the bejeezus out of anybody” he ran against, and seems to have been caught off guard by Galvin, an education activist who like Democratic challengers across the country has posted unusually strong fundraising figures. Galvin had raised $1.5 million to his $1 million as of mid-October, and has outspent him by a small margin in the state.

She’s also the first candidate in a long time to have a clean shot at the congressman.

Young won reelection in 2014 and 2016 with just 51 percent and 50 percent of the vote, but third-party candidates siphoned off chunks of the vote and made those races not as close. Galvin, who is running as an independent but has strong support from Democrats in the state, is the first candidate in years who doesn’t have to contend with losing votes to others.

“There’s only the two of them on the ballot, that’s an advantage for Alyse that previous challengers to Young didn’t have,” said Alaska AFL-CIO President Vince Beltrami. “There’ a lot of grassroots support for her and she’s working really hard, but you can’t take Don Young for granted.”

The Congressional Leadership Fund, the main GOP House super-PAC, made a last-minute six-figure investment in the state on Saturday in hopes of helping Young avert disaster. The push’s goal: Phone calls to 100,000 voters to boost the longtime congressman. Alaska leans Republican — but has a strong penchant for electing independents over the years as well.

Another warning sign for the longtime incumbent: Young won the endorsement from the AFL-CIO for decades, one of the few Republicans with solid union support in a state where there are a lot of union members. But the organization didn’t endorse him in 2016 or this year, as public-sector employees revolted, and Galvin fell just short of winning their endorsement this year. Local unions are split in support of the two candidates this time around.

Young’s allies admit he’s not headed for a blowout.

“It’s certainly closer, and it’s reasonable to expect it to be closer, than it has been at times in the past because he has gotten older,” said Peter Goldberg, a former state party chairman and current Republican national Committeeman. “I suspect every two years that Don Young gets older it’s going to be a little bit harder. But it’s very true that he’s done well for Alaska. He’s got a lot of influence there in Congress and most people understand that. I don’t think he’s going to be put out until he decides he’s going to be put out.”

But members of Young’s inner circle are skeptical he’s in much trouble.

Don’s had some very close races. I don’t think this one measures up. Don carries a high negative to begin with you give your opponent a pretty good head start. The question, is how do you improve on that?” said one close Young ally who said he’s leading, and been trending up, in internal polls. “She’s surprised me, she’s raised more money and has run a professional campaign, but her debate performances haven’t been very good. … She’s not briefed in Alaska issues as much I thought she would be.”

Young, 85, has been Alaska’s congressman since 1973 — more than three quarters of its tenure as a state. While both friends and foes say he remains sharp, some allies privately fretted that his campaign ads and efforts have looked dated in comparison to hers.

His latest spot accuses her of taking money from George Soros and environmentalists who oppose drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which the Trump administration is on the verge of allowing oil exploration after Young fought for decades for it to be opened to development.

Galvin in turn has attacked Young for taking gifts from lobbyists and calling him “part of the Washington swamp.”

Young has been a powerful fighter for Alaskan interests over the decades.

“Don has been incredibly effective. He helped us get ANWR open, he’s been on the right side of every major accomplishment we’ve gotten for Alaska for a long time,” former Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell (R).

But his power in Congress has waned in recent years since he lost his chairmanships. And Young is just as well-known for his aggressive personality, including a death-grip handshake that got him into some trouble this election.

After a recent debate, Galvin offered her hand. A second after Young took it, she winced before twice yelling “That hurts,” shaking her wrist in apparent pain. He laughed it off. The moment can be seen at the very end of this video:

Live: Candidates for U.S. House: Alyse Galvin and Rep. Don Young

Posted by Anchorage Daily News on Friday, October 19, 2018

That caused a stir in-state and drew heavy media coverage, with Galvin’s allies accusing Young of being a bully and Young’s claiming she’d feigned injury to create unwanted drama for him.

This is far from the only time the sharp-tongued Young has stirred controversy and had to grind out a tough campaign as a result.

He barely survived in 2008 after one of his aides pled guilty to accepting bribe money from lobbyist Jack Abramoff, winning his primary by just 304 votes and the general election by a five-point margin, one of the eight times he’s been held to under 55 percent of the vote in winning elections since 1973.

In the last decade, his controversies have gotten more attention.

In 2013, he called Latino immigrants “wetbacks” in a radio interview, and had to apologize after blowback from GOP leadership. The next year, the House Ethics Committee rebuked him for improperly accepting more than $60,000 worth of hunting trips, private plane rides and other gifts and failing to report them. He reimbursed those gifts, which dated back to 2001. That same year, he was caught on tape aggressively twisting a young congressional staffer’s arm after that staffer attempted to reroute him to another door.

Right before that election, he told a group of students at a high school where one of their classmates had just committed suicide that suicides are usually caused by a lack of support from the community, after comparing gay marriage to bull sex, before allegedly threatening his opponent backstage before a debate.

He’s drawn recent headlines as well: Earlier this year, while arguing against gun control, Young said that more Jews could have survived the Holocaust if they’d been armed.

But the congressman’s scandals haven’t felled him yet.

Here in Alaska we don’t get our meat in plastic wrappers, we’re used to real people,” argued Frank McQueary, a former state GOP vice chairman, who predicted Young would win by five or six points.

It’s hard to tell whether in the era of President Trump people are more or less likely to forgive him for his offenses, however.

“It’s always amazed me. The more outrageous stuff he’s said the more it tends to help him. But this time feels a little bit different,” said Beltrami. “I always think Don’s going to pull it out in the end. But this could be the year. We’ll see.”

After winning reelection in 2014, he declared that “The only time I’ll retire is when people want to retire me.” Tuesday will show whether that time is here.

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