JUNEAU — Forget the political winds: Republican U.S. Rep. Don Young continues to win, year after year, no matter which way they’re blowing.
In 2010, when tea party voters were ousting fellow long-term incumbents, supporting candidates they believed could bring fiscal discipline to Washington, Young won re-election with his largest percentage of vote since 2004, 69 percent. He is unapologetic in his support of earmarks, brash in style and speaks off the cuff, sometimes coming across as aggressive or intimidating. He has survived investigations probing his fundraising and role in securing an earmark for a Florida highway.
And Alaskans have made him the state’s sole representative in the U.S. House for nearly 40 years.
“I have never changed. I’ve always been very forward, very forthright, which I believe in,” Young said. “This has never been about, you know, Don Young and getting a job. This is about who can best serve the people as a representative and get the job done for them.”
He believes he is that person and has been raising money with 2014 already in mind; as of Sept. 30, the end of a recent reporting period, he had nearly $569,000 on hand — an amount that dwarfs what his Democratic challenger, state Rep. Sharon Cissna, has raised.
Pollster Marc Hellenthal, who hasn’t been involved in the race, said Young historically has taken on the very best the Democrats had to offer. His closest race in recent years came in 2008, when Young secured just 50 percent of the vote to Democrat Ethan Berkowitz’s 45 percent. But Cissna has struggled to gain traction, and with relatively little money, Hellenthal said she isn’t really in the race at all.
Still, Young, 79, insists money doesn’t win elections — perseverance and one-on-one contact with Alaskans, saying you want the job, does. He said he is taking nothing for granted, traveling the state and meeting as many people as he can.
He cites as recent victories passage of a highway bill that he helped negotiate that included guaranteed funding for Alaska ferries and support for tribal transportation projects. Young said he also saved the Alaska Railroad by ensuring it retained most of its federal funding as part of that bill.
He credits his knowledge of how the system works for helping him to score projects in spite of a ban on earmarks. That ban, he said, is not good government, as he sees it as inhibiting his ability to help secure funding for infrastructure and other projects.
Young isn’t without critics.
The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, has branded him one of the most corrupt members of Congress on four occasions, the latest this year, citing the highway earmark and details from the federal investigation that surrounded it, including allegations that Young and his late wife spent campaign money on hunting trips and flights. No charges were ever brought, and Young announced before the 2010 primary that he was no longer under investigation but provided no details. Documents from the investigation were released earlier this year.
The tea party-style Conservative Patriots Group, based in Wasilla, also has not endorsed him because “we don’t think he’s as conservative as he should be,” president Jennie Bettine said.
One of the biggest problems Bettine cites with Young is his role in shepherding a bill that gave rise to the Transportation Security Administration — “one of the biggest deprivations of our rights that has passed in a long time,” she said. While Cissna, who made headlines for refusing an airport pat-down last year, has made her fight against the agency central to her campaign, Bettine said her group isn’t endorsing in the House race at all.
Young is dismissive of CREW. And he has serious concerns about what TSA has become and where it is going,” his spokesman said.
Young said Alaskans, ultimately, have the last word in whether he returns to Congress.
“I’m seeking the job, working hard and hoping the people will respond to that. I’m not taking anything for granted,” he said.