ANCHORAGE — Alaska’s sole congressman, Don Young, has swatted away many challengers over the decades, and the longest-serving Republican in the U.S. House isn’t looking to leave office anytime soon.
The 81-year-old incumbent, seeking his 22nd term in the November general election, has already begun talking about his 2016 campaign, saying he would like to serve under one more president, said Matt Shuckerow, a congressional spokesman and campaign volunteer.
“But I think it’s very important to be clear he doesn’t take any election for granted,” Shuckerow said. “It’s very much if the people Alaska are willing to support him, which he believes they will.”
Democrats, however, are hoping 29-year-old upstart Forrest Dunbar — crisscrossing the state with a cheeky, social media driven campaign using the tagline “Run, Forrest, Run” — will be able to pull off a political upset.
“We have to get past that mental barrier,” Dunbar said recently, “where people realize this is a real race here, and that he can be defeated.”
Young has been the state’s lone representative in the House since 1973 and barely has to campaign for votes despite issues that could have undone lesser politicians.
Young has weathered ethical clouds over the years. The latest was an investigation by the House Ethics Committee that recently found he violated House rules by using campaign funds for personal trips and accepting improper gifts. His career also has been marred by verbal blunders, such as using an ethnic slur to describe Hispanic migrant workers last year. In this race and past campaigns, Young also has been criticized for what opponents call a poor congressional attendance record.
Young said he regretted what he called “oversights” in the ethics case and paid $59,000 to his campaign and donors as recommended. He also apologized for the offensive comment. And Shuckerow deflected criticism by saying Young’s job entails much more than attendance. He added that Young has been present for 98 percent of the votes this year.
Through it all, Young maintains that he’s the best man for the job, and time after time, voters have agreed. Although, before becoming Alaska governor, Sean Parnell strongly challenged Young in a three-way race for the Republican nomination in 2008, coming in a close second.
“Don Young is a fixture here,” Alaska Republican Party chairman Peter Goldberg said. “He’s just represented us for so long, it’s a name that’s hard to overcome.”
Besides the name recognition, Young also has the financial edge, with nearly $600,000 in individual and committee contributions between January 2013 and July, according to the Federal Election Commission. Dunbar reported nearly $94,000 in individual contributions for the same period.
Dunbar, who has a degree from Yale Law School and spent his early childhood in a rural Alaska home without running water, is relying heavily on social media and attention-grabbing tactics to attract support.
The Alaska Army National Guard legal adviser recently took to YouTube to challenge Young to a debate, then — after someone poured a bucket of water on his head — challenged the incumbent to take the ALS ice-bucket challenge to raise money and awareness to fight Lou Gehrig’s disease.
But Dunbar said his campaign is about more than clever strategies to get himself noticed.
The Democrat says he’s a centrist, running because Young is no longer effective. He says he offers voters a real alternative to diversify the state’s economy beyond oil and that he’s willing to take a bipartisan approach.
In recent days, Young was traveling and could not be reached for comment, according to Shuckerow. He said Young plans to participate in debates and forums leading to November, and is looking forward to a “spirited and energetic campaign.”
“Congressman Young’s focus has always been the same,” Shuckerow said in an email. “He has consistently stood up and fought for Alaskans and their interests in order to provide a better and brighter future for all.”
Jerry McBeath, a political science professor emeritus at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, noted the House race hasn’t been competitive in recent years.
He applauded Dunbar’s creative approach to reach voters, but said Young is likely to win.
“I’m happy to see Forrest Dunbar sort of stirring his stick in the muck,” McBeath said. “Because I don’t think that any political leader, any official in the United States, in our democratic republic, ought to be unchallenged.”