Alaska campaign roundup: Endorsements, a moment of Zen and the lightsabers arrive

Oct. 27—Patriot Freedom PAC, light sabers, Michael Alfaro, Kelly Tshibaka

With less than two weeks left until the Nov. 8 general election, campaigns are reaching fever pitch as Alaskans are already voting early across the state. Here are some of the campaign highlights:

Lightsabers arrive

A political action committee backing Trump-endorsed Alaska congressional candidates on Wednesday began distributing Star Wars-themed campaign paraphernalia branded with the name of U.S. Senate candidate Kelly Tshibaka.

The Patriot Freedom PAC, a group run by a former fundraiser for President Donald Trump and backed with money from a California donor who holds QAnon conspiracy views, has been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in Alaska to support Tshibaka in her run against Republican incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski. They also support Sarah Palin, the former governor and vice presidential candidate who is running for U.S. House.

The PAC held a rally in Anchorage Oct. 9 that drew a paltry crowd of around 100 people. Palin spoke at the rally while Tshibaka stayed away, saying she had other campaign events and that she did not want the appearance of illegally coordinating with a PAC.

Rally organizer Michael Alfaro, who previously worked as a Trump fundraiser, said they had ordered 20,000 lightsabers branded with Tshibaka's name, because of the similarity between her name and the same of Star Wars character Chewbacca. But the lightsabers had not arrived in time for the rally.

Patriot Freedom PAC, light sabers, Michael Alfaro, Kelly Tshibaka

Tshibaka has embraced the similarity between her last name — which comes from her Congolese husband — and the "Chewbacca" character name. But earlier this month she said her campaign has "tried to minimize the connection and correlation with Star Wars."

"That's a sci-fi movie and this is a Senate campaign, and those are two very different things," Tshibaka said the day after the Patriot Freedom PAC rally.

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"We're running a serious Senate campaign," Tshibaka said. "There's nothing sci-fi fiction about that."

[2022 Alaska voter guide: Candidate comparisons, videos of debates, voter resources, full coverage]

Tshibaka doesn't have the power to stop the PAC from distributing the Star Wars paraphernalia because of rules prohibiting candidates from coordinating with PACs.

"PACs can do whatever they want. You can't control them, but that's not the tone and approach our campaign is taking," she said.

The lightsabers, which cost the PAC $45,000, were manufactured in Thailand and shipped to the Port of Tacoma in Washington, where they were held by customs, Alfaro said. He said that expenses associated with getting the lightsabers delivered to Alaska drove up the costs to $95,000.

The PAC has reported $390,000 in contributions from a single donor: Caryn Borland, who is known to have shared social media posts promoting QAnon, the baseless conspiracy theory that posits that Trump is fighting entrenched enemies in the government and also involves satanism and child sex trafficking.

Alfaro, with the PAC, made unfounded allegations that Murkowski was involved in delaying the release of the lightsabers from customs, and said he had retained a lobbying firm and intended to make document requests to examine whether Murkowski or her allies were involved in the release of the products from customs.

"This was part of a concerted effort by the establishment and Lisa Murkowski's team to delay the final delivery of the lightsabers in the hopes that Patriot Freedom PAC would simply give up out of strenuous tedium, and forfeit their product for disposal," the PAC alleged in a statement.

In response, Murkowski campaign spokesperson Shea Siegert said: "May the force be with Kelly and her team on this mission to acquire their toys."

A U-Haul truck finally delivered the lightsabers to the Javier de la Vega Park in West Anchorage on Wednesday afternoon, where Tshibaka supporters drove up to pick them up by the boxful and promised to distribute the colorful plastic items to friends and neighbors.

Among those picking up the lightsabers was Jerry Ward, a former state lawmaker now working for Palin's campaign. Ward said he planned to give thousands of lightsabers to voters on the Kenai Peninsula, where Palin was scheduled to make campaign stops on Thursday. Palin faces Republican Nick Begich III and Democrat Rep. Mary Peltola in the U.S. House race.

This is not the first time a Star Wars character has made an appearance in Alaska's congressional races: After Peltola won the special election in August to carry out the U.S. House term previously held by Don Young, Mark Hamill — the actor of Luke Skywalker fame — congratulated her in a tweet.

Peltola responded with a picture of herself in Princess Leia garb and the caption "Thank you Master Skywalker."

Hamill later sent fundraising messages on Peltola's behalf, drawing criticism from Begich, who said Peltola is showing off Hamill's support because "it's all she has" even as Peltola has endorsements from across the political spectrum — including from Republicans.

— Iris Samuels

Murkowski's 'moment of Zen'

A pro-Murkowski PAC launched an ad meant to give voters a rest from the relentless campaign ads flooding screens in the days before the election.

Alaskans for LISA, a PAC run by Alaska political operatives who favor Murkowski, has been spending millions on ads attacking Tshibaka for months. Its recent ad is a departure from the usual tactics of pointing out past allegations aimed at Tshibaka of fraud and comments on abortion and birth control access.

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Jim Lottsfeldt, one of the political consultants behind Alaskans for LISA, said that the new ad — which depicts a sunset image of a snowy moment with the writing "This moment of Zen is brought to you by Alaskans for Lisa" — said he and other consultants had discussed the "abrupt" nature of typical digital political ads.

"It sort of takes you out of your viewing enjoyment," Lottsfeldt said. So they designed an ad that would "give people a little bit of a rest in the onslaught of digital advertising."

That onslaught of digital advertising is driven by millions in spending on the statewide races in Alaska. But Lottsfeldt said the spending on congressional races this year is less than what he's seen in previous races, including the 2020 matchup between Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan and independent Al Gross, when Gross lost despite raising millions from left-leaning Outside donors.

"This Senate race could be a lot more intense than it actually is," Lottsfeldt said.

Lottsfeldt said the change in advertising tactics from his pro-Murkowski PAC is backed by polling that shows Murkowski is ahead in the race, but he is not planning to ease off on advertising spending in the final weeks of the campaign.

"We might be changing tactics a little bit to give people a break, but we are not taking anything for granted and plan on — to use a sports metaphor — running through the tape," Lottsfeldt said.

With less than two weeks to go until Election Day, Federal Election Commission filings back that up. Alaskans for LISA reported $170,000 on a media placement and $25,000 on digital ads this week. They reported more than $700,000 on media placements the week before. Alaskans for Bristol Bay Action, a PAC supporting Murkowski and U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, has been spending more than $14,000 per day on digital ads and get-out-the-vote efforts. The Senate Leadership Fund, a leadership PAC controlled by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, dropped more than $600,000 for a media placement opposing Tshibaka this week.

And Murkowski isn't the only one benefiting from big spending in the final stretch: Vote Alaska Before Party, a newly formed PAC supporting Peltola, reported last week spending $1.5 million on media buys to support Peltola's reelection bid. Women Vote!, a PAC supporting left-leaning candidates, spent $100,000 on digital ads supporting Peltola this month.

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— Iris Samuels

Palin's necklace

A pendant Palin wore at a candidate forum at the Alaska Native Federation convention drew a torrent of questions from observers on social media who wondered if the oversize Iron Cross was a Nazi symbol.

Palin responded dismissively to the concerns in an interview on Wednesday. "How stupid do they think I am?" she said, referring to the pendant as her "bling bling cross."

"I wear a lot of cross necklaces," Palin said, calling the comments on her necklace choice "really, really desperate."

october, AFN, cross

According to the Anti-Defamation League, the Iron Cross — a military symbol once used by Nazi Germany — has become more widely used and must be interpreted in context. "In this context, without accompanying hate symbols like a swastika, we do not believe this is a hate symbol," Miri Cypers, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League Northwest, said in an email.

Among those questioning Palin's choice of necklace was Chaylee Éesh Richard Peterson, president of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, who cohosted the AFN congressional debate.

"Whether it's meant to be racist or not, I don't know?" Peterson wrote on Facebook. "Intentional or not it sure seems a poor choice of adornment when participating on a candidates forum for the largest Alaska Native group in Alaska."

— Iris Samuels and Sean Maguire

ASRC endorsements

Arctic Slope Regional Corp., one of Alaska's 13 Native regional corporations and the state's largest private sector employer, announced its endorsements Wednesday for statewide races for the Nov. 8 general election.

Alaska's first Native member of Congress, Democrat Rep. Mary Peltola, was endorsed for a full two-year term in the U.S. House. ASRC had supported former longtime employee Tara Sweeney for Congress in April, but Peltola got the nod for her bipartisanship and support for "responsible resource development."

Gov. Mike Dunleavy got the corporation's endorsement in 2018 and was endorsed again for reelection, along with fellow Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who is running for her sixth full term in the U.S. Senate. Both were endorsed for supporting economic development on the North Slope.

Based out of Utqiaġvik, the influential Native corporation owns and manages over 5 million acres of land stretching across the oil-producing Arctic. Three years ago, it left the Alaska Federation of Natives, which endorsed Peltola and Murkowski at its convention over the weekend but no candidate for governor.

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— Sean Maguire

'Not leaving this race'

Republican former Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce is vowing to keep fighting in the governor's race after running mate Edie Grunwald withdrew Tuesday over a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him by a former borough employee.

Pierce appeared on a Kenai talkback radio show "Sound Off" Wednesday morning and said Grunwald had informed him she was dropping out by text message and that she did not take his followup call. He said he was eyeing another running mate despite that early voting has already begun and one cannot be added to the ballot.

After Pierce abruptly resigned as mayor in late August, the borough confirmed he was the subject of a "credible" harassment allegation and that it paid out two prior settlements worth $270,000 to employees based on complaints against him. Multiple callers made unfounded claims Wednesday that Pierce was the subject of a concerted last-minute attack campaign.

Pierce has not denied or discussed the allegations publicly, and said he cannot speak about them because of impending litigation. He encouraged supporters Tuesday to "rank the red," but after finishing fourth in the primary with 6.6% of the vote, Pierce said, "I don't think the numbers are going to be real different" in November.

— Sean Maguire