As Republicans fell in defeat across the nation in 2006, Alaska’s Republican party was having a very different experience. It began an ethical cleaning of a house that had become filthy with the stain of entrenched one-party rule. Republican voters helped former Wasilla mayor Sarah Palin (R.) defeat their incumbent governor, Frank Murkowski (R.), in a primary by a 32-point margin.
Murkowski, already controversial for his decision to appoint his daughter to the U.S. Senate in 2003, had worn out his welcome in a number of other ways. He purchased an airplane for the governor’s office over the objections of the state legislature. He also backed an unpopular oil-tax plan that had been favored by a highly influential Alaska company, VECO, whose CEO later pleaded guilty to bribing state legislators. Murkowski’s chief of staff pled guilty to having the company illegally pay for $20,000 in polls for the 2006 race.
This August, Alaska’s GOP will have another opportunity to burnish its image and advance the cause of good government. To the surprise and delight of the crowd at the state party convention in March, Palin’s conservative running mate, Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell (R.), announced his primary challenge against powerful Rep. Don Young (R.), an 18-term congressman and the former chairman of the House Transportation Committee. Parnell is pro-life and received the National Rifle Association’s highest rating in 2006.
“I recognize that he’s made some large contributions to Alaska,” Parnell says of his incumbent opponent, in an interview with National Review Online. “But there’s no question that it’s time for a transition to a new generation of leadership.”
He uses both phrases — “new generation” and “no question” — in a considered way. Young has now represented Alaska for 35 of its 49 years as a U.S. state. And he currently faces two separate federal investigations, and is connected to several other controversies.
Famous for championing such pork projects as the “Bridge to Nowhere,” Young last year berated a fellow House Republican on the floor for attempting to remove one of his earmarks from a bill, calling it “My money! My money!” He made headlines most recently on April 17, when the Senate voted to refer him to the Justice Department for investigation into a highly irregular and possibly extra-constitutional legislative action. Young altered the language of a $10-million earmark in the 2005 Transportation Bill after it had passed both the House and Senate and before it was signed into law. Young has since argued that he did nothing wrong in making this post-passage change, which benefited one of his major campaign donors.
The FBI initiated a different investigation of Young last year, as to whether VECO funneled money to him through an annual golf tournament with cash prizes. Young has also been criticized for pushing to build the Knik Arm Bridge (also known as “Don Young’s Way”), which, if built, would boost the property value of a piece of land held by his daughter and son-in-law. He even has a tie to Jack Abramoff: His former transportation aide, Mark Zachares, pled guilty to taking bribes from the convicted lobbyist last April.
Young’s problems do not end with ethics: He recently proposed a hike in the gasoline tax. “We have the highest gasoline prices in America,” Parnell told NRO on Friday. “And our congressman proposes to raise the gas tax by a dollar per gallon. Our congressman is not in touch with Alaskans and not working for Alaska, and I want to change that. The people have to be able to believe that their elected representative is working in their interest. They can’t right now.”
Parnell adds that Young’s narrow focus on earmarked highway projects has sullied the state’s reputation nationwide. “What’s happened, unfortunately, is that Alaskans have gotten a reputation for holding their hands out, when in fact we want to contribute and we are contributing to the economy,” he says.
The easiest argument for Parnell to make in this campaign, however, is that Young is unelectable, and that Alaska’s only House seat will end up in Democratic hands if Young is the Republican candidate. “The only argument that Don Young’s camp makes is that you need his experience and seniority in Congress,” says Parnell. “But his experience isn’t going to matter if he loses the seat in November.” A recent poll by Research 2000, commissioned by the left-wing “Daily Kos,” shows Young, with an unfavorable rating of 58 percent, losing to his most likely Democratic challenger by ten percentage points.
Young has done little campaigning so far this year — in fact, $1.1 million of his campaign money has gone to cover his legal expenses this cycle, leaving him with just $604,000 on hand at the end of March. His separate legal-defense fund, initiated in January, is currently inactive. Young staved off reporters’ questions about his legal expenses in a Feb. 20 press conference, stating, “I have a right to spend my money as I wish to spend it.” He also said, “It’s my prerogative not to answer to people who have nothing to do with it — and that’s you.”
Parnell enjoys the wholehearted support of the popular Governor Palin, who will be on hand this week when he officially opens his campaign office. An independent poll from earlier this month shows him in serious contention — he takes 42 percent to Young’s 45 percent (a third candidate in the race, state Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux (R.), registered at just 2 percent) among Republicans. Parnell expects to do even better among the unaffiliated voters who will also vote in the August primary.
Young has shown little fear so far in this campaign, and he does not share the belief that times are changing within the state Republican party. On Feb. 20, a reporter asked Young whether it was time to “pass the torch on to a new generation.” Young answered: “What’s this ‘passing?’ What’s this ‘change?’ I always get a kick out of this. If I can’t do the job, if I haven’t done the job, then the people will make that decision.”
This summer, they might do just that.
– David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.
Editor’s note: This piece has been corrected since posting.