Yukoners with reciprocal Alaskan fishing licences might think that Skagway and Haines are in their backyard, but this year’s Senate race in Alaska has revealed that the 49th state really is a foreign country.
There are a bunch of things happening on the other side of the mountains that are completely unthinkable here. Forget the fact that incumbent Lisa Murkowski has ended up running as a write-in candidate with no party affiliation. Or that Republican frontrunner Joe Miller’s private security guards, who turned out to be active duty soldiers at an Alaskan base, detained and handcuffed a tiresome reporter after a speech at a junior high school. It gets more profoundly weird than that.
First of all, Joe Miller is actually opposed to the federal government spending too much money in Alaska. He won the Republican nomination in an upset of incumbent Lisa Murkowski with the support of Tea Party groups from the Lower 48. Miller believes unemployment insurance and farm subsidies are unconstitutional. He wants to give the president a line item veto, which would make pork-barrelling by Alaska’s senators in Washington nearly impossible. Remember that former senator Ted Stevens brought home truly spectacular federal bacon during his almost 40 years in the Senate. His chairmanship of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee made him a Washington legend.
Try to imagine a candidate for Yukon MP standing up at an all-candidates meeting and saying that the federal debt requires “belt tightening” in the Yukon and that “the answer to this is basically to transfer the responsibilities and power of (the federal) government back to the states and the people.” And then in the stunned silence that followed, adding that employment insurance, minimum wages and farm subsidies should be abolished.
The second thing that strikes a Yukoner as different in Alaska is the amount of money they spend on elections, and where it comes from.
According to the Washington Post’s entertaining Campaign Cash website, interest groups and political parties have so far reported spending $1.9 million on the Alaska Senate race. Murkowski had a reported $2.4 million on hand a month before the Republican primary.
Meanwhile, back in the Yukon the spending limit for candidates in the federal election in 2008 was $82, 726.77. Even the hapless Democratic candidate in Alaska, the mayor of tiny Sitka who said that Democratic funders in Washington “don’t know my name,” is likely to blow this away.
The money comes from an amazing variety of sources. One is Alaskans Standing Together, a political committee formed by a dozen Alaskan native regional corporations. With the support of groups such as the Alaska Professional Fire Fighters, Olympic medalist and mine owner Cynthia Toohey, and almost-impeached ex-governor Bill Sheffield, AST has given over $1 million to Murkowski’s write-in campaign.
Can you picture the First Nation development corporations in the Yukon getting together and giving a million bucks to a candidate (assuming it was legal, of course)? Or that another candidate would then attack the contracting preferences that aboriginal businesses receive from government, as Joe Miller is doing?
The amount of money and technical support from outside the state is impressive too. The Alaskan candidates have flashy television attack ads, while anyone who listens to the radio during an election in Whitehorse knows that our candidates often struggle with the production values of that 1930s technology. The big political organizations in the Lower 48 are also contributing all kinds of internet campaign tools, robo-callers, fundraising expertise and campaign infrastructure to their Alaskan candidates.
It’s hard to say what the implications of Alaska’s electoral madness are for the Yukon, although Joe Miller’s remarks on the effectiveness of the Berlin Wall and the need to “secure the border” might catch the attention of daytrippers to Skagway.
As entertaining as all this is as spectacle, it makes one worry about the democratic process in our biggest ally and trading partner.
The only good news is that the Alaskans are too distracted by the election hoopla to even think about taking away our reciprocal fishing licences. So we Yukoners will be able to keep yanking coho out of the Chilkoot no matter who ends up in the Senate.
Assuming we can still get across the border, that is.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s