JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — A brother of Republican gubernatorial candidate Mike Dunleavy and a prominent sport fishing activist have put hundreds of thousands of dollars into a third-party group supporting Dunleavy's candidacy, a sign of Alaska's new political reality.
Since 2012, the Alaska Public Offices Commission has not enforced contribution limits for so-called independent expenditure groups. It cited constitutional questions surrounding a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that paved the way for corporations and unions to make unlimited independent expenditures. State officials in Alaska interpreted the decision to mean that several provisions that prohibited or limited certain contributions could be unconstitutional.
As a result, a door has opened for groups hoping to influence state elections. In 2014, tens of millions of dollars flooded Alaska for the hotly contested U.S. Senate race between then-Sen. Mark Begich and Republican Dan Sullivan, ultimately won by Sullivan. That same year, on a much smaller level, a flurry of groups formed to support or oppose independent Bill Walker's ultimately successful gubernatorial bid.
This year, several groups formed to back Dunleavy's main GOP rival, former Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who entered the race in June. One group, Mead Treadwell For Alaska's Future, has reported raising more than $30,000, with Ed Rasmuson, chair of the Rasmuson Foundation board, and Ron Duncan, CEO of telecommunications company GCI, among the donors.
Two other groups — one to support Treadwell and one to explicitly oppose Dunleavy — reported no income during the latest reporting period.
The state caps how much an individual can contribute to a candidate's official campaign. Alaska's $500 individual cap for gubernatorial races is the lowest in the nation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Alaska's campaign finance laws are "completely out of touch with what it takes to communicate to voters," said state GOP party chairman Tuckerman Babcock. Jay Parmley, executive director of the state Democratic Party, agreed the $500 cap is low.
"But what is the sweet spot?" Parmley said, adding later: "I don't really know what that is but it ought to be talked about."
The independent expenditure group Dunleavy for Alaska has gotten attention for its high profile and deep pockets. Dunleavy's brother, Francis Dunleavy, who lives in Texas, and Bob Penney, an Alaska sport fishing activist, have accounted for the bulk of the roughly $700,000 the group has so far raised in direct contributions and in-kind donations. The group sells hats, buttons and T-shirts supporting Dunleavy on its website.
Critics say that Dunleavy for Alaska and Dunleavy's official campaign, Alaskans for Dunleavy, at times have used similar messaging.
What's happening isn't illegal, Parmley said. "But it's this sort of mimicking, the campaign mimicking what the IE has spent money on to produce, and then gosh, it's real easy for the campaign to just share something or pick something up," he said.
The executive director of the Alaska Public Offices Commission, Heather Hebdon, said her office has not received any formal complaints.
She said a lot of materials are taken from public domain but acknowledged it can be hard to tell in some cases if groups' use of the same photo, for example, is innocent or anything untoward.
"It's just not a very bright line, other than, it's made without coordination, you know, these expenditures are made without the coordination, consultation or cooperation with the candidate or an agent of their campaign," she said.
Officials with both Dunleavy for Alaska and the candidate's campaign say there's been no coordination. Dunleavy said he doesn't even speak with his brother to avoid any suggestion of impropriety.
Websites, Facebook pages and press releases from Dunleavy for Alaska and Dunleavy's campaign have included the required disclaimers stating who paid for the communications.
Terre Gales, chairman of Dunleavy for Alaska, said he purposely doesn't follow what Dunleavy's campaign is doing and said his group calls the public offices commission if it has a question about anything.
He said the group settled on the name it did because it wanted to communicate clearly what it was about — "We want Mike Dunleavy for Alaska," he said.
"It's very important to me we do things with integrity and we do things the way they're supposed to be done," Gales said.
Dunleavy for Alaska's slogan is "Standing Tall for Alaska," a phrase that's also appeared on press releases from the official campaign. Dunleavy campaign manager Brett Huber said the candidate's official slogan is "Standing Tall for Alaskans."
Huber said the slogan was a no-brainer given Dunleavy's 6'7" frame and was arrived at independently and early on in the campaign.
A video posted on Facebook by Dunleavy for Alaska was posted a month later by the candidate's campaign. Huber said if he sees something in the public domain like the video, which he said did a great job of portraying Dunleavy's message, "then I advantage our candidate by posting it on our site as well," he said.
Chris Nelson is chairman of the independent expenditure group Mead Treadwell For Alaska's Future, which is backing Treadwell.
He said groups like this have become critical in elections. Not forming such a group can put "the people you want to see elected at a real disadvantage," Nelson said. "It's now part of the game."