How Supreme Court, Native corporations saved Murkowski

Anchorage Daily NewsNovember 21, 2010 

ANCHORAGE — If Sen. Lisa Murkowski's re-election survives her opponent's challenges, she will in no small measure owe her historic write-in victory to the U.S. Supreme Court's most contentious decision this year — a ruling she herself described as troubling, but which led to massive Native corporation spending on her behalf.

In January, a divided court overturned several precedents and federal laws in declaring that corporations have First Amendment rights to support political candidates in the most important way they can -- by shelling out money for commercials and other activity.

The Citizens United decision, named after the advocacy nonprofit corporation that brought the case, tossed out long-standing bans on corporate and union contributions in elections.

The 2010 election was the first since Citizens United. National experts say big corporate spenders only "dipped their toes" in the new rules as they geared up for 2012.

But in Alaska, one independent group fully immersed itself in the new age of campaign spending, nearly doubling the amount of money marshaled in support of Murkowski's re-election bid: the "super PAC" called Alaskans Standing Together, created, managed and supported by Alaska's regional Native corporations.

The full measure of Alaskans Standing Together's effort won't become public until it files its next income and spending report on Dec. 2. But the PAC's three-week spending binge of $1.2 million, begun Sept. 27, came at a time when Murkowski's own campaign had about $1.7 million left to blast its message to voters around the state.

As important as the total dollars were, the head-spinning speed at which they were raised fit perfectly into the rapidly changing environment of the Alaska Senate campaign.

Murkowski and her supporters were stunned when conservative Fairbanks lawyer Joe Miller emerged from the Aug. 24 primary as the party's Senate candidate. He had been the beneficiary of a super PAC himself -- about $600,000 was spent on his behalf by Our Country Deserves Better PAC, the California-based parent organization of the Tea Party Express.

Murkowski conceded defeat Aug. 31. After flirting with retirement or running via another party, she declared the start of her long-shot write-in campaign Sept. 17, six weeks and four days ahead of the general election.

Alaskans Standing Together quickly followed her move. It filed its registration with the Federal Election Commission Sept. 23, naming Cook Inlet Region Inc.'s senior vice president, Barbara Donatelli, as treasurer. Its chairman was Will Anderson, chief executive of Koniag Inc. of Kodiak and president of the association that represents all the Native regional corporations.

By Oct. 12, Alaskans Standing Together reported that 11 of the state's 12 regional Native corporations had anted up $920,000 in amounts ranging from $15,000 (Calista Corp. and Bristol Bay Native Corp.) to $140,000 (Arctic Slope Regional Corp.). Anderson said the 12th, the Aleut Corp., also contributed but missed the Oct. 13 cutoff date for the most recent reporting period.

Because of different reporting schedules, it's still unclear how the PAC raised the additional $100,000 to cover the $1.2 million it reported spending for Murkowski as of Oct. 20.

Before the Supreme Court decided the Citizens United case, Alaskans Standing Together would have had to hold massive fundraisers to attract that kind of money. Individual contributions to PACs are limited to $5,000 a year, so it would have taken at least 240 people with very fat wallets to get to $1.2 million.

John Havelock, the state's attorney general when the Native corporations were created by an act of Congress to settle indigenous land claims, said the companies had reason to fear a Miller victory. Miller had made a point of attacking the preferences they receive in federal contracts -- so-called 8(a) contracts.

"All of the regions have a big stake in 8(a) contracting, and Joe Miller said that was going to come to an end, along with other forms of earmarking which has been the lifeblood of the Denali Commission (a grant-giving agency) and rural Alaska generally," Havelock said. "Having Joe Miller as the U.S. senator would've been, from an economic perspective, a disaster, so I can understand the CEOs thinking, 'Oh my gosh, what are we going to do here, we can't have this happen.' "

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