ANCHORAGE — Alaska big-money donors are staying out of the Republican primary for Don Young's U.S. House seat, leaving money from outside the state to fuel a race that pollsters say is too close to call with just two weeks until the election.
Many Alaska Republican contributors are keeping their checkbooks closed until after the primary, said Marc Hellenthal, a pollster and consultant who's worked for Young in the past. He's not working for anyone in the race now.
"When you've got people that are 30-year-plus (incumbents) it's smarter to sit on the fence than pick a horse that doesn't win," Hellenthal said. "The big problem with Don is that he used the money he was given for legal fees. That's not why people contributed to him. So that created incredible uproar amongst the money group."
Since early 2007, Young has reported spending more than $1.2 million of his campaign funds on legal expenses related to a federal investigation or investigations. Young has consistently refused to give specifics.
Young's two opponents in the Aug. 26 Republican primary, Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell and Kodiak Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, aren't raising that much Alaska money either.
LeDoux is sinking her own money into the race, and Parnell is relying on funding from the Washington, D.C., anti-spending group Club for Growth. Business interests, Lower 48 Indian tribes and lobbyists are largely financing Young.
Curtis Thayer, a former Young aide and longtime Alaska Republican activist, said Alaska donors have a tough choice between Young and Parnell -- who enjoys the backing of Gov. Sarah Palin.
"If you support the lieutenant governor, the governor comes with that support, so that's one thing. But if the congressman ends up winning ..." Thayer said. "Neither of them are raising lots of money. People are holding their powder."
Money is a big issue in the race. Young's message: The Club For Growth is propping up Parnell while fighting federal funding that is important for Alaska.
"The Club for Growth is one of the most extreme groups in Washington, D.C.," Young said at a debate last week. "This is a group that does not want to spend any money on Alaskans, period. To me that's wrong. A congressman must represent the people of Alaska, not some special interest group in Washington, D.C."
Parnell concedes it has not been easy for him to raise large campaign contributions in Alaska, but said it's not because of a lack of support. "The large-dollar donors are concerned about the potential vindictiveness of the congressman," he said in an interview last week
Parnell has raised $165,000 in individual contributions bundled through the Club For Growth, according to a Daily News analysis of federal campaign reports. That is more than half of all the money he's raised. The Club for Growth has also launched its own anti-Young ads.
The Club for Growth wants to slash federal spending and entirely eliminate earmarks -- the spending directions inserted in budget bills that Young and Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens have used to steer billions of dollars to the state.
"I'm not opposed to earmarks, I'm opposed to earmark abuse," Parnell said. "And the abuse of the process where earmarks are dropped in without public scrutiny, tarnishing Alaska's reputation."
Parnell said Young is getting his campaign money from industry political action committees, and they're going to want something in return.
"That's primarily what Don Young's war chest is made of, is political action committees and gaming interests from Puerto Rico and Louisiana and the like," he said.
LeDoux, the least well known of the three candidates, has put $250,000 of her own money into the primary race. She said she's the alternative in a flawed field.
"Sean, I think, is hopelessly naïve when it comes to the earmark process, what a congressman or -woman is supposed to do," LeDoux said in an interview. "Or if he's not hopelessly naïve, then he's simply pandering to this Club for Growth. I mean, a congressman is supposed to be working on ways to bring projects to this state."
LeDoux said Young is tarnished by scandal, noting that Congress asked for an investigation into how a Young earmark in Florida was inserted into a spending bill after it had already passed but before it went to the president for his signature.
"When your colleagues in the Congress ask for an investigation of you, things don't bode well for Alaska," LeDoux said. "That means people are kind of distancing themselves, people in Congress, and those are the folks that are going to be deciding Alaska's fate."
Young maintains he hasn't done anything wrong and has the seniority, the experience and the connections to stand out from the other 434 members of the U.S. House and be effective.
In a phone interview from the Mat-Su area, where he was campaigning on Thursday, Young dismissed LeDoux's assertion that he's tarnished.
"There's a little biblical saying, you know, 'Judge not, that ye be not judged yourself,' " he said.
Parnell said it's wrong to suggest he wouldn't be an advocate for Alaska needs.
"I would absolutely bring projects to Alaska that have been subject to public scrutiny and the light of day," he said.
LeDoux, running far behind in the polls, has so far largely avoided being attacked as Parnell and Young slug it out. But she could be a major factor in the end.
Pollsters and pundits say the race appears too close to call with just about two weeks to go. Pollster Hellenthal said Parnell and LeDoux might split the anti-Don Young vote.
"I would think it's going to be a close contest between Young and Parnell," Hellenthal said. "LeDoux is the wild card. If she does well, then the handicap has to go to Young. If she doesn't do well, then Parnell."
Matt Moon, a member of the Republican Party of Alaska's central committee, said LeDoux seems to be running an effective ad campaign. He said her poll numbers have risen lately from 1 percent of primary voter support to 10 percent.
"Don might still be able to pull this one off because of Gabrielle LeDoux, which should make supporters of Sean Parnell pretty concerned, because Sean was the odds-on favorite a few months ago," he said.
LeDoux said she's not running to be a spoiler and now feels momentum building.
"My strategy has been to basically come out of what most people have perceived as nowhere and come out fighting in the final sprint," LeDoux said. "My goal is to simply win the race myself."