A Grizzly-Fighting, Independent Doctor From Alaska Could Help Democrats Turn the Senate Blue

Dr. Al Gross' campaign videos are like a mix between a reality T.V. commercial and Dos Equis' "Most Interesting Man in the World."

The gravelly deep voice states that the Alaskan was "born in the wake of an avalanche" and killed a "grizzly bear in self-defense." He "prospected for gold" and offered up a chance for donors to join him for "an Alaskan adventure" while he was skiing down a mountainside.

You wouldn't peg the man on your screen for a wannabe-United States senator.

But not only does Dr. Gross, an orthopedic surgeon who has become a health care policy wonk, want to become just that, he also wants to do it against higher odds: As an independent in a state that has not elected one to Congress since 1906.

In a Dr. Gross-inspired adventure—an adrenaline twist he would approve of—Democrats are looking to the independent as a potential lynchpin to help them reclaim control of the upper chamber for the first time since 2014.

"I'm not a career politician, though I grew up in a political family. I've been around politics for most of my life," Dr. Gross, whose father was a Democratic Alaskan attorney general for a Republican governor, told Newsweek in a phone interview. "It wasn't until four or five years ago I considered stepping up to run."

Dr. Gross, who also is a commercial fisherman, is gunning for Republican Senator Dan Sullivan's seat. With Gross recently out-fundraising his opponent, the state's political makeup and the absence of a Democratic candidate, the independent has caught the eye of the Democratic Party. He has snagged endorsements from the state and the national party. Though an independent, Dr. Gross is running in the Alaska Democratic primary and would appear on the general election ballot as a Democrat.

Democrats eye independent help flip Senate
Dr. Al Gross, an independent, is running against Republican Senator Dan Sullivan in Alaska's Senate race. Courtesy of the Gross Campaign

And if he is elected, Dr. Gross is all in to caucus with the Democrats, just like the Senate's current two independents—Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine—meaning Democrats would be one seat closer to flipping the upper chamber. Democrats need to win three GOP-held seats if former Vice President Joe Biden wins the election or four, if President Trump is re-elected.

Dr. Gross also would like a leadership role with Democrats to tackle health care issues, should he win.

"I am not happy at all with the Republican Party because they supported Trump in his disdain for public health officials," Dr. Gross told Newsweek. "Democrats recognize there was a fiscal emergency for all these unemployed people."

The majority of Alaskan voters are unaffiliated with a political party, which could bode well for Dr. Gross. The state has had just eight senators since they were admitted to the union in 1959: four Democrats and four Republicans. Sullivan eked out a victory over Democratic incumbent Mark Begich in 2014 by just 2.2 percent—or 6,014 votes.

"I think that that could be a really interesting match-up," a spokesperson for the Senate Democrats' campaign arm, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), told Newsweek. "We endorse people we know are going to be rooted in what is right for their races. I think he's going to represent a point of view from his state. That's important."

Republicans are favored to maintain control of the Senate, as well as Sullivan's odds at keeping his seat: The non-partisan Cook Political Report labels the race as solid Republican.

Still, Democrats are creating some cause for concern among Republicans. Dr. Gross is one of nine challengers who outraised their rival GOP senators in the first three months of the year. He also raked in more cash than Sullivan in the final quarter of 2019.

"We take nothing for granted, but we certainly feel good about the campaign's position," the DSCC spokesperson said. "It doesn't necessarily mean it's going to flip, but it shows you the opening."

DSCC declined to say what resources—if any—they plan to pump into the race as election day draws near.

Vulnerable GOP senators are in a precarious political spot. Facing tough poll numbers on how Americans feel the president has weathered the pandemic and if he should be re-elected, Republican lawmakers battling for their own re-election have to balance supporting Trump yet not appearing eager to endorse the administration's sluggish response to the virus and shortages on things like personal protective equipment and testing kits.

At a lunch on Capitol Hill with GOP senators this week, Trump privately encouraged members in a wavering speech to "get tough" on Democrats ahead of November as he touted his poll numbers.

"He actually was pretty proud of where his numbers were," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters afterward. "It was going to be a pitched battle leading up to the November election, and he was encouraging all of us to get in the fight and not get pushed around... He admonished all of us to be just as tough."

But there is also bad news for Dr. Gross: the long absence of an independent in Alaska's congressional delegation, despite unaffiliated candidates performing better at the state level. And although his past two fundraising quarters have eclipsed Sullivan's, his total cash on hand is less than half the first-term lawmaker, with $2 million compared to $4.5 million.

In addition, Republicans view Dr. Gross' decision to run as an independent rather than a Democrat as political ammunition.

Democrats hope flip Republican seat and Senate
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) attends a hearing titled Oversight of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on May 20 in Washington, D.C. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Pool/Getty

"Clearly, the national Democratic agenda is inconsistent with the views and needs of Alaskans," Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee that works to get Republicans elected, told Newsweek.

Sullivan argued that Dr. Gross is not a true independent when it comes to his political alignment but rather calls himself one "in label only."

"If you look at the national Democratic Party, almost all their policies—anti-resource development, anti-oil, anti-gas, anti-military, anti-Second Amendment—that's what my constituents care about and most of Alaskans care about," Sullivan told Newsweek.

Dr. Gross lobbed criticism back at Sullivan.

"Sullivan has very little do with Alaska. He doesn't have deep roots like I do," the doctor contended. "He has no solutions other than the status quo for Alaska."

Clarification May 26, 2020, 3:12 p.m.: This story was updated to clarify that although he is an independent, Dr. Gross is running in the state's Democratic primary and would appear on the general election ballot as a Democrat.