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In Alaska, a 1st-time House candidate takes on the nation’s most entrenched incumbent

Alyse Galvin, Don Young. (Photo-illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Michael Dinneen/AP, Mark Thiessen/AP, Getty Images)

It is a familiar story in this midterm election year — a woman who has never run for anything before attends the Women’s March and decides to declare herself a candidate.

This particular version comes with a few twists: The seat Alyse Galvin is running for is Alaska’s congressperson-at-large, and her opponent is the most entrenched incumbent in the country – the longest continuously serving member of Congress in history. Galvin, 52, was 8 years old when Congressman Don Young, 85, won the seat in a special election in 1973. He has beaten 46 other opponents since then.

And she just might win.

If she does, it would be a dramatic upset, replacing a man whose seniority brings enormous clout in Congress with a woman who, until a year ago, had never thought of running for office.

Born and raised in Alaska, Galvin spent her adulthood doing such varied work as teaching pre-K, owning a small fish-processing business, managing the Anchorage Sheraton and raising four children. In 2014 she joined a small group working to resist school budget cuts, which turned into Great Alaska Schools, with a membership of thousands of parents, and which Galvin chaired for the past five years.

After Donald Trump took office in 2017, her organizing went national. She joined the Women’s March on Washington and placed “All are welcome” signs around Anchorage to protest the new administration’s immigration plan. As part of her education advocacy, she mounted a letter-writing campaign urging Alaskan Sen. Lisa Murkowski to vote against the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education. (Murkowski did vote no, but DeVos was confirmed.)

Alyse Galvin addresses a group of volunteers in Anchorage before they set out to campaign door-to-door on her behalf on July 28, 2108. (Photo: Mark Thiessen/AP)

She also joined a group called Alaska Women Ascend, which recruits and trains women to run for office, thinking she would help others with their campaigns. But at a session describing “what it takes to make a strong candidate,” she said in a phone interview with Yahoo News, “I realized I fit this just right. I am who they are talking about.”

Galvin declared her candidacy in January and within four days had raised $70,000, all in small donations because she will not take money from political action committees. She frequently points out that half of Young’s donations come from PACs. A lifelong independent in a state where 15 percent of voters are Democrats and 56 percent are undeclared, she petitioned the Democratic party for permission to run on its ballot, and after defeating two other Democrats in a primary this summer, she is both the Democratic and independent nominee.

She began well behind — in the size of her war chest, in her name recognition, and in the polls. But the most recent Federal Election Commission filings show she has outraised Young for the fourth quarter in a row — bringing in $1.18 million to Young’s $1.02 million,  and coming up to Election Day, she is nearly tied for cash on hand. Polls, which had shown her as far as 12 points behind at the start of the race, are narrowing too. Earlier this week, a poll from Public Policy Polling showed Young leading by just three points, 46 to 43 percent, and one from Alaska Survey Research put the candidates four points apart.

As she travels the state in her RV, talking regularly about health care for all and campaign finance reform, she says she is not worried that Young still has far greater name recognition, because, she argues, the downside for him is that voters are tired of the man whose name has been on billboards and ballots for nearly 50 years.

“Nothing meaningful will really change until we change who is in power,” she says.

Young is among the most colorful members of Congress, a legacy once summed up by the Washington Post with the headline “A brief history of Rep. Don Young’s incendiary remarks. (All right, it’s a long history.)”

President Trump shakes hands with GOP Rep. Don Young of Alaska at the White House after Congress passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, Dec. 20, 2017. (Photo: Alex Edelman/ZUMA Wire)

In 2007 he threatened to bite a fellow House Republican. In 2010 he excused the BP oil spill off the Texas coast, describing it as “not an environmental disaster” but “a natural phenomenon.” During the ’90s he used lewd language in front of a group of high school students in describing artistic photos by Robert Mapplethorpe and waved an 18-inch-long whale penis bone about during a Congressional hearing about fish and wildlife. In 2013 he described the Mexican workers on his father’s California ranch as “wetbacks,” an outdated slur against immigrants who cross the border by swimming across the Rio Grande.

Earlier this year, he suggested that more of Germany’s Jews would have survived the Holocaust if they had armed themselves properly. “How many Jews were put in ovens because they were unarmed?” he asked.

That side of him has shown itself during this campaign as well. During a debate with Galvin, Young referred to her as “my so-called opponent” and then, in echoes of Donald Trump debating Hillary Clinton, called her a “nasty woman.” Galvin used a clip of that remark in her fundraising emails.

Still, voters keep sending him to Congress, and Alaskan political pundits note that Galvin is not the first opponent to come this close only to lose an election to Young. In 2008, for instance, challenger Ethan Berkowitz, currently the mayor of Anchorage, actually pulled ahead of Young in the polls. “People flirt with the idea of dumping Don,” Alaska pollster Ivan Moore told Alaska Public Media earlier this month. “But then when it comes to Election Day, they consider the upside — his seniority and so on.”

Galvin says she understands the odds and knows that the polling website FiveThirtyEight gives her just a 28.8 percent chance of winning in this traditionally Republican state. But she insists that “traditionally” does not apply right now.

Alyse Galvin starts her RV, which she uses to campaign across Alaska, at her campaign office in Anchorage. (Photo: Mark Thiessen/AP)

Not only is the national political landscape unpredictable, but the one in Alaska just became more confusing, as Gov. Bill Walker, who had been running for reelection as an independent, suspended his campaign and endorsed Democrat Mark Begich, who he said had a better chance of beating the Republican, Mike Dunleavy.

“This is an extremely unusual election year,” Galvin said, days before that latest development, “which means unusual results should be expected.”

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