Al Gross could sell pine needles to a Sasquatch, but for now he's trying to sell himself as a senator — and voters in Alaska could just take him up on his offer.
Al Gross was born at the base of Mount Juneau after an avalanche. He says he bought his own fishing vessel at the age of 14. He killed a grizzly bear that was attacking him. He then paid his way through college and medical school with money earned catching salmon.
Gross, an orthopedic surgeon, is running for U.S. Senate as an independent to unseat incumbent Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK). At first, political spectators saw Gross as a curiosity, not a serious candidate. His stories about the Alaskan wilderness led some to label him as a "mythical creature conjured up by consultants" with no real chance of victory.
But polling released at the end of last month shows Gross down by just 1 point, well within striking distance of his Republican opponent, who was beating him handily by 13 points in mid-July. Alaska hasn't gone blue in a presidential election since 1964, but given Gross' precipitous rise in the polls, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski's ranking as the second least popular senator in Congress, Democrats have turned their focus toward the last frontier state.
While Gross killing a grizzly might not be a winning message for Democrats in the suburban enclaves of the lower 48, his outdoorsman appeal has proved successful in convincing Alaskans that its time for a change, offering them an alternative to Sullivan's record as a U.S. Marine.
The son of former Alaska Attorney General Avrum Gross, Al Gross has highlighted his father's legacy in helping to create the Alaska Permanent Fund as a key talking point to appeal to independent voters. The fund, which pays Alaskan residents thousands of dollars collected from oil producers in the state, serves as a well regarded and enduring piece of bi-partisan legislation.
As an orthopedic surgeon Gross has also made health care central to his platform, citing familiarity with a broken system and pledging to take on the pharmaceutical industry's sky-high drug prices. His promise to fight for Alaskans' right to cheaper health care scared even his Republican opponent this week into voting in support of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer's bill to protect the Affordable Care Act.
Health care is a core issue for voters in Alaska who, according to a 2017 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, would suffer more than residents of any other state under the GOP's "Trump Care" plan, which would cut billions from Medicaid and strip tens of thousands of their health coverage.
Gross is one of a number of recently viable Senate candidates running against Republicans who just months ago seemed untouchable. Following Jaime Harrison in South Carolina and Jon Ossoff in Georgia, Gross could very well be one of the deciding factors in determining whether Democrats can take an overall majority in Congress after Nov. 3.
On Tuesday, Gross took to Twitter to call his opponent "a Coward" after CNN reported that Sullivan, when asked if Trump's refusal to condemn white supremacy was hurting his election chances, "stared at [a] reporter silently for about eight seconds before a Senate subway door closed, and whisked him away."
As Joe Biden continues to lead Trump in national polls and in key battle ground states, Trump's track record of incendiary remarks are a serious liability for Republican senators, a number of whom now risk losing their seats to Democratic opponents. Already, Sullivan's refusal to buck the Trump party line has delivered Gross a $482,000 ad buy from the Anti-Trump Lincoln Project, and the recent polls placing him neck and neck with Gross are sure to generate a significant uptick in contributions to his campaign coffers.
The jolt in support even prompted the Republican opposition research firm America Rising to file a public records request with Alaska's Department of Fish and Game to prove that Gross had not in fact shot a grizzly. Beating his Republican opponents to the punch, Gross released documentation of the attack complete with photo evidence showing him posed beside the bear in question.
Gross is far from guaranteed a victory. As the Cook Political Report noted in July, "Alaska is a state that is notoriously hard to poll and Republicans are, perhaps rightly, skeptical of such numbers. They say their own polling doesn't worry them in regards to Sullivan, but that they're taking the race seriously."
"Even though the state has, at times, broken with its GOP lean in presidential politics to split on statewide races, Republicans argue this isn't the year," the ratings website added.
Still, with the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the independent fisherman-turned-doctor could have a shot at turning a red state blue. Even the Cook Political Report, with all its skepticism, changed the race back in July from "Solid Republican" to "Lean Republican" before nudging it back slightly to "Likely Republican" more recently.
On Tuesday, Gross released a video targeting Sullivan for taking donations from the CEO of Pebble Mine, a company trying to open controversial mines that would threaten crucial habitat of the Alaskan Salmon that fisherman in the state depend on to survive.
"Last week we learned here in Alaska that Dan Sullivan received campaign donations from top executives at Pebble Mine including from CEO Tom collier, all the while lying to Alaskans about the truth on where he stands on the issues," he said. "...I'm calling on Dan to return these campaign donations. It's obvious that he's been putting himself and his party above the interests of Alaskans."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.