By Mark Oppenheimer

On May 23, 2012, after finishing final exams at the end of his junior year at Yale, a 23-year-old named Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins got two phone calls from people back home in Alaska. The first came from an erstwhile losing candidate for state Legislature; the second, from a longtime high school debate coach who remembered Kreiss-Tomkins as a standout from a rival school’s team. Neither one knew the other was calling, but both had the same idea: Kreiss-Tomkins should drop out of college.

Specifically, he should drop out of college, move home to Sitka and become a Democratic candidate for the state House of Representatives. They told him he had 10 days to decide.

Kreiss-Tomkins was dubious. There were plenty of reasons to say no. First, he had already planned out the year ahead: A relaxing summer in Sitka, with its 17 hours of sunlight, before starting the White House internship he’d lined up in the fall, then returning to Yale in the spring to finish his political science degree. Even if he could convince himself that giving all that up would be worth it, the race would be a steep uphill climb. Of the 40 members of Alaska’s Statehouse, only 16 were Democrats, several of whom caucused with the Republicans. Kreiss-Tomkins would have to campaign across a district made up of hundreds (if not thousands) of islands, strewn over an area the size of Connecticut. The incumbent Republican, Bill Thomas, chaired the House’s powerful Finance Committee and was widely seen as unbeatable, having eviscerated every opponent since his first election in 2004. In sum, it all added up to a sobering explanation for the phone calls: Alaska’s Democrats couldn’t find anyone else who would run, and turned their lonely eyes to a 23-year-old college student 2,900 miles away.

But why him?

By the time I had met Kreiss-Tomkins earlier that semester in a course I taught at Yale, he was already a campus semilegend, known for his serious hobbies (mountain climbing and ultramarathons) and singular appearance: bald, with a fringe of snowy blond hair and bright blue eyes—at once prematurely aged and precociously youthful, old man meets newborn.

What the folks back home knew—and his college friends didn’t—is that as a teenager, Kreiss-Tomkins had been, in his words, “autodidactically ferocious” about politics. While in high school, he’d memorized all 50 state attorneys general, all 100 U.S. senators, and a couple hundred members of the House of Representatives. At 14, his organizing prowess on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign earned coverage from NPR, The Washington Post and The New York Times Magazine. From his home on a “remote Alaskan island,” the Times Magazine reported a month before the 2004 Iowa caucuses, “Kreiss-Tomkins has become especially adept at finding pen pals and online friends, and he now uses that skill on behalf of the Dean campaign, recruiting supporters through the Internet and then sending lists of e-mail addresses to the campaign.”

In college, feeling a bit of “been there, done that” syndrome, as he put it, he had dropped political organizing. But the phone calls from home, urging him to run for office stirred something inside. “I see politics in VORP-like terms,” he explains, using the baseball stat-nerd acronym for “value over replacement player.” Would he be better than a hypothetical average candidate recruited to run for the seat? The deadline approached. Finally, he made up his mind. On June 1, 2012, on his way to the Newark airport to fly home for the summer, he took a detour to the FedEx/Kinko’s in Times Square. “It was the last fax I ever sent,” he remembers. He got his paperwork in just under the wire, “at 8 o’clock Eastern time”—4 p.m. Alaska time. He was in.

Over the next five months, Kreiss-Tomkins campaigned doggedly. He went door to door, by foot, ferry and bush plane. He visited Alaska Native villages, arriving with only a backpack containing a change of clothes, a tube of Ritz crackers, some peanut butter and a stash of business cards.

Thomas, his opponent, hung back, slow to awake to the seriousness of the challenge. Meanwhile, Kreiss-Tomkins, sounding a populist note, hammered him on a vote Thomas had taken to cut taxes for the oil industry. “I framed my candidacy primarily as a referendum on that vote,” Kreiss-Tomkins says, “because I thought his vote on such an important issue directly conflicted with the public interest.”

The election went down to the wire, then past it as absentee ballots arrived from Alaskans around the world—“from a military person in Bahrain, from somebody living abroad in Cambodia”—the closest contest of the season in Alaska and possibly the whole country. State Democrats watched with gnawed-down fingernails and high bar tabs. If Kreiss-Tomkins lost, the Alaska House Democrats would have just nine members, below the one-fourth of the assembly that is required to be considered an official caucus—at which point, according to the Legislature’s rules, they could be excluded from committees and even denied funds for hiring staff. “At one point, my race was dead-even tied,” says Kreiss-Tomkins. “The tabulation would change by the day. Up by two, down by seven. Then there was a recount.”

On December 3, 2012, Kreiss-Tomkins was declared the victor by 32 votes. And although he had no way to know it at the time, it was the beginning of something very unexpected.

In the five years since Kreiss-Tomkins’s upset victory, a most unusual thing has happened: Alaska—which elected Sarah Palin governor but has not supported a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon B. Johnson—has turned from red to a bluish hue of purple. Throughout the state, unknown progressives, like the kind Kreiss-Tomkins once was, have been winning. Before the elections of 2012, conservatives controlled all the major seats of power in Alaska: the governorship, both houses of the Legislature, and the mayoralty and city assembly of Anchorage, where 40 percent of the state’s 740,000 residents live; now, progressives and moderates control all of those offices but the state Senate, which has been gerrymandered beyond their control. …read more

Read more here: How to Turn a Red State Purple (Democrats Not Required)

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