The Lesson in Alaska Democrats’ Defeat

The Lesson in Alaska Democrats’ Defeat

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[Originally published in the Anchorage Press]

Tuesday’s election may have brought a second term for Barack Obama, but it also dissolved the balance of an evenly-divided Alaska senate into a 13-7 split favoring the Republicans.

The Senate Bipartisan Working Group is dead, and it happened for a reason.

Throughout campaign season, Republicans pointed to their team jerseys and said: “Vote Republican.” They made it inescapably clear: Elect us to give money to Big Oil. This will lead to more production and possibly ponies. Don’t ask us how or why. Just do it.

The Democrats devised a drastically different electoral defense. Most candidates adopted strategies of pretending to sound like a Republican. They seemed to rely on poll data that told them who they should be and how they should sound, instead of owning who they were and sounding confident about it.

On the east side of Anchorage, we had Bettye Davis.

Davis is a Democrat with long tenure in the state senate. She has fiercely dedicated herself to the causes of improving education and health care, strengthening laws against hate crimes, and furthering our commitment to foster care, to name a few. But Davis effectively ran against herself by sending out mailers advertising her opponent, Anna Fairclough, as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. She repeatedly pounded a challenge to Fairclough: “how can you be the conservative?”

Easy. Because Anna Fairclough is conservative. Bettye Davis is not. That’s not a crime; Bettye Davis is Bettye Davis, and that’s pretty damn impressive. Perhaps she should have run as Bettye Davis instead of telling her base, who she needed to make calls and contribute and be generally excited, to fall in line with a campaign that often felt antithetical to her own record.

Davis lost handily. We lost her seniority, record, and dedication to important causes that the GOP readily ignores, like Denali Kidcare.

On the opposite side of town, incumbent Democrat Hollis French faced former Anchorage Assemblyman Bob Bell. French, like Davis, is heralded by the left, center, and moderate right for dedicating himself to causes like public safety, pre-K education, and the absurd amount of money in politics.

But, in just two years, French went from standing tall as a 2010 gubernatorial candidate, who screamed that “Democratic values are Alaskan values,” to someone unwilling to answer the simple question: “Are you a liberal?” on KAKM’s Running series.

The word “liberal” has been dumped on by the GOP punditry. It’s an antiquated term. But Hollis French had an opportunity to confront Bell, not just as a political opponent, but as a Democrat. As the party that stands up to the people who are offered bribes from oil companies and fail to mention it to authorities. You think “liberal” is a dirty word? Ask one of us how we feel about the word VECO. French faced an opponent pummeled by the media for his standoffishness with ethics with a ferocity we haven’t seen since Joe Miller handcuffed Tony Hopfinger for being a journalist.

Yet Hollis, as the vote count stands, just barely squeaked by.

French is a liberal. So is Bettye Davis. Some wear it on their sleeve and others cover it up like an embarrassing tattoo. But conservatives are worthless without liberals and the opposite is equally true, no matter what Glenn Beck tells you. Both are supposed to argue ideological approaches to policy, and that competition is supposed to lead to the best policy possible. When that breaks down, whichever party is in power tends to get high off their own fumes. Political competition fuels healthy governance.

The problem is that, this election cycle, Alaska Democrats didn’t advocate for that competition. They made an uncomfortable, unhelpful case that, in fact, they were the actual Republicans.

When given a choice between someone who clearly states who they are and what they stand for, and someone who clearly stands next to that person and makes comments to the effect of “me too, kinda,” the voters will choose the person who speaks in declarative sentences. Regardless of how ridiculous those sentences may be.

The good news for Democrats is that—when given the effective power of “one party rule”—Republicans generally end up sending a good number of themselves to jail.

The question is whether or not the Alaska Democratic Party, under new leadership, will buck the recent trend of tethering their passion to polling data, whether they’ll commit to a backbone, even if it means they might lose reelection.

Leaders don’t say: “Who do you want me to be?” They say: “This is who I am.”

The Democratic Party needs to figure out its identity, get behind it, and start living it. Forget the need to win every election and figure out what a victory means. Democrats: think long term, because whether you want to acknowledge the reality or not, the short term ain’t happening for you. You currently amount to a symbolic objection in Juneau. The GOP doesn’t need you to pass their agenda. There is no need for compromise. And they haven’t taken you seriously for a good amount of time now, because you’ve been trick or treating as Republicans during campaign season.

The Democratic Party has two choices. Keep moving to the right, or plant the damn flag and figure out who you are. Win our votes. It won’t be long before we need an alternative to the folks we just elected.

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John Aronno is a co-founder, managing editor, and award winning political writer at Alaska Commons. Aronno has had his work featured in the Huffington Post, the Anchorage Press, the Alaska Dispatch, and the Rachel Maddow Show, and is listed among the state’s top reporters on the Washington Post’s “The Fix.” He writes the weekly column “On Politics” for Alaska Commons. Aronno lives in Anchorage, Alaska with his wife, Heather Aronno, and a lot of pets.

16 COMMENTS

  1. Kudos John. No way can a Democrat out-Republican a Republican. Kookesh lost also because who needs a Democrat that sounds just like a Republican and tries to be more so.

    Better to have an honest moderate Republican that stands for whatever he or she stands for than a Democrat trying to sound like something he or she isn’t. No enthusiasm factor there for Democrats. Hope things get fixed by 2014.

  2. Here’s a thing: In Bettye Davis’s old Senate District K, there were ~4200 registered Democrats and ~5200 registered Republicans. In Bettye Davis’s new Senate District M, there were ~3800 registered Democrats and ~9600 registered Republicans. Not evenly split between the the numbered districts, either, and it showed. In east Anchorage, District 25, Anna Fairclough only beat Bettye Davis by a hundred votes or so. In Eagle River, District 26, it was a walkover–like 70% Fairclough vs. 30% Davis. District 26 is insanely Republican–there are more Republicans than unaffiliated. There are more Republicans than Democrats and registered nonpartisans *combined*. Do you really think that, had Bettye Davis run *further to the left* than she did, she would have had more success?

    I guess what I’m asking is: I’m not sure whether you’re saying “Stand tall as a liberal during campaigns even if you lose” or “Stand tall as a liberal during campaigns and you are more likely to win”?

    • Maybe small gains this time, which add to more small gains atop those next time. Again, the bigger point is that the party is glossing over forming an identity and centering on rapidly shrinking short term gains.

      With the money that poured in this time, plus the insular talk radio feedback loop, the writing for losing the senate was on the wall. The party is back to where it was ten years ago, but with a depleted bench, a top down strategy, and a message that doesn’t present a clear distinction between parties beyond oil taxation.

      I’m trying to say “figure out who you are and stand tall as that person. Don’t try to sound like your opponent; that will likely just reinforce support for them. Be you. If you’re not proud of who you are, your message, and your record, don’t run.”

      • But how do you stand tall as whoever-you-are, if who you are is a progressive/liberal/what do you want to call it, without alienating voters in conservative-dominated districts like Eagle River and the Valley?
        In other words, what should Democrats be willing to compromise on in order to have a chance at winning seats, and what should they stand firm on in order to differentiate themselves from the other guys and do have a clear identity?

        • I think democrats need to run on the issues that are important to their people and show them that their solutions are in their people’s better interest and that the republican solution will hurt them. It is like in the book by Thomas Frank, what’s the matter with Kansas? People voting for politicians that are not working in their best interest because they buy the lies and there is no other party dispelling those lies…or the democrats try to out-republican the republicans (as too many democrats do) Or better yet this country need a third party that represents the working people, middle class, and small farmer. Unfortunately both parties are representing the same rich and Wall Street banks and corporations.

  3. This is just another manifestation of a problem the Democrats have had for a long time – mewing every time the Rabid Right roars.

    • Gerrymandering, trying to out Republican the Republicans, Fox News, cowardice, talk radio in Anchorage, Ron Paul, money influencing politics — Where do I circle ‘all of the above?’

  4. Got cheese? I smell whine.

    “D” stands for a government more interested in environmental issues, no growth policies and hoarding tax money to give to people who haven’t earned it. Let’s stop oil and gas production until nobody needs ours anymore because plenty has been found in everybody elses own back yard. Minerals mining, anyone? Too many Alaskans have figured out you are killing new jobs and creating too many dependants.

    Alaskans and everybody else is going to need all the production revenue we can get to help keep us afloat while we get through the next 4 years of country killing.

      • Dick,

        Environmental concerns kind of matter. Unless you’re totally into sky rocketing food prices, famine, drought, and hurricanes. We live in a fish bowl. Worry about the water. The fact that one party has drawn a line around that issue and called it partisan is derelict of duty.

        On oil, here’s the reality. There is oil in the ground in Alaska. The oil companies will retrieve it. They would prefer to drill for oil in more temperate climates. If only the north slope were in the Bahamas. So, right now, they’re in North Dakota. Because North Dakota isn’t Alaska. But they aren’t leaving here. You know why? Because we aren’t Iran.

        This is a cycle. The oil companies are asked if they find it tolerable to be asked to pay taxes when they extract our oil, and they say “Absolutely, so long as we are only asked to pay a fair share and not a dime more.” They won’t specify a dollar amount, but whatever we ultimately decide on, they then decide is too much. So they scream and yell and the GOP capitulates. And nothing happens. Eventually we realize that we’re continuing to get screwed and we reinstate taxes.

        Meanwhile, Norway is looking at the $650 billion in their permanent fund, looking at us panicking over whether industry is going to give up on our Unobtainium, and laughing their asses off.

  5. Using corn to make alcohol to burn in cars might raise food prices too.

    What should we have done to save the dinosaurs? You would probably blame the storm damage on “climate change”. What are you going to do to stop the earth quakes and volcanic eruptions? How smart do you have to be to know we aren’t in charge of the world we live in and our attempts to control it are ridiculous. Ever heard of anything made by man that wasn’t from something on earth (natural and environmental)?

    • I don’t have to believe in climate change. I accept it. It’s real, and it’s happening. And as someone who plans on raising a child, I’d like to take measured, practical, economical steps to address it so that he or she doesn’t grow up on the set of Tank Girl.

      But, I suppose I’m just a “country killer.” Seriously?

      If you’d prefer sitting back and accepting everything that happens as a natural occurrence, immune to prescription and treatment by human interaction, then go for it. Absolve yourself. Be a coffee shop, latte sucking hipster of the right for a change – because I’m all about diversity. But while you’re enjoying your party of one elitism, recognize that you’ve given up; that you don’t actually believe that we have any authority over our own actions. Have at it. That’ll totally be a net gain for society, and should earn you the respect of your friends.

      “Why bother.” Hell of a motto.

    • Ahh, Dick. are you the “it’s God’s Plan” type? just curious.

      Above John says we live in a fish bowl. Please, contemplate that for a few minutes.

      In our ecology, we exchange chemicals. reactions & molecules and create new arrangements of these chemicals and compounds. The oil we pull out becomes something different; energy or plastic or smoke… Things that are wholly different than the raw materials we used to make them. Sometimes things that didn’t exist prior to us making this exchange. And we do this in the billions of pounds of matter every year. Did you ever build a terrarium? Have a fish tank? How delicate were these environments to subtle changes? To think this has no bearing on the fishbowl is arrogant and insular. You are not an island sir. There is air I breathe which you have also breathed.

      Climate change isn’t a natural disaster. It’s nature’s response to excessive rearranged chemicals being thrust into the ecology over a very short period of time.

      I think we’re over worrying about saving the dinosaurs. Hell, I’m over trying to save the Polar Bears. Their world is o-v-e-r. Unfortunate, but like the mammoth, it’s natural environment changed and their species can’t adapt quick enough. UNLIKE the mammoth, the Polar Bear will face extinction within a century or two of peak populations versus the several thousand years it took the mammoth to dwindle out of existence.

      This is about exponential change. In an ecology. What might otherwise be thought of natural phenomena, unusual weather events or patterns, are happening at a more rapid pace. Where record weather was a rarity, we are seeing record highs, lows, storms and die-offs EVERY year as opposed to once a century or millennia. There is no more Storm of the Century. It’s the Storm of September.

      We MUST worry about the survival of our species. If that means curbing our actions now then it makes sense to do so. What if you’re wrong, are you willing to wager the future of humanity on the possibility climate change isn’t real? I’m the type to think we should err on the side of caution. So I have a gun with 6 bullets, I’mma put it to my head and pull the trigger. It might kill me, but then again it might not. I’m gonna go with put the fucking gun down.

      You can deny climate change. But it believes in you even if you don’t believe in it.

What do you think?