The Lesson in Alaska Democrats’ Defeat

[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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