As the Alaska Senate race gallops toward the August primary, a fascinating subplot is unfolding. While voters tend to see elections from the lens of two-bit politics, orbiting around the Republican and Democratic parties, the Libertarian Party is trying to arrive at an electorally palatable identity. Some see that identity under a subheading within the Republican Party; others see it as an element of the Tea Party movement. Some would like full autonomy and independence from any larger tents.
There’s plenty of room for disagreement. Of the thirteen candidates vying for the seat, currently held by Democratic incumbent Mark Begich, only one other is a Democrat. Due to a loophole in the Constitution, which only requires that a Senate candidate be a resident of the state when elected, that Democrat — William Bryk — has never so much as stepped foot on Alaskan soil.
Of the remaining 11 candidates, two are running as Libertarians, two are featured on the Alaska Independence Party ticket, two are unaffiliated, and the GOP is fielding five.
But possibly the largest ideological contrast exists between the two men seeking the Libertarian nomination; both of whom are waging campaigns much less about an expectation to actually win a seat in the U.S. Senate, and much more about cementing one single Libertarian Party identity.
It could say a lot about the future influence Libertarianism has in Alaska politics.
Mark Fish announced his candidacy on May 14. A former serviceman with 20 years experience in the National Guard, Fish touts a lengthy record of political involvement in state. He was the chair of the Libertarian Party in Alaska from 2012-2013 and a former candidate both for Anchorage Assembly and State House. He also served as Volunteer Coordinator during Joe Miller’s 2010 Senate bid, and worked in the Palin administration, including a term on the human rights commission.
A day before his re-confirmation hearing, in February of 2012, his name was removed from consideration. Complaints over a post on Fish’s now defunct “Common Sense Alaska” blog had surfaced, in which he defended another Palin appointee, Wayne Anthony Ross.
Ross found himself lost in controversy shortly after his nomination as Attorney General. As the Daily Beast noted at the time:
[H]is opponents presented evidence that he called homosexuals “degenerates,” leveled invective against an African-American student offended by a statue of a Klansman, vowed to undermine the sovereignty of Native American tribes, and allegedly defended men who rape their wives.
Charming. His nomination failed to launch.
Fish defended Ross, saying that he was “fighting the good fight,” and blamed opposition to his nomination on: “1. Native leaders 2. Radical Feminist 3. Democrat party operativees.”
He elaborated on the “radical feminist” bit, which was recounted by Lisa Demer in the Anchorage Daily News:
“Yes folks, elements of this group actually belief men have no value and through science they can eliminate men from the face of the earth,” Fish wrote. “He know their game plan and stand in opposition to it. If you have an anti-male bias you will probably stand with these nut jobs.”
He resigned shortly after.
This time around, his campaign has been predicated on the rights of the individual, and his stance on equal rights for LGBT citizens has evidently evolved — he marched with other Libertarians in this year’s PrideFest march for equality. But he hasn’t escaped his ties to Miller. Amanda Coyne noted that there has “been speculation that Fish is running in order to save a spot on the ticket for Miller were Miller to lose the Republican primary and chose to run as a Libertarian.”
It’s a claim he has not flatly denied, but has said he’s not spoken to Miller about. During a candidate forum in Anchorage last month, he probably didn’t help his case.
“As chair of the Alaska Libertarian Party, I tried for about eighteen months to try to get you to run as a Libertarian,” Fish said. “I noticed that you haven’t registered yet. I would like to know, are you going to register as a Libertarian and run against me in the primary?”
“Mark, we’re trying to make up our minds. I’ve got until June 2,” Miller replied.
The idea of Mark Fish serving as a proxy for Joe Miller to run on the Libertarian ticket doesn’t sit well with his primary opponent, Scott Kohlhaas. Kohlhaas announced his candidacy just days after the Anchorage forum. I sat down with him earlier this month and asked him why he’d decided to jump in.
“Mainly, to protect the brand name of the Libertarian Party,” he told me flatly. “It took a lot of years to build and there’s some people now that would hand it over to the enemy without a fight. I figured I’d just jump in. Mark Fish, who is a candidate, is not a bad person, but he’s going to hand it over to Joe Miller, and that’s unacceptable.”
Kohlhaas has been a member of the Libertarian Party for 36 years, and has served as party chair in Alaska, Missouri, and Washington D.C. He was born about an hour and a half away from Fish, in Rochester, Minnesota (Fish hails from Robbinsdale). Also, like Fish, he’s no stranger to politics. “I’m 5-0 in Alaska in primaries,” he joked. “I’ve never had an opponent though.”
Most recently, Kohlhaas lost a bid for State House against Democratic Representative Max Gruenberg.
He said his candidacy is hinged on three planks: pro-choice, open borders, and anti-war, and he feels like Libertarianism — as a brand — is being co-opted by political figures like Joe Miller and Sarah Palin — and by proxy, Mark Fish. Pun intended.
To Kohlhaas, the pro-militarization, anti-choice, and anti-immigration stances offered from the podium by Miller and Palin are Republican establishment positions, antithetical to the core of Libertarian ideology.
“Have you ever heard Joe Miller make an anti-war statement,” he asked me, “or address the issue at all?” He used Palin and Miller’s commitments to using the U.S. military to defend Israel. “That’s not neutrality. That is interventionist and it’s going to get us all killed.”
He described himself as a limited governmentalist. “I say police, courts, and national defense. Just enough government to protect us.”
Similarly, he pushed back on Miller’s stance on immigration. When asked recently if he supported “any form of amnesty for illegal immigrants,” Miller said offered a definitive “absolutely not.” Fish, also, said no.
Kohlhaas, couldn’t disagree more. Leaning back in his chair, with his cat perched on the arm, he said: “So, [another reporter] asked me, ‘okay, what if Islamic militants set up in Monterrey, Mexico. Are you going to let them in?’ I said, peaceful people should be allowed to travel freely. Are they peaceful?” He shook his head. “So, we’ve got to have something. We need to lean toward letting people into this country.”
He said if it were up to him, he’d empty half the prison population, close down indefinite detention centers, abolish the NSA and “and all the different alphabet soups — the CIA, FBI. We would not need secret police in a free society.” Kohlhaas thinks that works the other way around as well, saying “you can’t leave the country without getting harassed right now. And it’s getting worse.”
It’s hard to argue that Miller has a lot of support among voters identifying as Libertarians. I wondered aloud if that was the dominant thought among Libertarians. Since the rise of the Tea Party, a voluminous amount of evangelical fundamentalism, anti-gay sentiment, and other socially conservative principles have been used in the name of Libertarianism. Ron Paul serves as a prime example.
“We love Ron Paul,” Kohlhaas said. “But Ron Paul is only about 70 percent of the way there on the principles.”
As far as whether or not the brunt of Alaskan Libertarians agree with Scott Kohlhaas, Mark Fish, or Joe Miller — and what vision of the party brand eventually emerges as the mainstay — has yet to be seen. The Libertarian Party has officially endorsed Fish.
Asked his opinion, Kohlhaas threw his hands up in the air. “We’ll find out,” he said with a smile. “Hopefully, after 42 years as a party, there are people who still understand the philosophy and step forward. But with Alaska elections, you can never tell.”