The final days leading up to the Alaska primary election are always a fascinating spectacle to watch. Media and pundits feel rather certain that they have a responsibility to accurately predict what has become a uniquely unforecastable election; a storm we all see coming, but can’t get an accurate depiction of. Outcomes may seem obvious, but one never knows which houses will actually get hit and which will be standing come the light of day.
As the afternoon gave way to evening, ahead of the 8pm deadline, predictions ran rampant, but no one really had a clear sense of what the hell was about to happen. Everyone had gut feelings, which jutted violently up against nothing tangible to support them in anyway that was conclusive. Because our primaries are distinctly, well, equal parts weird and unpredictable.
Big questions were looming, and Election Central inside the Egan Center in Anchorage was much less festive than normal. The fiercely competitive GOP Senate race, which has been the focus of much national media attention and hype, would be decided Tuesday night. So, too, would the fate of the Parnell administration’s More Alaska Production Act (MAPA, or SB21). Myriad contested primaries that could tip the balance toward — or away from — a new bipartisan coalition in one or both of the legislative chambers awaited adjudication by voters.
Tuesday night was a big, freaking deal.
I was huddled over my awkwardly small tablet, obsessively refreshing the screen in anticipation of some sort of impending direction to take my complete lack of confidence. Alaska Dispatch News sat in front of me doing prep work, while KTUU anchorman Steve MacDonald readied the stage ten feet to my right for the countless guests soon to come.
Independent (but Republican — because our primaries are that weird) gubernatorial candidate Bill Walker broke the silence. His large contingent of supporters swarmed in, accompanied by chants of: “Walker/Fleener 2014!”
His presence would be the most domineering factor of the night, despite his nonexistent role in the primary election (though his vocal support for the repeal of MAPA was, likewise, the overarching theme of the night).
Senate Bill Twenty-Done.
When numbers started trickling in, the first surprise was laid on the table. The repeal of Senate Bill 21 (Ballot Measure 1) took a very small lead. Only about 500 votes, with just a quarter of precincts reporting.Photo by Bryan Dunagan.
The most solid of any predictions going into the evening was that the repeal effort would be shot down by wide margins. The “No on 1” effort raised a staggering $13 million to combat the 50,000 signatures that put the referendum on the ballot. Ballot Measure 1 proponent and economist Gregg Erickson pointed out at a recent forum that the spending translated to over $100 per voter in Alaska to kill the repeal. Pollster Ivan Moore told Amanda Coyne just hours before polls closed that “No on #1 is going to win by anywhere from 10 to 13 percentage points.”
And yet, when the cast ballots appeared on the screens at the Egan Center, the possibility of a different outcome exploded hope for supporters of repeal. The “Yes on 1” group soon after flooded the room, which became awash in red campaign signs that read: “It’s Our Oil! Vote Yes! Repeal the Giveaway!”
The throng broke into an impromptu rendition of “Alaska’s Flag,” the state song, as MacDonald interviewed Sen. Begich on the stage above.
And then, the flip flopped. More numbers came in reversing the narrow trend favoring repeal. Those numbers would increase with each subsequent precinct update.
As the vote tally stands at the time of writing, the support of repeal is down by nearly 5 percentage points — over 6,000 votes — and is barreling from an unlikely upset to a hopeless defeat.
If that vote tally holds, which is likely, Governor Parnell (and his new voter-approved running mate, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan) will have even more wind at his back as he seeks reelection. His challengers, Democrat Byron Mallott and Independent Bill Walker, have made the oil tax referendum central to their campaigns. As have Democrats running for the state legislature. Up hill battles now abound.
Mallott, just after midnight, issued a press release touting many reasons why he views himself as the right candidate for Alaska. Of the nine bullet points featured, oil taxation was notably absent. Let the pivots begin. Walker will have a much more difficult time separating himself from the issue; it has been the predominant theme of his campaign, which will make it that much harder to phase out — and he likely won’t try.
Joe Miller fails to do what we kind of thought he couldn’t do, but had a nagging suspicion he might just go ahead and do anyway.
After tea party star, Joe Miller, upset Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) in 2010 (only to fall to her historic write-in campaign in the general), no one was completely prepared to rule out a similar victory this primary season. That reluctance came despite lagging poll numbers and lackluster fundraising. But if one can enjoy an electoral victory after handcuffing a reporter, there’s a certain bounce-back-ability that makes outright disqualification problematic.
Add to that resilience the groundswell of support Miller exuded over the final weeks of campaigning and his ability to force his two challengers — former Attorney General Dan Sullivan and Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell — to the right, and a Miller victory seemed anything but impossible. I personally found it probable.
I was wrong.
With all but six precincts reporting, Miller trails Sullivan — who was largely embraced as the frontrunner — by roughly eight points (over 8,000 votes). Just before 2am, Casey Grove reported that Miller had conceded to Sullivan. Treadwell, who in all likelihood could have been the strongest challenge to incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Begich, trails by an even larger margin.
I’ve heard that the Sullivan campaign had a thoroughly enjoyable party. But the media wasn’t allowed to observe for ourselves. The celebration inside the Fat Ptarmigan barred our entry. The GOP’s broader party, at the Hard Rock cafe, also kindly showed us the door, after snapping a few photos of a Mark Begich sign affixed to a cardboard cutout of President Barack Obama.
Sullivan has been the constant focus of the Begich campaign, which has done their best to brand him as an Outsider. Sullivan has found responding to that challenge difficult, as Miller represented a more immediate threat, flanking him from the ideological right. Sullivan will have a lot of walking back to do on that front, as he pivots to expand his support base beyond the state’s most conservative voters. But given Begich’s unique election to the U.S. Senate subsequent to the late Senator Ted Stevens’s multiple count indictment on ethics and corruption charges (which were later overturned), this will remain a heated and close race.
Dunbar can ‘Run, Forrest, Run,’ but all Young does is win.
It’s hard to imagine anyone unseating Congressman for All of Alaska Don Young. He manhandled a Congressional staffer at the beginning of the month, and sailed through the primary less than three weeks later, beating his closest GOP contender by a 57-point margin.
Democratic challenger Forrest Dunbar is hoping for a hail mary upset, but it’s tough to afford much validity to the effort, albeit an impressive one, rife with a groundswell of support we haven’t seen in recent history given Young’s enduring legacy.
But as unpredictable as Alaska’s GOP primary has become, Don Young’s ability to shake off a general election challenger has been correspondingly solidified. Dunbar enjoys a snowball’s chance in very hot climates, but it will be fun to watch the race play out. And whatever the first time candidate runs for next will be something to keep a close watch on.
Dunbar remains in the race and will no doubt continue to think outside the box in pursuit of what would quite possibly be the biggest political upset in state history. And anything can happen. But, that proverbial anything has failed to happen in the 41 years Rep. Young has spent in Washington D.C.
Lieutenant Governor Watch.
As noted earlier, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan coasted to victory in the GOP primary. His only legitimate competition, State Senator Lesil McGuire (R-Anchorage), dropped out of the race months ago. Sullivan showed up to Election Central shoulder-to-shoulder with Governor Sean Parnell, previewing a cozy and seemingly natural relationship in the coming months.
On the Democratic side, many expected a close contest between outgoing minority leader Senator Hollis French (D-Anchorage) and darkhorse Mat-Su Valley teacher Bob Williams. While French was the establishment candidate enjoying the benefit of much name recognition within Democratic circles, Williams had impressive grassroots support. Ultimately, that support did not translate to votes. French won handily, nearly tripling the votes tallied for Williams.
Left in the ether is Craig Fleener, running with Independent gubernatorial candidate Bill Walker. Fleener was at Walker’s side all evening in downtown Anchorage, but looked inescapably somber. With polls indicating that Walker and Democrat Byron Mallott are sure to split the anti-Parnell vote, many suspect a deal is in the works to somehow combine the campaigns. This would take a display of humility I’m not sure either camp is willing to agree to — and such an act could illicit an acknowledged weakness that ultimately harms all parties involved. But if Fleener’s uniform facial expressions and demeanor are a nod in any direction, he knows something’s up.
French, quite the opposite, looked as confident and ambitious as ever.
And then there’s that whole legislature.
In the Alaska State House of Representatives, Bill Stoltze (R-Chugiak) is a force. Since first being elected in 2002, he has ascended to the powerful role as Co-Chair of the Finance Committee — the legislative wearer-of-the-purse — among other committee assignments. When an open state senate seat was added to the mix, blending part of Sen. Fred Dyson’s Eagle River district with the Mat-Su Valley, Stoltze decided he’d have at it. Unfortunately, so did Palmer Mayor DeLena Johnson, who Stoltze campaigned for. In the end, Stoltze carried the GOP vote by over 40 points.
In the House, there were several contested primaries of note. Most prominent among them was that between two House Republicans, Tammy Wilson and Doug Isaacson, whose North Pole districts were combined in the latest round of redistricting revisions. Wilsonwon the day, carrying the new district by a 300-vote advantage over her colleague. She’ll move on to face Democratic challenger Sharron Hunter in the general — which, in North Pole, means that she’s really, really likely to beat Sharron Hunter in the general.
Unexpectedly, Chickaloon Republican Eric Feige will not be in the running for a third term in the state house. More unexpectedly, in a three-way GOP contest, he came in a distant third. Mat-Su former assemblyman, former school board president, and former deputy borough mayor Jim Colver will move on as the GOP contender in Alaska’s ninth house district. And, much like North Pole, he is hard pressed to lose. George Rauscher, who received an endorsement from the arch-conservative Alaska Family Action group, placed second.
In Anchorage, Don Hadley overcame a challenge from fellow Republican Kevin Kastner and will face longtime Democratic incumbent Max Gruenberg. Tea Party inspired, and second-time candidate, Anand Dubey ably fended off primary opponent Matt Fagnani to square off against former assemblyman and Democrat Matt Claman for the West Anchorage seat left vacant by Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-retired Lindsey Holmes.
Retiring GOP incumbent Alan Austerman will not see his handpicked successor — daughter Carol Austerman — elected. Instead, she finished third. Louise Stutes, who ran an admirable ground campaign, earned the party nomination.
And Liz Vasquez, who followed up a failed bid for Anchorage Assembly in 2011 with a failed bid for the state legislature in 2012 (losing the GOP primary to Bob Bell, who in turn lost to incumbent Hollis French), got one step closer to an actual win. Tuesday night, she defeated Republican colleague Sherri Jackson. Jackson suffered no shortage of media scrutiny after questions regarding her place of residency plagued her campaign. Vasquez squeaked by with about a 150-vote margin. She’ll move on to face Democrat Marty McGee in what could be one of the more interesting races this campaign season.