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Alaska Votes 2014: Begich Down, Walker Up, and Everybody Wants to get Stoned

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The good news: It’s mostly over.

I’ve covered quite a few elections and — the fates willing — will cover many more. Never have I seen an election with so many crucial items packed within a single ballot, and complicated by so genuinely few answers. Never before have I seen so many really intelligent people — historians, pundits, journos alike — answer the unrelenting questions of “Which side will win?” by throwing their hands to the air, eyes wide, exploding with an absolute expression of befuddlement.

If one word is applied in the history books to describe the circus that was the past six months or so, I very much hope it is just that: befuddlement. It seems uniquely suited to fit the 2014 Alaska midterm elections.

Well, either that or oh-my-God-stay-please-just-stop-already. If hyphens are allowed.

Dan Sullivan had a very good day.

Photo by Bryan Dunagan

Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Dan Sullivan had a lot of question marks heading into Tuesday. The former Attorney General and Commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources under Gov. Parnell ran a fairly specific type of campaign, hinging his chances on the airwaves. Almost entirely.

Conservative candidates in Alaska enjoy a mostly insurmountable 22.5 electoral advantage simply by affixing a letter “R” after their names. Sullivan went all in on that statistic, skipping multiple debates and relying on television and radio ads to push him over the top. When a couple of local polls hinted it might not be working, he enlisted Sen. Ted Cruz and former Gov. Mitt Romney to join him on the stump for the final weekend.

It’s hard to imagine the latter did much to shore up his victory, but the former seems to have worked. It’s an important benchmark in the state for a number of reasons.

When one looks at voting in Lower 48 states by county, it tells a fairly predictable story. Democratic voters are concentrated in the population hubs. The more rural the county, the redder the voting behavior.

Alaska is the absolute polar opposite. Anchorage, Fairbanks, the Mat-Su Valley, the Kenai — these are all Republican strongholds. Beyond the railbelt are some of the state’s most reliable Democratic voters, but it’s only 20 percent of the electorate. Incumbent Senator Mark Begich (D-Alaska) focused on that 20 percent in an unprecedented way, setting up 16 field offices. Begich included the population centers, but also honed in on Barrow, Bethel, Dillingham, Kodiak, Nome, and more. His path to victory was to stay competitive in urban Alaska while solidifying everywhere else in addition, and very much in an unprecedented fashion. Begich’s ground game was the thing that could afford him a second term.

As it stands now, that has left him down 8,149 votes.

There are over 50,000 absentee and early votes, of which about 30,000 were included in tonight’s tally. That makes the possibility that Begich could overcome an over-8,000 vote very unlikely. That may serve to support just how great the advantage is to Republican candidates in Alaska’s current electorate. With campaign and PAC funding that matched Sullivan, plus the ground game advantage enjoyed by Begich, it is conceivable that his current tally — 45 percent — is the ceiling for statewide Democrats.

Young wins 22nd term in Congress.

As fitting as “befuddlement” might be to describe the 2014 elections on the whole, “unflappable” might be the only term left to give youngRep. Don Young (R-Alaska). Already the most senior member of Congress, Young earned a 22nd term representing Alaskans in Washington D.C., despite facing his strongest challenger since Ethan Berkowitz in 2010 and one of the worst last couple weeks an incumbent has ever faced.

Young enjoyed a better than 11-point advantage over Democrat Forrest Dunbar.

“I am once again humbled by the Alaskan people for entrusting me with the responsibility to serve them in the United States House of Representatives,” Young said in a press release issued just before midnight. “My vision for Alaska has always remained the same, to provide a better and brighter future for all of our people.”

At election central, I watched Young greet supporters a couple of supporters who asked if he’d had enough yet. “Hello no,” Young said behind a wide grin. “I’m just getting started!”

Governor Walker?

For the bulk of the campaign season, incumbent Governor Sean Parnell (R-Alaska) was expected to skate to reelection. When independent challenger Bill Walker and Democratic candidate Byron Mallott made the historic move to join forces and run together, that seemed to change on a dime. A majority of polls showed Walker ahead of Parnell, who has been mired in a National Guard scandal and economic woes. But it’s been consistently close.

Walker took an early lead on Tuesday night, and it never went away — though it tightened considerably. As it stands now, Walker/Mallott maintains a narrow 3,165 vote lead.

Mallott would be the first Alaska Native elected to statewide office. Walker would be the 11th governor since statehood, and the first independent. Wally Hickel is the only other governor elected outside of the two major political parties. He won on the Alaskan Independence Party ticket in 1990.

“Another Alaska election has come down to the wire,” Walker told a crowd that filled the Egan Center in Anchorage, waving Walker signs and Alaska flags. “We’ll just have to wait and see what effect absentee and questioned ballots will have on the totals.”

Inside the Egan, there was a show of support that was absolutely staggering and spanned the whole room.

Pot, Pay, Pebble, and Public Unions.

Alaska was one of four states with ballot measures proposing an increase to the minimum wage. Historically a leader in high pay, given

Marijuana opponent Kristina Woolston looks on as supporters enter Election Central.
Marijuana opponent Kristina Woolston looks on as supporters enter Election Central.

the state’s union density and the higher cost of living, Alaska has slipped from boasting the highest minimum wage to the 19th. The initiative was always popular, and no formal opposition formed to rebut its assumed victory. Tuesday, voters didn’t only turn out to ensure that win, they did it with the largest margin of support in any state: 69-31. By the voters’ mandate established yesterday, Alaska’s minimum wage will rise from its current level of $7.75 to $8.75 come New Year’s Day. A year later, on January 1, 2016, it will rise again to $9.75, and will be adjusted annually for inflation.

Voters additionally approved a measure adding another layer of scrutiny to large scale mining in the Bristol Bay region. Mostly Entirely in response to the proposed Pebble Mine, a 20 square mile copper, gold, and molybdemum deposit to be constructed in the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers, Ballot Measure 3 mandates that the state legislature will have final approval after all the state and federal level permitting. The measure essentially extends the same requirements the state requires for oil extraction in the region to mining projects. It passed by the same huge margin: 69-31.

And, finally, Alaskans like pot. So much so that we’ll defy polls and show up to vote for it.

Efforts to legalize marijuana turned a page, nationally, when 55 percent of Coloradans and 56 percent of Washingtonians in 2012 voted to legalize recreational marijuana. This year, Florida entertained a proposed state constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana, Washington D.C. considered a measure that would legalize possession, while Oregon and Alaska opted to follow in Washington and Colorado’s footsteps toward full legalization. Florida needed a 60-vote plurality, as the move required a constitutional amendment. That attempt failed. The measure in D.C. passed, though the U.S. Congress can nullify the decision. In Oregon, legal weed passed with 54 percent approval. And in Alaska, current numbers (outside absentee votes) favor legalization by 9,624 votes.

Should that margin stand, the state will have nine months to codify regulations and prepare for a brand new market in 2016. Localities can opt out. So, expect a lot of community-specific battles and a good measure of hilarity and frustration in the upcoming legislative session.

Dan Sullivan had a really bad day.

sullivanThe other one. The one that is currently the mayor of Anchorage and was featured as the lieutenant governor candidate on the bill with Parnell.

If Walker’s lead holds, Sullivan will not ascend to the lieutenant governorship and will, instead, head back to City Hall in Anchorage. He will, presumably, serve out the last four months of his final term as mayor. He will also be returning to work with and face the Anchorage Assembly, which earlier this year shifted to a slight majority opposing him. And he will be coming back after Anchorage voters successfully repealed his signature piece of legislation in Ordinance 37 — a controversial law that curbed public unions rights to collectively bargain.

That referendum vote is not in question; it failed 54-46.

Sullivan has not dealt with many instances of defeat. He endured more than a full serving Tuesday night.

#AKLeg

Democrats won’t be threatened by a minority status that dwindles below the recognizable threshold, but they’re still very much in the wilderness. After this year’s third round of redistricting, many believed a few seats in both houses would wander back into the blue. This did not happen in any way that should substantially matter.

In the Senate, Democrats managed to win just one out of 11 contested districts. And, outside of Dennis Egan’s (D-Juneau) sound trouncing of Republican challenger Tom Williams, it wasn’t close in any of them. Republicans will control 14 of the 20 state senate seats headed into next session. Two of those members, Egan and Donny Olson, caucused with the majority last session, giving them a potential 16-4 majority.

There isn’t much of a silver lining on the house side, but there is some. The 28th Alaska Legislature gaveled out with three-quarters of

From Representative to Senator, Bill Stoltze soaks in his victory.
From Representative to Senator, Bill Stoltze soaks in his victory.

representatives in the House Majority. That included Democratic Reps. Ben Nageak, Bob Herron, Neal Foster, and Bryce Edgmon — all of whom will return to Juneau in January.

Democrat Adam Wool, Blue Loon owner, upset first term Fairbanks Republican Rep. Pete Higgins by 225 votes.

Matt Claman appears to have eked out his Republican challenger Anand Dubey in West Anchorage — though he is currently up by just 35 votes. By comparison, Dubey lost two years ago to then-Democrat Lindsey Holmes by 780 votes. Claman avoided an awkward primary with Clare Ross by convincing the first time candidate to square off against Mia Costello for the senate seat vacated by outgoing minority leader Hollis French.

Expect some resentment among Democrats, given Ross’s loss and Claman’s close call. If the former Anchorage Assemblyman ultimately loses, replace the word resentment with mutiny. Either way, Dubey supporter Nick Moe — who ran as a write-in candidate against West Anchorage Assemblyman Ernie Hall and was for a time a cause celeb among Democrats — has just earned the abject ire of the party that once adored him.

And in the closest race in the state, independent Daniel Ortiz — as it stands now — is 19 votes ahead of GOP challenger Chere Klein in District 36, an open seat created by the last round of redistricting that includes Metlakatla, Ketchikan, Wrangell, Saxman, Hydaburg, Meyers Chuck, Hyder, and Loring.

In all, the ideological makeup of the house is 23 Republicans, 16 Democrats, and one independent. However, if last session’s caucusing bears any indication, it will be a 27-12 split with Ortiz up for grabs.

With the possible viability of Walker/Mallott executive branch, there was a lot of talk about a possible return to a bipartisan working group in the legislature — especially among house members. Democrats likely didn’t win enough seats to warrant such coalition government, unless there is a legitimate results-based desire, and not a tendency to offer it up in case capitulation seemed needed. By the numbers, it is not.

The deadline to apply for a recount is November 27.