Can Democrats Take Power In The State House Next Year?

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Now that all of the candidates for State House have filed we can take a look at which races will have the greatest impact on how the State House organizes its leadership for the next two-year session. Are we likely to see the continued reign of a Republican majority or do the Democrats have a chance of taking control?  

Just one note before we get started — this post is intended as the starting point for analysis on how elections can impact legislative organization. This analysis will be revisited throughout the election cycle.

To start with, here is the current makeup of the State House Majority and Minority. And then there is Rep. Lora Reinbold, who is a Republican, but was thrown out of the Majority for not towing the line.

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The Republican-led Majority has a pretty hefty lead over the Minority. This, of course, is deceiving because it represents the end result of the last round of organizing with plenty of rural Democrats brought into the already established 23-member Republican group.

So let’s sort the field back out to where they would be at the beginning of an organizing process.

As you can see in this table Democrats are back with Democrats and Republicans with Republicans. The only Independent in the House, Rep. Dan Ortiz, is off by himself. We lump Rep. Lora Reinbold back in with the Republicans.

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Now the Republican lead shrinks to 23-16-1.

In the next table we will make note that five House Republicans are either retiring or running for State Senate: Rep. Lynn Gattis, Rep. Shelly Hughes, Rep. Craig Johnson, Rep. Mike Hawker, and Rep, Kurt Olson.

While there are active races to replace all five, the most probable outcomes of four of the five (Gattis, Johnson, Olson, and Hawker) would be a representative very likely to organize with Republicans. We’ll go ahead and throw them into the Republican column.

The other major factor to look at is that pesky Musk Ox coalition the Republican Party hates so much. They are a group of six moderate Republicans and rural Democrats who have broken off at various times in the past two years to work with the Minority.

It is widely believed in the next legislature they could organize fully with the Democrats to form a bipartisan majority. In the table below we have broken them out as a separate column.

The chart below shows where we are if all incumbents were reelected and four of the five replacements remain committed to a Republican Majority. The open Palmer House seat of Rep. Shelley Hughes is excluded as the only true unknown. Independent Rep. Dan Ortiz is shown back organizing with the Democrats, as he currently is.

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You can see that if the Musk Ox decide to organize with the Republicans there isn’t anything short of a massive “wave” election, full of Democrat upsets, that puts Democrats in power.

If the Musk Ox want to organize with the Democrats, however, things get tight. In the above analysis, a Musk Ox and Democrat union would have only the bare minimum 21 votes.

Any losses to this group in the fall elections would seemingly doom such a union.

Now let’s add in a look at that open seat in Palmer and vulnerable incumbents to see how that changes the organization math.

Palmer Open Seat
As noted above, I believe the open Palmer seat is a question mark. The seat will almost certainly be won by a Republican, but it’s a four-way Republican primary. At least one of the top contenders, Palmer Mayor Delena Johnson, is using a campaign manager usually used by Democrats and there are rumors the Governor may campaign for her. While not definitive, those are pretty good hints she could be a Musk Ox member if elected.

Colver’s Mat-Su/Valdez Seat
Republican/Musk Ox Rep. Jim Colver represents a very conservative district that is a lock to return a Republican to Juneau, but that isn’t necessarily good news for Colver. He has become the sellout posterchild to Alaska Republican Party activists for his lack of loyalty to the Republican caucus. They are out for blood and have a primary challenger to take up their cause in George Rauscher.

Rauscher only lost to Colver by 327 votes in a tight three-way primary two years ago. With the race now a two-way and Valley Republicans riled up with Musk Ox fervor, Colver could be in trouble.

Liz Vazquez’ South Anchorage Seat
Rep. Liz Vazquez is a solid Republican representing a solidly Republican seat. She also doesn’t have the most formidable primary challenge in conservative candidate-for-everything David Nees.

Vazquez’ problem comes in the general election where she will face Democrat Ed Cullinane and former Republican turned Independent Jason Grenn. All logic says this race is Vazquez’ to lose, but three-way races are unpredictable and Grenn is the kind of young, energetic, and dedicated candidate that inspires confidence in the unlikely. I just really think he has a shot. I can’t defend that assertion with data, it’s just a gut feeling, but one I feel good about.

Grenn is a moderate backed by the likes of Andrew Halcro and Forrest Dunbar. That support just screams “Independent who will work with Dems.”

Lance Pruitt’s East Anchorage Seat
Rep. Lance Pruitt has done a good job solidifying support in this moderate East Anchorage district since being elected in 2010.

Pruitt faces this district’s previous House Rep. Harry Crawford in the general election. Crawford is a quality opponent on paper, but hasn’t shown much campaign magic since leaving his seat to run for Congress in 2010.

Frankly, until May 31st, this race looked like an easy win for Pruitt. What happened then on May 31st you ask? That was the day AFL-CIO President Vince Beltrami announced he was running for State Senate against Sen. Cathy Giessel.

Since Giessel’s district includes Pruitt’s district, that race will greatly impact Pruitt and Crawford’s. Beltrami will bring an army of door knockers, phone bankers, and envelope lickers with him in his run. Every one of them will aid the down-ticket campaign of Crawford.

That up-ticket tailwind takes this from an almost certain Pruitt victory to a real race. Pruitt is still the frontrunner, but it’s a lot closer than it was two weeks ago.

Matt Claman’s West Anchorage Seat
All you need to know about this race is Claman only beat the far-right candidate Anand Dubey by one point in 2014. This time around Claman faces a candidate of comparable quality in Marilyn Stewart.

This is a moderate-liberal district, but Claman has shown no ability to perform up to the district. The race looks to lean Claman right now, but it would surprise no one if Stewart wins.

Adam Wool’s Fairbanks Seat
Rep. Adam Wool won his first term in the legislature two years ago with a five-point win over Republican Pete Higgins.

The district is a moderate one a Republican can easily win. Republican Sen. Click Bishop won the district by over 1,800 votes two years ago.

Republicans have what they think is a quality candidate in Aaron Lojewski and look like they are putting significant resources toward this race.

Rest of the Musk Ox
Rep. Ledoux and Rep. Seaton both have challengers, but those challenges don’t look like serious threats right now. Rep. Stutes has a challenger in the form of Independent Duncan Fields, but it appears he would be just as likely to organize with the Musk Ox and Dems as Stutes. For the sake of this analysis, there isn’t a significant difference between them.

Other Possibilities
Reasonable Republicans are likely to see Democrats Spohnholz, Drummond, Tuck and Ortiz as targets they can knock-off.  Likewise, Democrats will say the same of Republicans Lynn, Telerico, Thompson, and the open seats of Hawker and Olson. To me, all of those look like too steep an uphill climb to project as toss-ups right now.

That could change as I take deeper looks at each race and see how effective the campaigns themselves look.  For now, I’m projecting them to stay as they were last year.  

Final Analysis
If the Musk Ox really are interested in forming a bi-partisan majority next year, here is what the battlefield looks like going into the elections.

As you can see, there are six swing district in play. Republicans need to pick up five to get to the magic number of 21, while Democrats only need three.

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What To Watch
The first battleground over organization will be the primary elections on August 16th. Keep an eye on Palmer.  If Colver and Johnson win their Republican primaries it bolsters the chances of a bipartisan coalition.  If their opponents win, it is a good sign for a Republican-led organization.

Another set of primaries to watch are those of Rep. Ben Nageak (D-Barrow) and Bob Herron (D-Bethel). They have both organized with Republicans the last few years and face tough Democratic primary challengers from Dean Westlake and Zach Fansler, respectively. Both challengers would be far less likely to join with Republicans that the incumbents. If Nageak and Herron both lose, Democrats will feel they have the organizing momentum.

2 Comments on "Can Democrats Take Power In The State House Next Year?"

  1. oratorwilkes | June 16, 2016 at 5:11 pm | Reply

    The Democrat Party is -so over – Alaska….Really…Jim Colver Rinos / Musk Ox Jeez.
    We need realists to serve responsibly .. Focus on Stewardship & Fiscal Controls.

    Lets Ask…**Have the Dems been good Guardians of Alaska citizen common wealth.?
    A true -Guardian & Steward primary characteristic:

    “I am here in passing. When I leave it has to be
    as good (or better) than when I arrived to pass on to
    future generations.”

    Where are the cuts…Where are the fiscal responsible -accountable – guardians of the people’s mineral wealth & institutions. .

    End cannibalism now…. end special interest legislators ..restore fiscal sanity.

  2. I don’t see why Ortiz only gets a passing mention here; he won in 2014 by the smallest margin in the state—less than Matt Claman beat Anand Dubey by. District 36 is generally solid red, so Ortiz has a tough race to keep his seat. (I know he’s fighting hard for it, though.)

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