What We Learned From Watching Mat-Su GOP Candidates Debate

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Wednesday, the Mat-Su Business Alliance held a legislative candidate forum and had a pretty great showing of candidates.

The forum was divided into two sessions:

Session 1 (Before Lunch)

House District 9: Palmer / Valdez
Rep. Jim Colver
George Rauscher

House District 10: North West Mat-Su
Rep. Wes Keller
David Eastman

House District 11: Palmer
Mayor Delena Johnson
Richard Best

Session 2 (After Lunch)

House District 12: Southern Mat-Su / Chugiak
Rep. Cathy Tilton
Gretchen Wehmhoff

Senate Seat D: Wasilla / Big Lake
Rep. Lynn Gattis
David Wilson

Senate Seat F: Palmer / Chugiak
Rep. Shelley Hughes
Adam Crum
Steve St. Clair

That’s a lot of candidates and a wide spectrum of races spanning a very large area. None-the-less some things jumped out from the 2 ½ hours of questions and answers.

Colver Sounds Like A Republican — The Alaska Republican establishment is furious at Rep. Jim Colver for not being a good soldier for the House Majority and they are gunning to take him out in the primary.

Based on his answers, he sounded pretty darn Republican. He gave small government and pro-business answers across the board. Here is his answer to the question of whether he would support a sales tax or income tax, you tell me if this doesn’t sound like an answer straight out of the GOP playbook:

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Eastman Tone Perfect, Wes Keller May be in Trouble — The House District 10 primary is a four-way race on paper, but in reality, it probably comes down to incumbent Rep. Wes Keller and long-time right-wing activist David Eastman.

In the interest of full disclosure, I had plenty of run-ins with Mr. Eastman when i worked for the Alaska Republican Party. I won’t go into details; at this point, they’re no longer relevant other than as a feel for a person’s character, but it’s fair to say I went into the forum skeptical of him.

That skepticism didn’t last long. Mr. Eastman made for an impressive candidate in a Republican primary in a conservative district where the winner will be who can be the most credibly conservative. Eastman showed a calm and deliberative demeanor, an intellectually conservative thought process, and an ability to turn local or state issues into a national battle with the evil forces of Obama and Clinton.

As examples here are his responses to a question about Medicaid and a question on the budget, respectively :

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That has to be a winning formula in the Western Mat-Su Republican primary. Rep. Keller may be in trouble.

No New Revenue — I know this will come as little shock to anyone, but none of the candidates supported any new state revenues. They all said the state needed to continue to cut before any new revenues are even considered.

Here is the full panel’s response to a question on the subject:

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Best Question — The most revealing question of this forum, and maybe any forum, was asked by a woman who wanted to know how long each candidate thought it would take to cut the budget down to a sustainable level.

Thier full answer can be heard here:

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The candidates consistently say that, in order to prevent a negative impact on the economy, they can’t support cutting the budget to anywhere near balance for at least three years. So even in the super-duper conservative Mat-Su Valley, Republican candidates find themselves in a pickle, they can’t support new revenues because Republican voters, who elect them, don’t believe they have cut enough, but also can’t support substantial cuts to the budget because the business community, who fund their campaigns, fear the economic impacts of such cuts.

The result, Republican support for continued massive deficits for the foreseeable future.

PFD? — I would play you the series of questions from the audience about how the candidates would save or restore the potential size of PFD checks, but there wasn’t even one such question asked.

That is surprising. Isn’t everyone up in arms about losing a big chunk of their PFD? Apparently not.

Some I spoke with after the event chalked that up to a great deal of talk about the PFD at the Americans for Prosperity forum held the night before. The theory being that the candidates were just tapped out on the subject and this was a forum more to talk about local business issues.

I can buy that in terms of why candidates may not have folded saving the PFD into their answers, but why then were there no questions about it from the audience? Why did no one ask if each of the incumbents would commit to overturning the Governor’s PFD veto or supporting SB 128 in the special session? It is Interesting that no one did. Draw your own conclusion about what it means.

Day’s Best Answer — The best answer of the day came from someone who wasn’t even running. Former Senator Lyda Green showed she may still be the best politician in the Valley when she effectively ended the forum with a statement about what needs to be done to balance the budget.

Maybe someone can still get her to run for something.

Here is her question (Pst-It’s really a statement):

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Results — At the end of each session, organizers of the forum took a straw poll of the audience as to who they support.

It’s important to note these results are in no way scientific or representative of the districts. There were maybe five people in the entire audience who weren’t affiliated with one of the candidates in some way, so the results are more a measure of who campaign insiders in the Valley support than a measure of broad appeal.

That doesn’t mean the results weren’t interesting:

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As you can see, the candidates viewed as furthest to the right did best. Well-know elected Republicans Colver, Johnson, and Hughes received little support in the room, while incumbents Gattis and Tilton did very well.

Most notably, given the makeup of those participating in the poll  was that Keller narrowly came out ahead of Eastman. It looks like that race might be splitting far-right conservatives right down the middle.

About the Author

Casey Reynolds
Reynolds served as communications director for the Alaska Republican Party from 2008-2011. He left the Party in 2011 to host his own popular morning radio political talk show on AM750 / FM103.7 KFQD. Reynolds now runs The Midnight Sun (midnightsunak.com), crowned by the Anchorage Press as “Alaska’s best political blog.”