Race Preview: Senate Seat J (Downtown Anchorage and Mountain View)

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The most surprising thing about the Downtown Anchorage Senate seat is that for the first time in most voters’ lifetime, Sen. Johnny Ellis won’t be on the ballot. His retirement has spawned a Democratic primary battle between (very) long time Democratic campaign fixture Tom Begich and  civil rights activist Ed Wesley.

There isn’t a need to tell you how much a Republican can’t win this seat. No Republican even filed.

That leaves us with the rarest of events in Alaska politics, a true Democrat on Democrat battle in a district liberal enough that the candidates can spread their wings and be as progressive as they want to be.

The first reaction here is to assume Begich is a shoe-in to win because of his monster name recognition and long history working as a strategist in virtually every aspect of democratic politics in Alaska.

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There is good reason to believe Begich has every bit of that support. He raised $54K in just six weeks and his list of donors is a who’s who of progressive politics. There are well-known election officials, Democrat activists and staffers, and union PACs. Even former Sen. Mark Begich gave him money. It was everything you’d expect to see from the establishment’s chosen one.

Ed Wesley, though, has the look of a solid candidate with legitimate community support and campaign organizational skills. He has served in a number of roles in various community and business groups in the last thirty years (pictured below) and his APOC report shows he raised a respectable $33K in only six weeks. While almost $10K of that was his own money, his report is teaming with dozens of small individual donors.

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It is also clear Wesley’s campaign doesn’t show a real depth of institutional support, but he isn’t completely without in that area. Wesley was elected Alaska Democratic Party’s National Committeeman in May, served as a delegate to this year’s Democratic National Convention just last week in Philadelphia, and sports the support of former Sen. Bettye Davis and current Rep. Geran Tarr, who represents the eastern half of the district. This all says he has substantial standing of his own within the party establishment.

After examining this race, it is pretty clear these are both real candidates with substantial bases of support. So who will win?

Based on something Mr. Wesley said to me Monday night, I think it will be Begich. Wesley said of Begich “How can you claim to be progressive while working against the first African-American man to serve in the senate? How can you claim to be progressive while working against diversity?”

An appeal that boils down to “I deserve this position because I’m black” naturally offends some of our Republican values. But remember, no Republicans will be voting in this election, it is a Democratic primary.IMG_9370

Mr. Wesley’s comment, taken in the full context of his campaign is both revealing, and I believe, the root of why he won’t win.

Everything in his campaign, from his donation report, putting his picture on his 4×8 signs, actively painting himself as a Bernie-crat in ads and mailers, to his comment to me, says Wesley plans on winning this race by turning out a base of minority Democrats and whatever remains of the Bernie Sanders movement.

He is falling into the same trap many Democrats do. They far too often listen to talk about the changing demographics of America or speeches about Anchorage being one of the most diverse communities in the country and think that diversity immediately translates into electoral viability.

The fact is that just having non-white males move to America, or Anchorage, doesn’t move the needle in elections. You have to register to vote and then go do it.

The fact is “diverse” areas of Anchorage don’t turn out to vote and I don’t think they will in this primary either.

Look at last spring’s mayoral race, less diverse areas of town regularly posted between 30-50% turnouts. The highly diverse areas of Mountain View, Fairview, and Downtown had many districts that barely climbed over 10% turnout.

In the 2014 general election, one that featured the high-profile races of Sen. Mark Begich vs. Dan Sullivan and Gov. Sean Parnell vs. Bill Walker, less diverse districts in South Anchorage turned out between 60-70%. The Downtown house district turnout out at 51% and the uber-diverse Mountain View house district could only muster a comparatively meager 44% turnout.

The bottom line is we think primary voters swayed by Tom Begich’s more traditional campaign, bolstered by his All-Alaska democrat name and old-Alaska connections, are far more likely to turn out to vote in this relatively low-profile, low-turnout election than Mr. Wesley’s perhaps broader support from diverse communities and Bernie supporters.

That said, we aren’t going overboard and rating this race as anything more than “lean” for Begich. Wesley is too serious of a candidate for us to go any further.

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Primary Rating: Lean Begich

General Election Rating: Solid Democrat

***Note: Race ratings are given on a patent-pending scale of Toss-up, Lean, Likely, Solid.***

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.”
  • Clark Yerrington

    “An appeal that boils down to ‘I deserve this position because I’m black’ naturally offends some of our Republican values.”
    Hmmm. Might be the case, if the Republican Value referred to is the ability to blame the candidate for playing the race card [never mind that it might not even be possible — racism is only meaningful when practiced by the race holding the power].
    African American voters almost always vote for the white candidate — typically, the only choice on the ballot. It’s not unexpected that non-white voters would rush to support the rare non-white candidate, eh? And I’m pretty sure Wesley wasn’t suggesting that should be the primary factor in the decision.
    Well, thanks for helping me make up my mind. Both candidates would be good as a replacement for Sen. Ellis. But if Republicans are trying this hard to discredit Wesley, he must be doing something right.