The race no one can figure out.
I’ve talked to about a dozen politicos in the past two days; Valley legislators, lobbyists, political consultants, and pollsters. They all say some version of the same thing ‘seems close, but who the hell knows.’
That sentiment underscores an odd race with both Republican candidates pushing highly conflicting messages.
Challenger George Rauscher has become the Alaska Republican Party establishment’s poster child for their kind of Republican candidate. One that will organize and do as told by party and caucus leaders. Remember back when the Republican Party’s values stood opposed to centralized institutional control over decision making? That memory is fading into history.
The incumbent Rep. Jim Colver is running heavily on the message that he represents an independent vision that can’t be bought or controlled by political parties or special interests. He makes that claim while accepting gobs of labor money and benefiting greatly from their independent expenditures in this race.
The unpredictability of this race also has something to do with the nature of the district. House District 9 is a gangly zone stretching from the outskirts of Palmer all the way to Valdez and then up the Richardson Highway to Delta Junction. That is a big area covering regions in the Mat-Su, Alaska’s coastline, and the interior that contains many communities that vary greatly in values and views.
This district was designed to guarantee a Republican win in the general election, but that design has lead to internal volatility in the Republican primary. Only once in the last 10 years has the Republican primary here gone uncontested. Just two years ago the incumbent Eric Fiege lost in a three-way race.
Rep. Jim Colver has angered some in the Republican Party and House Majority leaders by joining with a bipartisan group of legislators known as the Musk Ox to oppose Majority leadership on a variety of issues from budget negotiations to oil and gas tax credits.
In response, the Alaska Republican Party issued a pre-primary endorsement of Rauscher and has launched an all-out war on Colver to send a message to other would-be deserters. Thus far, the Alaska Republican Party has spent $5,500 in ads against Colver and they have been aggressive on conservative talk radio, social media, and newspaper op-eds to take him down.
Republicans have also enlisted help from The Accountability Project, a largely party funded organization, dedicated to electing those in-line with party leadership and the oil industry. The group in turn formed and funded “Conservatives for George Rauscher” and spent a bit over $23K through it to defeat Colver.
The Alaska Republican Party has gone all-in to get rid of Colver so much that Party Chairman Tuckerman Babcock warned party members at a recent meeting that if their all out effort fails it will expose the party as being a “toothless tiger.”
Don’t feel too bad for Colver. Alaska labor has stepped up in a big way to defend the Musk Ox, spending at least $25K in ads and campaign donations themselves to help him stay in office.
Rauscher, for his part, seems to be playing the part of the loyal, ideologically pure Republican Party insiders can count on. He told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:
“I’ve been a conservative my whole life and didn’t have to change from one ideology to another and I think the Republican platform is very, very interested in roads and infrastructure. They’re very interested in seeing businesses develop.”
There is a sense in which this fight feels far less like it’s between Colver and Rauscher as people or candidates and much more like a proxy fight between the Republican Party establishment/oil industry and labor unions/anti-corporate populists for the soul of the Republican caucus.
So who will win? It’s tough to say. Both Colver and Rauscher are fighting hard for the job and are being well-funded by their respective sponsoring special interests.
They both also have good reasons to think they can win. Colver is the incumbent and is striking a truly Alaska sounding tone of anti-establishment populism. Rauscher clearly has the backing of the conservative and party base, which is a strong position to occupy in a primary election.
Frankly, there are just a lot of factors no one can predict.
For instance, how are the Governor’s actions on the budget, PFD, and an LNG project playing in this district. Two years ago Walker and Sean Parnell split this district almost evenly, with Walker taking Valdez in big numbers. Will that base of support help Colver, who is viewed as friendly to the Governor? Or is the Governor unpopular in the district and more likely to bring out votes for Rauscher, who is sure to oppose Walker’s ongoing agenda?
Then there is the fact that Rauscher has run for this same seat in the Republican primary twice and never come within 6 points of victory. Colver beat Rauscher two years ago by 9 points in a three-way race. Does that history give Rauscher a platform and name recognition from which to win, or does it show that he is a known and unelectable name in the district?
The biggest unknown may be just exactly who turns out in this election. Election day is now closer to the heart of summer than it used to be so many Alaskan’s minds will be on far more enjoyable outdoor endeavors. With the Summer Olympics drawing further attention away from politics, and no big statewide race or initiative on the ballot to draw voters’ attention, it is looking like this could be a spectacularly low turnout election. Does that favor base favorite Rauscher or the incumbent people know in Colver and the labor’s voter turnout machine?
If we were forced to bet, we’d still put our money on the incumbent to win, but have little confidence in seeing our money ever again. At the end of the day, we have joined the chorus. It looks close, but who the hell knows.
Republican Primary Rating: Toss-up
General Election Rating: Likely Republican
***Note: Race ratings are given on a patent-pending scale of Toss-up, Lean, Likely, Solid.***