What The Hell Just Happened? An Election Post Mortem

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As the fog of campaign war transitioned into shell shock (unless you believed most of our predictions and analysis) by the sight of several stunning incumbent losses, every politico in the state is straining with furled brow to understand just what messages to take from Tuesday night.

Here are our takeaways:

Turnout — Every article you read on this election is going to tell you this was a low turnout election, but that doesn’t describe how bad it really was. As of this morning, the turnout number for this election is 15.5%. That is a full ten points lower than the lowest state primary turnout from the last three election cycles. That is abysmal.

The bottom line is beware of anyone trying to sell you a story that this election shows voters came out and sent a message of any kind. Just the opposite is true. The abhorrent voter response to this election shows the only message most voters were sending was just how disengaged and unmotivated they really are.

Voting Anomaly — We’ve never seen it before here in Alaska and neither has anyone else we checked with on Wednesday; voters in different districts and party ballots across the state chose to vote on the down-ballot house and senate races more than the statewide federal races.

That never happens.

Typically the number of people voting in any given race decreases as one moves down the ballot. The idea is that people keep voting until they get to the race they are interested and then stop and turn in their ballot. That leaves anything further down the ballot SOL.

What is weird about this election is that thousands of voters had to read the federal races, decide to not vote on them, and then move down the ballot until they found the race they wanted.

Why did this happen? It would appear many people came out to vote and only chose the particular party ballot they wanted because they wanted to vote for a specific local candidate they know and support, but weren’t ideologically aligned with the top of the ticket choices in on that ballot.

To simplify this, imagine a conservative independent really wanted to vote for Democrat Ed Wesley because they personally knew him. They had to choose the ADL ballot rather than their normal Republican ballot. That voter skipped voting for the Democratic options for U.S. Senate or Congress because they don’t support them at all.

Is that what really happened? We don’t know yet, but it is the only reasonable explanation we’ve heard so far.

Debunking Bad Analysis — The Alaska Republican Party is selling the media a narrative that these election results and specifically the loss of 5 current Republican legislators at the polls show Alaskans stood up and demanded more conservative representation. This is laughably bad analysis that represents the spin of wishful thinking more critical review of the facts.

The fact is there were far more Republican primaries were the more moderate or bipartisan-friendly candidate won. That includes Republican voters choosing Gary Knopp, Rep. Paul Seaton, Jennifer Johnston, Natasha Von Imhof, Reo. Shelley Hughes, Delena Johnson, and David Wilson. In all of those cases, there was at least one legitimate and more conservative choice in the Republican primary, but these folks still won.

There were only three cases where the candidate who was running to the right won: Chris Birch, Rep. Lora Reinbold and George Rauscher.

This was absolutely not a conservative wave election. Any argument to the contrary is just spin.

What This Was — The only fair analysis of this primary race, even with the low turnout, is this, it’s not a good time to be the incumbent. With Dean Westlake looking like he may win the D-40 race, the tally of sitting legislators ousted sits at seven.

That is a very large number, especially considering this was an exceedingly low turnout election and incumbents should have had an advantage because most people who came out to vote have voted for them in the past. That didn’t happen.

The Question Begged — Given what you just read, should general election incumbents like Sen. Cathy Giessel, Sen. John Coghill, Rep. Lance Pruitt, and Rep. Dan Ortiz be shaking in their boots?

We initially thought “Definitely”, but now say “Maybe”.

One reasonable inference from these results could be that incumbents who were mired in endless special sessions in Juneau this year simply didn’t have enough time to get back in their districts, reconnect with voters, and explain what they did and why they should be sent back.

If that is true then general election incumbents should have less of a problem. They will have an extra 2 ½ months to do just that and mitigate such damage.

Another interesting observation we’ve heard is that seven members of the Republican majorities in the Legislature lost their re-election bid while not one of the minorities did. Is it possible voters made a distinction between “party member” and “caucus member” and decided in their frustration to throw out a caucus structure they don’t think is working for Alaska? If looked at that way, majority incumbents should still be worried because it means even their base is disenchanted with how the Legislature acted this year.

We aren’t totally sold on this interpretation of what happened Tuesday, at least not yet. But after talking to some Republican incumbents, I can tell you they are definitely thinking it’s possible.

Party Power — Both Republican and Democratic state parties look like they averted potential disaster. They both chose to directly oppose elected members of their party in their primaries. If they had lost party influence in such elections they would have been destroyed for years. As it turns out, the parties prevailed in the three races they directly played heavily in.

What do the party establishments get out of those victories? We will have to wait and see. If potential bipartisan coalition Republicans or rural Democrats are scared back into line, then the two parties will have gained a lot. If such an organization is still formed or if rural Dems jump ship to caucus with Republicans, then it will take at least one more such effort two years from now to really get any benefit.

Frankly, we think the hidden winner in the party vs. candidate war is actually Sen. Mark Begich. His political machine went to war against Rep. Bob Herron and his defeat has several payoffs for Begich and crew.

They can now have a proof of concept claim to campaign know-how in rural Alaska politics. Begich’s U.S. Senate campaigns were effective in rural areas, but they took place under federal campaign and finance rules. This victory shows Begich and his crew are very effective in rural areas under state election rules.  

But maybe more importantly, if state Republicans are right and Begich plans on running for Governor in two years, then he just had a fantastic skirmish to test and hone his rural campaign machine for that race.

Organization — How will these elections affect caucus organizing in the next Legislature? That is really what affects policy and thus our lives.

The bottom line is we believe a bipartisan coalition is at least as likely, if not more likely today than before the election.

Likely bipartisan organizer Rep. Paul Seaton won easily and two potential new members, Republicans DeLena Johnson and Gary Knopp, both won as well.

Musk Ox man Rep. Jim Colver lost, and that both costs the effort both a member and his loss potentially sends a message to others of what might happen to them if they don’t stay loyal. That could impact the organizing calculations of both Johnson and Knopp, as well as others.

Overall, though, bipartisan organizers have a few more recruitment options today than they did before the election. That gives them more room to make deals and form an organization.

  • aktraveller

    Under voting anomaly, that’s exactly what I did. Conservative R who selected the open ballot and voted for a personal friend, but couldn’t possibly vote for any of the other races, left them all blank. State House, US House and Senate.

  • HSmith

    A question and two suggestions.

    Will you do analysis on how the presidential election might influence state races? I’d like to know how you might tackle that.

    –There is an extra “As it turns out, the parties prevailed in the three races they directly played heavily in.” in this article.

    –Consider converting your logo into a vector image. It’s looking a little blurry next to the cleanliness of the new format.

    Cheers.

    • Casey Reynolds

      Answer: Yes
      -I think we fixed that, thx
      -We will address that

  • akbatgirly

    I’d be most interested in hearing what you think was in play with Ray Metcalfe winning the Democratic primary………my guess is that he’s been in the news so much over the years that his name recognition finally overtook the fact that he’s a kook who has been trying to take over the Democratic party. And does the Alaska Democratic Party have to now throw their money and support his way or can they just pretend that they don’t have a candidate for US Senator this election cycle?

    • Mark Begich

      I won’t vote for Metcalfe

      • akbatgirly

        Well I won’t vote for him either, so I’m going to have to leave the space blank on a US Senate race. I was a Scott McAdams fan, so this is the second time I’ve been disappointed by Dem voters who either don’t bother to do minimal voting homework, or panic and use dumb logic.

        I don’t have a problem voting for an R when the Dem is nuts, but Murkowski has been way too beholden to Big Oil/Industry and she continues to run lockstep with the Good Old Boys in the Senate, so I no longer have any respect for her. Perhaps I’ll write in Blatchford………..in 35 years of voting here, I’ve never had this particular conundrum before.

        • akbatgirly

          Okay, all is not lost if Margaret Stock is on the ballot as an Independent? I thought that she was being prevented from running on some technicality, but it seems that she has turned in enough signatures and will be running against Murkowski, so I am saved from having to leave a blank. Perhaps this will all be for the best once people realize what an angry jerk Metcalfe is. At least the debates should be interesting.

  • Lynn Willis

    Many Alaskans now feel disenfranchised when they watch these legislators go behind closed doors and especially now as they get to watch all these legislators form individual Political Action Committees to shovel lobbyist money to each other (Gabriel Ledoux-call home). Even with that reality, why would I vote if the ballot lists only one candidate? Why would I vote if I don’t care to endorse any political party candidates as is the situation in Alaska in many cases? The primary system in Alaska has been reserved for the exclusive use of the organized parties which completely ignores the fact that most Alaskans are not registered as party members. This allows the parties to have the people pay for what should be a party expense.
    Alaska could join California, Louisiana and Washington by using the “top two” primary system. That system allows independents (who meet the necessary qualifications) to be listed on the primary ballot and from that list of primary election candidates the two candidates (regardless of party affiliation) with the most votes advance to the General Election. If the parties don’t like that then let them choose candidates for the general election however they choose.
    “Top Two” primary legislation was introduced in the Alaska Legislature; however, the bill was denied a single hearing and was held to death by Bob Lynn before his State Affairs Committee (thank you Karma).