Right now the State Senate is a conservative paradise. Drown-government-in-the-bathtub types like Sen. Pete Kelly and Sen. Anna MacKinnon run the state budget. Social conservatives Sen. Mike Dunleavy, Sen. John Coghill, Sen. Cathy Giessel are there to make sure guns, gays, and God are kept in their proper place.
With a commanding 16-4 majority in the Senate, it wouldn’t seem at first glance like the conservative grip on the Senate can possibly be in jeopardy, but it might be.
In June, we looked at how Democrats could wrest power from Republicans in the State Senate, or at least create a bipartisan coalition.
The short version of that story is that, yes, there is a potential path for Democrats to have a role in senate leadership. It requires them winning at least two seats currently held by Republicans and getting at least three more to jump ship and organize with them, let’s not pretend it is the most likely of scenarios. But it is plausible.
Here is where things stood at the end of the last legislative session:
And here is where things stand after the primary election:
As you can see, in addition to the 10 senators who aren’t up for reelection this cycle, David Wilson, Tom Begich, Bert Stedman, Gary Stevens, and Donny Olson will automatically win their races because they have no general election opponents.
That only leaves five active races for senate seats.
Three of those don’t look highly competitive:
Senate District F: Palmer/Chugiak
Candidates: Shelley Hughes (R), Samantha Laudert-Rodgers (D), Tim Hale (I)
There is little reason to believe Rep. Shelley Hughes is anything but a shoe-in here. She is the Republican nominee in one of the most conservative districts in the state and has done nothing to fumble that structural advantage over the course of the campaign.
Hughes’ Democrat opponent doesn’t even show up in APOC records and her non-partisan challenger Tim Hale has only raised $14K and $8K of that is his own money. There is just no reason to believe he has any broad-based support in the district.
We are rating this race “Likely Republican”
Senate District H: East Anchorage/Elmendorf
Candidates: Bill Wielechowski (D), Kevin Kastner (R)
This a competitive district, but not a competitive race.
Republicans always think they have a shot at taking out Sen. Bill Wielechowski because this district does sport a healthy 25.2% to 18.4% voter registration advantage for Republicans. Redistricting also left this senate seat open in presidential election years so it guarantees a higher turnout of generally Republican-leaning active military voters.
All of that should make a Democrat incumbent like Wielechowski vulnerable, but it never does.
The truth is this district is far more moderate than its voter registration numbers makes it appear. In 2014, Sen. Mark Begich, Gov. Bill Walker, and then Democrat congressional candidate Forrest Dunbar all beat solid Republican opponents in this district.
The race dynamics also favor Wielechowski. He outmaneuvered Republicans on the Governor’s veto of PFD expenditures by filing a lawsuit to stop it, making Republicans ruling the legislature seem impotent.
Frankly, we think that action alone wins this race for Wielechowski.
As we pointed out in our story on where independent expenditure money is flowing, it appears Republican donors agree. They are sending no money Kastner’s way in the final days of the campaign and have only given him $45K for the whole election cycle. That means he isn’t in the top 30 legislative campaign fundraisers.
Kastner has run an energetic campaign and has nothing to be ashamed of, but the money, race dynamics, and district analysis all say the same thing: Wielechowski wins easily.
We are rating this race “Likely Democrat”
Senate District L: South Anchorage/Oceanview
Candidates: Natasha Von Imhof (R) Forrest Mcdonald (D), Tom Johnson (I)
When we reviewed this race before the primary we gave it a “Lean Republican” rating. That was almost entirely based on the possibility Jeff Landfield might win a crowded three-way Republican primary, potentially making a general election bid against Democrat Forrest McDonald a competitive race.
That didn’t happen. Instead, the well-funded Natasha Von Imhof dispatched both Landfield and long-time House Rep. Craig Johnson. This is a solidly conservative district where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats almost 2-1 (27% to 15%).
Add to that the fact Von Imhof has run a well-organized, disciplined campaign and raised over $206K in and this race doesn’t look competitive at all.
We are rating this race “Likely Republican”
That leaves us with two races we see as truly competitive:
Senate District B: Fairbanks
Candidates: Sen. John Coghill (R), Luke Hopkins (D)
At first blush, this shouldn’t be a real race. Democrats in the district only make up 11.6% of the registered voters compared to 31.5% registered Republicans. That is a pretty steep hill to climb for Dems.
Lefties do have reasons for some optimism here, however.
First of all, Hopkins has the look of a good candidate. He was Mayor of the Fairbanks North Star Borough, giving him both name recognition and campaign experience.
Second, there is plenty of money going in to get him elected. His campaign has raised $127K and IEs are putting in over $100K.
Third, the defining issue of this election cycle in Alaska is the state fiscal crisis and the inability of the legislature and Governor to get together on a solution. Sen. Coghill generally stands with the Republican legislative majorities that have opposed several efforts by the Governor to find a solution (though he did vote for the Permanent Fund restructuring bill SB 128). Governor Walker won this district by 900 votes two years ago, so there may be some hope Democrats can use his popularity in the district to help Hopkins.
Fourth, if the anti-incumbent wave that took six of them out in the primary continues into the general election, it could wash Coghill out of office.
All of that offers hope to Democrats, but not a likelihood of victory.
Even though he leans, very, very far to the right on many issues, Sen. Coghill is a likable fellow who has shown an ability to work across the aisle at times on important legislation. The Coghills are also a Fairbanks political institution and one of the best-known political names in the state. Because of that, he appears to remain popular in his district.
The bottom line is Hopkins is a good enough and well-funded enough candidate to make this a real race, but the district dynamics and Coghill’s personal appeal mean this race is his to lose.
We are rating this race “Lean Republican”
Senate District N: East Anchorage/Hillside
Candidates: Sen. Cathy Giessel (R), Vince Beltrami (I)
Forget the U.S. Senate race or the congressional race, this is the big boy of Alaska’s 2016 election cycle. It pits two firmly established political brands in direct opposition to one another.
Vince Beltrami is President of the Alaska AFL-CIO with a long history in Alaska politics, generally working with left-leaning or pro-labor causes and candidates. Sen. Cathy Giessel is as defined a pro-oil company, social conservative as there is in the state. It really is a clash of the ideological titans.
This district itself leans heavily to the right in voter registration with Republicans making up 29% of registered voters to Democrats 16.2%.
There is plenty of evidence, however, that this district is made up of moderates on both sides. Sen. Dan Sullivan did beat Sen. Mark Begich here in 2014, but only by 1.6% of the vote. That same year Gov. Bill Walker beat Republican Gov. Sean Parnell by a similar margin and Democrat Forrest Dunbar beat Republican Rep. Don Young by an even closer margin in this district.
Both candidates are well-funded, EXTREMELY well-funded by local election standards. Each has raised over $200K for their own campaign and IE’s have come in and poured hundreds of thousands more in on both sides.
Beltrami is an odd sort of challenge for a legislative race, in that the argument could be made that with his labor organizing and political campaign experience he may be the far more proven campaigner. He commands respect from both sides for his ability to put together an effective campaign ground game and GOTV effort. Even Republican insiders privately concede they fully expect Beltrami to out man-power Giessel.
Giessel, on the other hand, is strongly supported by business and industry groups, conservative activists, and the Republican Party establishment. In most years we’d also point out that she is the incumbent and that has advantages. This year, however, the anti-establishment vibe in national politics and the anger among Alaskans at having their PFDs cut and the lack of a long-term state fiscal solution makes us question how much if any advantage being an incumbent has this year.
What we are hearing from insiders on both side of this race is it is a toss-up. The race dynamics, money, and district analysis support that anecdotal conclusion.
We are rating this race “Toss-Up”
Here is how we see the whole state senate election picture right now based on party affiliation of candidates:
But if you are a Democrat harboring bi-partisan organizational dreams, this is how things look
As you can see, for a bipartisan coalition to happen Democrats need to win a toss-up race in Anchorage, a Republican-leaning race in Fairbanks, and then get some backroom organizational maneuvering to go their way.
But it COULD happen.