What Really Happened At This Weekend’s AK GOP Meeting

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This weekend the Alaska Republican Party (ARP) held their quarterly meeting of their State Central Committee (SCC), the body that functions as their board of directors.

The main media attention focused on the censure and withdrawal of party support for three Republican legislators who have organized with Democrats in the State House. That may be the sexy headline for mass consumption, but we here at The Midnight Sun prefer to dig deeper into the political ramifications from such a gathering that may go largely undocumented by the mainstream media.

Here are the key takeaways from the meeting, some obvious and some not, that will have an impact going forward.

It’s Still A Party —- We wrote after the June SCC meeting about how the ARP was coming together under the Party’s newly elected leadership team of Chairman Tuckerman Babcock and Vice-Chair Rick Whitbeck.

Rick Whitbeck

Tuckerman Babcock

This meeting closed the circle on the transition. There were still disagreements on various points, but those debates were respectful and reasoned. For the first time in many years, the SCC appears to represent one unified group rather than a collection of disparate interests and philosophies forced together by a two-party system.

At one point a longtime SCC member even whispered to me “This is so boring I’m going to fall asleep.” I asked him if he’d prefer the meeting revert to the passive-aggressive snitfest it had been for so long, that while unproductive, was never dull. He quickly grimaced and retracted his statement.

That this transformation has continued unabated since the June meeting is both impressive and noteworthy. Even with the reemergence of the Joe Miller vs. Lisa Murkowski dynamic, Babcock and Whitbeck’s efforts to unify the party seem to have made real progress.  That same dynamic nearly tore the ARP apart six years ago and lead to years of inner-party power squabbles and a tricky minefield of faction politics for GOP candidates to navigate.

This time around looked to have the same potential for party strife. As soon as Miller announced his run at Murkowski, there were mass resignations of Miller supporting party officials and later on nasty back and forths between Miller’s campaign and the ARP leadership.

Even with all of that rancor and the election being in the books for less than five weeks, there was still no discernible division within the party this weekend. That comradery was undoubtedly aided by the surprise election of Donald Trump, which has given the alt-right faithful a warm fuzzy all over. As they say in sports, winning is the best deodorant. Even so, the lack of discord is a remarkable accomplishment.

This election cycle was a big test to see if the new party leadership’s vision of party unification could hold up under the harsh realities of election season duress. At this point, it seems they passed the test and the ARP is positioned to move forward in unison more than it has been at any point in recent history.

The Lost Ox — So, yes the SCC moved 56-4 to withhold support for and recruit primary challenges to the three Republican legislators (Rep. LeDoux, Rep. Stutes, and Rep. Seaton) who have organized with Democrats and Independents to form a House Majority organization. 

But there are more dynamics to that story than just the move itself.

Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux

Rep. Paul Seaton

Rep. Louise Stutes

Many will point out that this move is similar to what the ARP did to Rep. Jim Colver in June. Then the Party invoked the same rule and afterward heavily backed Colver’s primary challenger George Rauscher with financial support, media messaging, and organization help. Colver narrowly lost that race by a 52%-48% margin.

This time is different in a very significant way. When the party leadership moved to oust Colver they were doing it at the behest of overwhelming support from local Republican leaders in Colver’s district and the surrounding areas.

At that time Babcock was a voice of caution, telling committee members to make sure they were 100% on board with the idea of challenging an incumbent Republican because failure at the ballot box would expose the Party as a “toothless tiger.”

This time, however, the decision to go after LeDoux, Stutes, and Seaton appears to be driven by party leadership. There was no evidence at the meeting local Republicans in those legislator’s districts actually disagreed with their lawmaker’s actions. Not one of the three district chairs from those areas spoke against the legislators. In fact, the district chair from Stutes’ district actually supported her and said he had heard not a single complaint from any Republican in his district about Stutes’ actions.

So, instead of backing up local concerns about a Republican incumbent as they did in the Colver case, party leadership this time have imposed on local districts an edict of who they can and can’t support going forward.

Republicans don’t tend to like such top-down commands from “The Establishment.”

Babcock’s decision to move ahead without first securing local support could have interesting consequences. Right now, the ARP is riding a wave of perceived power over Republican legislators like Rep. Gary Knopp and Rep. Delena Johnson who might want to join the bipartisan House Majority organization. That power is based on the threat of a party primary challenge that the Colver defeat made credible.

If party leadership moves against these three incumbents and the local districts stand by their lawmakers, it is hard to see how they would be unseated. A failure to remove ANY of them in 2018 would likely result in the nightmare scenario Babcock warned of in June. Legislators would see the Party as toothless and likely ignore their threats.

Is There A Rural GOP? — It was clear from this meeting the Alaska GOP still effectively does not exist in rural Alaska.

The Alaska GOP has long been more a myth than a presence in the four largely native populated legislative districts — District 37-40 — that run from the North Slope, through Western and Southwest Alaska, to Bristol Bay. In fact, in this year’s general election the ARP only fielded one candidate from any of those four districts.

At the SCC meeting on Saturday, that lack of representation and participation in party affairs continued, with only one committee member from any of those four districts taking part in the meeting. It is noticeable that party leadership is completely devoid of any residents from those areas, but for only one local leader to show up or call in to the quarterly meeting is pretty telling.

It should come as no surprise then that when the question of where the 2018 state convention should be held that Anchorage was nominated and approved with not even a discussion of holding it in a smaller or rural community. It wasn’t a surprising decision. 2018 will mark 16 years since the Alaska GOP has held their convention in a community other than Anchorage, Fairbanks, or Juneau.

Some might argue the GOP has to hold their convention in a larger community because of the need for hotel rooms and other hospitality infrastructure. That is an excuse, not a reason. The Alaska Democratic Party has held their conventions in the smaller communities of Palmer, Sitka, and Nome in the last ten years. If the Ds can do it, why can’t the Rs?

This is an issue borne solely of the fact that there is literally no one in the room from rural communities when these decisions are discussed.

So far under Babcock’s leadership, no discernable movement has been made to change the Party’s legacy on this issue. To be fair, though, this is something best addressed in the two-year period between elections rather than in the six month period between when party leadership is elected and when elections take place, so it isn’t really fair to render final judgment on Babcock or Whitbeck yet.  

Nonetheless, the fact remains that as of today the Alaska GOP remains an overwhelmingly urban (by Alaskan standards) and white organization.

On Board With Trump — The is absolutely no doubt that the Alaska Republican Party is 100% behind President-elect Donald Trump.

During the election, many Alaska Republican leaders including Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan, Rep. Don Young, and House Majority Leader Charisse Millett distanced themselves from and sometimes openly condemned the actions of Trump. On Saturday, however, there was no evidence anyone in the Alaska GOP had any misgivings about a Trump presidency.

Trump’s Alaska campaign manager Jerry Ward got up and gave an update on the President-elect’s transition including an effort to get Trump to visit Alaska, a state he won by over 14 points, on his thank you tour. Current Chairman Babcock and former Chairman Randy Ruedrich also included Trump’s victory in assessments of how awesome the GOP performed in Alaska in this election cycle.

At no time during any of these reports or when Trump’s name came up a dozen other times was there any snide remarks or rolled eyes. Several early Trump supporters did make comments about how the party leadership wasn’t fully on board with Trump during his campaign, but even they acknowledged that has since changed.

The Rise of David Eastman — If you don’t know the name David Eastman now, you will soon.

Rep. David Eastman

The freshman Republican legislator from the Western Mat-Su is a comer. He hasn’t even taken office but he has already created his own PAC and secured a spot on five House committees and is an alternate to a sixth. At Saturday’s ARP meeting, Eastman was clearly  involved and active in driving what was happening in party activities. Add to that the connections he now has from his early and active involvement in supporting Trump’s candidacy and you get a guy who is poised to come out of nowhere and have a huge impact on state politics.

Eastman is a super right-wing conservative in the mold of Joe Miller, Amy Demboski, and Lora Reinbold. However, unlike Reinbold, he posses an acumen for political strategy and, unlike Demboski, he understands how to deliver a conservative message the media won’t agree with without giving them anything over which they can flip out. And this election showed he isn’t above stepping on a Republican, even a conservative one like Rep. Wes Keller, in order to get ahead.

In short, Eastman is coming to play at every level, party politics, legislative politics, national politics, and campaign finance. He is doing them all energetically.

If you like, think of him as the GOPs Forrest Dunbar. Both are young, smart, ambitious, ideologically defined, and eager to play an active role in their party’s political strategy and organization. I would be shocked if we didn’t see both of their names on a statewide ballot in the next 6-8 years. 

I foresee a not-too-distant election where these two will are pitted one-on-one for the soul of Alaska.