State of the Race: Legislative Races, Part 1 (House Districts 1 through 10)

The filing deadline for this year’s legislative, congressional and gubernatorial races has passed. And now that we’re in the hangover of the Alaska political world’s favorite, most speculation-filled day of the year, let’s figure out just what happened.

In the Legislature, there will be 50 seats up for election: the 40 House seats that all serve for two-year terms, and 10 Senate seats that serve for four-year terms. This week, we’ll be doing rundowns of every race in 10-race per post updates. Today, we’ll be starting with what’s probably the juiciest group of races in House Districts 1 through 10 where we have some big-ticket showdowns that have implications for the layout of the House as well as just some very, very weird Republican primaries.

If you have any of your own hot takes, tips or insight on other legislative races that you’d like to have considered for an upcoming rundown, hit me up at matt@midnightsunak.com and maybe you’ll become our newest “political insider.” We’ve rated each district with a preliminary hot take, and I’ve also dusted off some of my old mapping skills to put together some maps. Hopefully by Friday, I’ll remember how to put this all in an interactive graphic.

The primary election is Aug. 21.

Fairbanks area

Shoddy illustration by Matt Buxton

House District 1: Player 3 has entered the game

The race for House District 1, the Fairbanks seat vacated by Rep. Scott Kawasaki in his mission to run for Senate, is shaping up to be one of the more important races in the Alaska Legislature this year. The departure of the well-liked and tough-campaigning Kawasaki puts the seat on the map as one that could be picked up by Republicans in the party’s quest to put the House back solidly into the hands of the GOP.

The main players are Democratic candidate Kathryn Dodge, who’s currently the presiding officer of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly and has been doorknocking since before snow fell last year, and Republican candidate Bart LeBon, who’s a former Mt. McKinley Bank executive. The two have been in the race for months with multiple fundraisers–and plenty of yard signs–for both candidates.

Still, it’s looking like it’ll get more interesting.

LeBon picked up a primary challenger in Wolfgang Falke, a longtime local who unsuccessfully ran for the Fairbanks Borough Assembly in 2007 (coming behind now-Rep. Tammie Wilson, who finished second that year) and was part of a lawsuit to stop the sale of a bunch of city-owned utilities in the late 1990s. Falke likely won’t be much of a problem for the established LeBon.

What is more of wildcard in the race is the last-minute filing of PJ Simon as a nonpartisan in the general election. Simon is a board member of both Doyon, Limited and the Tanana Chiefs Conference, but ruffled some feathers when he ran for TCC president in 2017.

As the chief of Allakaket, Simon has been active in the fight against the state-backed Ambler mining road and has talked frequently of his desire to run for state House. After his loss in 2017, he was quoted by the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner as saying the campaign “was good practice” for a run for the Legislature.

The first take is that he’s potentially a draw away from Dodge, but it’s too early to tell.

To get into the race, Simon will need to collect a grand total of 61 signatures of qualified voters by 5 p.m. Aug. 21.

Hot take: Leans Republican

House District 2: No retirement, yet

Rumors were swirling around Democratic circles at least that incumbent Rep. Steve Thompson might be considering retirement sooner than later. That hasn’t come to pass as of filing deadline, but it did draw an established Democratic challenger in Fairbanks North Star Borough Assemblyman Van Lawrence.

There’s still time for the race to change as Thompson could withdraw as late as Sept. 4 and have a chosen replacement step in for him. Thompson has proven himself to be an incredibly hard worker so we wouldn’t be entirely surprised if he sticks it out for another term.

Hot take: Safe Republican

House District 3: Another term for Tammie

After facing an independent candidate and a Democratic candidate in 2016 (she beat their combined vote totals no problem), North Pole Republican Rep. Tammie Wilson has a clear path to another term in the state House.

For most of her career Wilson has been out on her own as one of the most conservative members of the Legislature, but has been more recently eclipsed by Reps. Lora Reinbold and David Eastman. She’s even carved out some positions that, if you squint hard enough, almost maybe sound a tad progressive: like her support of funding the state’s Medicaid bill for the remainder of the fiscal year.

Still, the race isn’t without intrigue as the Fairbanks North Star Borough does have a mayor election on the local ballot this year. Wilson challenged for it in 2015, coming up far short, but this year is an open seat with just current North Pole Mayor Bryce Ward having filed for the seat.

Hot take: Solid Republican

House District 4: A well-known Democrat’s to lose

House District 4, which covers the true blue Fairbanks areas of Ester, Goldstream and Farmers Loop, is in all likelihood Democratic candidate Grier Hopkins‘ to lose. Hopkins is the nephew of Rep. David Guttenberg, who currently holds the seat and announced his retirement earlier this year, and has a good reputation as a hard-working Democrat and union guy.

In the general election, he’ll be facing Republican Jim Sackett and nonpartisan Tim Lamkin. Both have pretty good resumes coming into the race, so don’t count them out.

Hot take: Safe Democrat

House District 5: Potential hangover

Rep. Adam Wool hasn’t had the smoothest year in the Alaska Legislature after butting heads with locals over the distillery cocktail issue. He eventually came through with a last-minute amendment that preserved distillery’s right to serve mixed drinks, but it wasn’t without some bad blood along the way. It could leave Wool vulnerable, but at the same time he was also instrumental in supporting a big increase for the University of Alaska budget that’ll have big play in his district.

His Republican challenger, Kevin McKinley, is a newcomer to the political scene in the Interior and he doesn’t appear to be your average Chamber of Commerce-y Republican, which could limit his financial support but help with his appeal to the district.

Hot take: Lean Democrat

House District 6: A real challenger

Rep. Dave Talerico, R-Healy, has had a quiet, but productive career in the Alaska Legislature having carried some smaller, but broadly popular measures in his time. It was uncertain if the former Denali mayor would be throwing his hat back in the ring this year, but he filed within the last two weeks for the seat.

With the seat being one of the largest legislative districts in the entire country that spans from Denali to the upper Yukon to northeastern area of Fairbanks and then onto the Canadian border, there are a lot of competing interests that could make the seat a competitive race.

Taleico will be going up against Democrat Ed Alexander in the general election. Alexander grew up in Fort Yukon and will be bringing his connections to the rural district to play in this race, which is one of the more difficult districts to campaign for. Alexander’s also a 2016 Bernie Sanders supporter.

Democrats didn’t present much of a challenge to Talerico in 2016, but Alexander could present a real challenge.

Hot take: Toss-up

Mat-Su Districts

Hasty illustration by Matt Buxton

House District 7: Challenger-free

Rep. Colleen Sullivan-Leonard is challenger-free in her race for re-election. With a lot of attention being paid to the other races, Democrats and Republican challengers seemed to focus their attention elsewhere this year.

Hot take: Solid Republican

House District 8:

For the second election cycle in a row incumbent Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, has a primary challenger. This year, he’ll be going up against Andy Murr in the primary. Neuman easily batted away his 2016 primary challenger Mike Alexander in a 63.5 percent to 36.5 percent victory. Neuman’s general election margin of victory was the largest of any contested House battle with a 63.43-point win over his Democratic challenger.

This year’s general election will pit the winner of the Republican primary against Democratic candidate James Chesbro and Libertarian candidate Mark Fish, who’s one of three Libertarians filed to run for the Alaska Legislature.

Hot take: Solid Republican

House District 9: Republican rumble

Oh man.

House District 9 is no stranger to bizarre, crowded and bitter Republican primaries, but this year is set to be even more bizarre, crowded and bitter than before.

In the Republican primary race we have: incumbent Rep. George Rauscher who was all filed to run for Senate (a seat he was skipped over for appointment because of a “BDSM FREE ZONE” sticker posted to his office door right after another legislator was accused of slapping a woman and blaming it on his “BDSM kink”) until a last-minute change of heart; last-minute entrant former Rep. Jim Colver, a sorta moderate Republican who was beaten by Rauscher in 2016 primary; crime-fighting Vicki Wallner, who runs the controversial Stop Valley Thieves Facebook page; and Pamela Goode, a former member of the Alaska Constitution Party who one politico said could hand the seat over to a Democrat if she makes it to the general election because she’s so conservative (she also already has the endorsement of Rep. David Eastman’s PAC).

The large, geographically distinct seat has all sorts of different flavors of Republican in it, as has been proven by recent elections. Colver won the primary in 2014 primary while Rauscher and incumbent Rep. Eric Feige literally tied for second place. Most other primaries have been within just a few hundred votes.

As for the general, there’s also Democrat Bill Johnson and Republican James Squyres who filed a nominating petition to appear on the general election ballot. Squyres will need 85 signatures to appear on the ballot. Oh, and by the way Squyres is Goode’s husband.

Hot take: The Republican primary is a total toss-up, but the seat is almost certainly solid Republican.

House District 10: Primary problems

One of the big complaints about the primary system is that it drives candidates to extremes, particularly in districts that are safely in the hands of one party. That’s particularly the case for House District 10, which covers rural Mat-Su and is currently represented by the right-wing Rep. David Eastman. Eastman didn’t find many allies during his last two years for plenty of reasons we don’t need to list here, but suffice it to say other Republicans were actively shopping around replacements for him during the session.

Eastman won’t be facing a challenger in the Republican primary, but he will run up against a Republican in the general election.

Doyle Holmes was the chair of the local Republicans, but is giving up the seat so he can take an independent path to the general election where he’ll be listed as a Republican. Holmes is one of three Republicans who’ve filed nominating petitions to appear on the general election ballot. He’ll need 84 signatures to get on the ballot.

Also on the ballot in the Democratic party’s primary are Patricia Faye-Brazel and Neal Lacy.

Hot take: Safe Republican

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