State of the Race: Legislative Races, Day 5 (The Senate districts)

Illustration by Matt Buxton.

Today we cap off our overly detailed rundowns of the 50 legislative seats that will be on this year’s ballot with the 10 Senate seats.

Thanks to redistricting, there’s not a lot of play for many of these districts to switch hands but there are two–maybe three-races to watch that could affect the balance of power in the Senate. Still, there’s plenty of races in today’s rundown that while they might not affect the balance of power they’ll certainly have a big role in shaping the flavor of the next Legislature.

Here’s a rundown of the previous days rundowns.

Senate A: The Fairbanks Fracas

This race has a lot of political insiders baffled when it comes to calling it. On the one hand, incumbent Republican Sen. Pete Kelly pried the seat out of Democratic hands in 2012 in a race where he was out of the state for the final days. The map’s shifted since then, but it wasn’t really tested in 2014 when the Democrats ran a newcomer candidate in the race. The district also voted for Trump by a pretty wide margin in 2016.

According to our hasty data work on district registration, the district shows an ever so slight shift in the favor of Democrats. Both Republicans and Democrats have lost voters since the 2016 election, but Republicans have lost more ground overall. The solidly Republican House District 2, which has been a difficult-to-overcome roadblock for Democrats, has lost nearly 4.5 percent of its voters since 2016, too (with most of it coming from the low-turnout Fort Wainwright district).

Still, all taken together it’s going to be a difficult one for the Democrats, but if anyone has the chops to pull of a win it’s likely Rep. Scott Kawasaki. Kawasaki has been in the race since last summer and he’s been known to be a formidable fundraiser and hard-working campaigner.

Kelly, who’s not much of a campaigner by comparison, must see that it’s going to be a tougher challenge than in the past as his campaign signs are already posted and his campaign ads are already starting to hit.

What will be particularly interesting to watch in this race is just where and how organized labor gets involved. We’ve heard rumblings that leadership of some unions is relatively happy with the Republicans at this point–thanks in large part to there being a capital budget–so they could sit out of the race, depriving Kawasaki of significant support.

Hot take: Depending on the time of day and the last politico that I’ve talked with, I’d be inclined to give this a lean in one direction–you can definitely make the case in either direction–but honestly at this early of a stage it’s a toss-up.

Senate C: Click uncontested

Sen. Click Bishop won a contested three-way Republican primary for Senate in 2012 (that featured now-Rep. David Eastman, the 2012 redistricting map was weird), and it’s been smooth sailing since then. In 2014, former state Sen. Mike Miller was going to challenge Bishop–on the grounds that the labor-friendly Bishop wasn’t a true Republican–before he ultimately dropped out.

The bolo-tied Bishop has another clear path to election this year with no Republican or Democratic challengers in his way. No one’s filed for the general, either.

Hot take: Without a challenger, it’s a solid Republican seat, but there’s always the potential that the moderate Republican could be a bipartisan sort of guy.

Senate E: An appointee showdown

The race for Sen. Mike Dunleavy’s old seat will pit incumbent Sen. Mike Shower against Mat-Su Borough Assemblyman Randall Kowalke, who was Gov. Bill Walker’s off-list pick for the seat in this year’s appointment drama. The Rep. Jim Colver-hating House District 9 Republicans have already endorsed Shower for the seat, according to a post outlining the district’s fears of a bipartisan Legislature that puts Democrats anywhere near the reigns of power.

The race initially featured Rep. George Rauscher, who really wanted the seat but was sidelined by Walker over a “BDSM FREE ZONE” sticker that was posted to his office door after news broke about a legislators violent attack on a woman. He’s since dropped out to defend House District 9 against Colver and Pam Goode.

The race will ultimately be a test of whether Senate District E Republicans picked the most popular guy for the seat in Shower. Kowalke had a fair bit of support, too, but didn’t top the initial voting for the seat. Kowalke’s generally seen as a competent, traditional conservative, which might not carry a whole lot of weight in a district where half the voters elected Rep. David Eastman.

The winner will face Democrat Su Kay in the general election.

Hot take: It’s a solid Republican seat by the numbers, and a partisan primary election would seem to favor Shower.

Senate G: Battle of Eagle River Reps

Eagle River Republican Reps. Lora Reinbold and Dan Saddler will be going head-to-head in August for the vacated seat of Sen. Anna MacKinnon. Here, you basically get two flavors of far-right conservative legislators. There’s the more-established Saddler whose politics range from conservative to far-right, who has the infamous distinction of once calling a procedural stunt by the House bipartisan coalition worse than Pearl Harbor.

On the other side you have Reinbold whose politics range from far-right to, well, Reinbold-wing. Reinbold’s been alarmist when it comes to most things in state government and has offered plenty of process-snarling amendments, but at the very least has a sense of self-awareness and humor that’s been sorely lacking among her far-right Republican colleagues. She’s certainly been one of the more entertaining legislators. She also commendably took on fellow right-winger Rep. David Eastman when it came to the smoking bill.

Strip away the style of each legislator, and their politics probably aren’t too far off. Saddler would probably be a bit more of a polished team player with other Senate Republicans while Reinbold would be a firecracker in the Senate’s rigid order.

The winner of the primary will face Democrat Oliver Schiess in the general election.

Hot take: It’s a solid Republican seat by history and by the numbers, the primary is probably a toss-up, but we’ll give a slight edge to Reinbold.

Senate I: A safely Democratic seat

The general election race for the open Senate I seat will pit well-liked former Anchorage Assemblywoman Elvi Gray-Jackson, a Democrat, against Republican Jim Crawford, who was chair of the Alaska campaign for Donald Trump.

The seat held by the retiring Berta Gardner is a solidly Democratic district by the numbers and by voting history–Trump lost both House districts by wide margins–so it’s likely Gray-Jackson’s seat for the taking.

Hot take: If Donald Trump couldn’t come close to winning Senate I in 2016, we doubt his state campaign manager will do any better two years later. Solid Democrat.

Senate K: Running scared

Sen. Mia Costello hitched her political ambitions to the tough-on-crime wave sweeping through Anchorage when she announced she would be carrying a bill that would be a wholesale repeal of Senate Bill 91. It didn’t work out all that well for Costello, who angered caucus leadership with procedural maneuvers that eventually got the bill a hearing that only served to prove just how little preparation and reasoning Costello put behind her position.

The April 19 hearing of Senate Bill 127 will go down as one of the more embarrassing hearings for a legislator as her own caucus members pummeled her shoddy reasoning behind the bill. A lot of people–on both sides of the aisle–delighted in the destruction.

But just how much of that will translate to her general election campaign against nonpartisan candidate Sam Cason, who’s running in the Democratic primary, is hard to say. It’s all pretty inside baseball and Costello did ultimately get a tough-on-crime amendment to her name. Cason, who’s an assistant attorney general, is no slouch and should be able to mount a serious challenge.

Costello also has a primary opponent in David Nees.

Hot take: Toss-up. By the numbers, the district is pretty middle of the road and in 2016 it was split between Trump and Clinton. Costello’s failures could be hard to effectively seize on.

Senate M: A Republican primary

Republican Rep. Chris Birch the nod over Rep. Charisse Millett to pursue the Senate M seat as incumbent Sen. Kevin Meyer is seeking the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor. Both reportedly wanted the seat, but it was the freshman Birch that got the go-ahead. Still, it won’t be a clear path for Birch because Bekah Halat, a Mrs. Alaska winner, has also filed in the primary with a pro-PFD and Repeal SB 91 platform.

The winner will go up against Democrat Janice Park in the general election.

Hot take: It’s a solidly Republican Senate seat. As for the primary, it leans in Birch’s favor, but Halat certainly has the potential to be a serious contender.

Senate O: PFD-y primary

Sen. Peter Micciche just has a primary challenge with Ron Gillham between him and another term in the Alaska Legislature. As best we can tell, Gillham’s campaign revolves entirely around the PFD. In a year where we expected everyone to pay a big price for supporting the restructuring of the Alaska Permanent Fund, it’s surprising to see how few primary challengers there really are with this as their driving campaign promise.

With a big win on the smoking bill in Micciche’s column, the former Soldotna mayor shouldn’t have a hard time capturing the primary again. If he snoozes, like we’ve seen some other politicians do in primaries, the highly motivating PFD argument might pose a risk.

Hot take: Without a Democratic challenger, this is a solidly Republican seat, and likely Micciche’s to lose.

Senate Q: Democrat vs. Independent

While Democrats have ridden the independent train to power in the House, there’s always been the chance that independents won’t always be solid Democratic allies. That’s the concern in Juneau, where labor leader and lobbyist Don Etheridge is running as an independent in the general election. He’s openly talked about working across the aisle, which has led to speculation that he’d side with Republicans over Democrats.

He’ll be going up against longtime legislative aide and Juneau assemblyman Jesse Kiehl, who’s the lone Democrat running for the seat. Kiehl has a solid and established track record in public office and was widely expected to seek the seat after his boss, Sen. Dennis Egan, announced his retirement this year.

Hot take: Keihl has been actively engaged in the community so we’re giving him a big edge, but we’ve been warned that union involvement could be a big factor. Safe Democrat.

Senate S: Another term for Hoffman

Bethel Democratic Sen. Lyman Hoffman has a clear path to re-election. He’s caucused with the Republicans for the last two election cycles, turning his allegiance into positions on the powerful Senate Finance Committee, which he co-chaired during the last session.

Hoffman’s done right by his district over the years, and will likely hold onto the seat for as long as he wants to do the job.

Hot take: Then, now and forever Hoffman’s seat. Solid Democrat.

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