There’s a lot at stake for Republicans in the Aug. 18 primary election.
Not only will it decide the fate of several somewhat-moderate Republicans who’ve worked with Democrats in opposing the worst of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s agenda, but it will also decide the fate of far-right Republican and adult in the timeout corner Wasilla Rep. David Eastman.
Eastman faces a primary challenge from Jesse Sumner, a Mat-Su borough assemblyman who has poured more than $66,000 of his own cash into the campaign, in a fight that has largely resided on the fringes of Republican politics. The anti-abortion Alaska Family Action endorsed Sumner, arguing Eastman “utterly fails at moving forward conservative policies” because he’s refused to sign on with fellow Republicans.
The fight stepped into the mainstream this week when several incumbent Republican legislators lent their weekend to the anti-Eastman effort. According to a report by the Anchorage Daily News, minority Republican Reps. Laddie Shaw, Sara Rasmussen, Mel Gillis, Kelly Merrick and Cathy Tilton spent the weekend door knocking for Sumner.
“David Eastman has been working against his own people, and he’s been doing it for the past two years,” Shaw told the paper. “We want somebody to come in with an open mind and an open heart and be part of the team.”
Sumner also has the support of other Valley Republican Reps. George Rauscher and Colleen Sullivan-Leonard.
At issue is the results after the 2018 general election when 20 Republicans gathered to announce they had formed a 21-member majority that relied on Eastman signing onto the caucuses’ binding agreement that bound him to support Rep. Dave Talerico as speaker and vote for certain measures in return for a spot in the majority and a committee chairmanship.
But as Eastman dithered those somewhat-moderate Republicans had second thoughts about a caucus that relied so heavily on all 21 members working in lockstep. The post that broke the camel’s back was when Eastman took to Facebook to circulate recall materials against Rep. Gary Knopp, a Soldotna Republican who was the first to hold out on the all-Republican majority.
Eastman has opposed the binding caucus, telling the ADN that his district opposes binding agreements and said he couldn’t sign one without knowing how what it’d ultimately mean over the course of the two-year session.
“What they tried to pull last time was just obnoxious: ‘We’re going to have an agenda, we don’t know what it is yet, but we want you to sign on right now,‘” he said. “If you’re against those, we’re going to have friction.”
Now Republicans are hoping that the defeat of Eastman will bring back unified Republican control of the House, but it will not likely be quite that easy. There are several Republicans—not just Eastman—that have been wary about signing onto those binding agreements, which are required to run the Legislature with any semblance of efficacy.
Though much of the focus has been on Eastman as the problem, several other conservative legislators have opposed binding caucuses and have made it into a key issue this election season. Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, has regularly railed against them and conservative Reps. Ben Carpenter, Sarah Vance, Sharon Jackson and, hey, even Sullivan-Leonard had pitched a plan to outlaw binding caucuses.
The Legislature’s attorneys said the plan would have likely violated the First Amendment and even Attorney General Kevin Clarkson’s Department of Law—usually a source of legally dubious legal advice—agreed that binding caucuses are legal.
Still, the anti-caucus sentiment has its support among hardline conservatives beyond just Eastman. Fairbanks conservative Lance Roberts, a former Fairbanks North Star Borough assemblyman, outlined the far-right case against binding caucus in a post to Must Read Alaska:
“The main purpose for the binding caucus is to concentrate power in the hands of the leadership. Those who are accepted into leadership have the power to do anything they want,” he wrote. “That’s how they were able to strip out the COVID stimulus that was voted into the budget. It’s how they were able to steal two-thirds of your PFD this year even though the votes were against them.”
Carpenter and Vance don’t have binding caucus-friendly Republican primary challengers. Instead, they’re facing more moderate independent challenges (who’ve also been outraising them in terms of fundraising).
Why it matters
Republicans have a tricky path ahead of them if they want to take back the House as they have to shore up both the moderate, conservative and right-wing elements of the party. It’s always been a tricky task, as evidenced by several years of bipartisan coalitions in the House and Senate.
Now, to win back the House the party needs to excise its most unpredictable far-right members while many of its typically dependable members—the handful of Republicans who caucused with Democrats this session—face far-right challengers who share more in common with Eastman than not.
Getting rid of Eastman is one step to a more controllable Republican House, but he is not the start nor the end of the GOP’s problems.