Republicans’ shot at an expanded House majority vanishes with absentee counts

Rep. Lance Pruitt takes the head of the fake special session hosted in Wasilla in support of Gov. Mike Dunleavy in July 2019. (Photo by Matt Buxton/TMS)

The day after the 2018 election, 20 Republicans gathered in Anchorage to stake their claim to the House Majority. Never mind that one member was in a race that was too close to call and that the 21st member, the far-right Rep. David Eastman, was nowhere to be seen.

While the too-close-to-call race was decided in the group’s favor by a single vote, it was their reliance on Eastman that ultimately sunk their hope at a majority as several Republicans ultimately thought better of it and, a month into the session, formed a moderate coalition with Democrats and independents.

It’s a decision that has chafed Republicans ever since—especially since the coalition helped stymie much of Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s early agenda—and this year’s elections saw a concerted effort to not just expand their numbers but reshape their legislative membership into a more obedient party-loyal group.

The numbers on election night looked promising with Republicans ahead in every district held by a Republican and with several Democrats, including Democrats in heavily Democratic districts, trailing. The fact that the likes of Democratic Reps. Ivy Spohnholz, Grier Hopkins and Matt Claman were behind in deeply blue districts should have been a sign that things were likely to change.

And change they have.

After Tuesday’s count, which saw roughly 70,000 ballots counted, incumbent Democrats took leads in every race that was tallied as absentee ballots broke hard in their favor. Hopkins gained 18.5 percentage points, Spohnholz gained 20 points and Claman gained nearly 22 points, giving them all comfortable leads.

It was the same story across the board, including for the two races that ever really stood a shot at being competitive for Republicans—Fairbanks’ House District 5 seat held by Rep. Adam Wool and Anchorage’s House District 23 seat held by Rep. Chris Tuck—where Democrats saw similar shifts in their favor.

In fact, with the latest count it’s Republican Rep. Mel Gillis who’s the lone incumbent trailing his challenger at a time when there are fewer and fewer ballots available to mount a comeback.

Democrat-backed independent Calvin Schrage now holds a 380-vote lead over Gillis with at least 700 votes left to be counted by our estimate (the state’s count is outdated). Schrage has taken 67% of the votes counted on Tuesday. Gillis would need to win about 80% of the remaining ballot to keep the seat he was appointed to in 2019.

Democrat Lyn Franks also made up significant ground on Republican David Nelson in East Anchorage’s House District 15 with Tuesday’s count, gaining 13.5 points in the count. Currently, she trails Nelson by 115 votes and needs about 59% of the remaining ballots to go her way.

If the remaining uncounted ballots in other races Democrats hope to defeat Republicans go the same as they have for Schrage (a big if), then Democrats are in a spot to add two additional members: Democrat Liz Snyder over Republican Rep. Lance Pruitt and Democrat-backed independent Suzanne LaFrance over Republican James Kaufman.

As it stands, the Republicans’ mission of expanding their numbers has not only failed, but they are in the precarious position of possibly losing ground in the House.

Their worst-case scenario gives them 17 reliably Republican members (Republican Rep. Louise Stutes has been largely aligned with Bush Democrats, so we’re not including her in any of these totals) and their best-case scenario at this point gives them 20 Republicans (again, without Stutes).

An unknown

The big question mark is just what might happen with the North Slope’s House District 40 race. Currently, independent candidate Josiah Aullaqsruaq Patkotak holds a 400-vote lead over Democrat Elizabeth Niiqsik Ferguson. With our current estimate of the outstanding votes, she would need about 70% of the uncounted ballots to go her way to win (and again, the state’s count is outdated).

Counting of outstanding ballots has yet to begin in that district.

Patkotak has the financial backing of oil and mining industry employees and several Republicans, which would suggest he may be a conservative ally. However, he may find it politically difficult to sign on with a Republican group whose core members’ approach to the state’s finances has become increasingly at odds with rural Alaska, a direction that is only reinforced by the additional of several Eastman-like legislators in other areas of the state.

He has not publicly signaled where he stands on organizing.

Bush Democrats have a history of caucusing with Republicans, who in return have awarded those members with key positions in the Legislature, but there’s little to suggest that today’s Republicans would be sympathetic to their concerns or eager to hand over key positions of power.

Some Republicans—including Gov. Mike Dunleavy—have proposed axing services in rural Alaska, have proposed eliminating the essential Power Cost Equalization program and proposed diverting the North Slope Arctic Borough’s property taxes to state coffers. All of those ideas got new life when Dunleavy’s former budget director, Donna Arduin, returned this year to train legislative candidates on the budget.

House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, and Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, had key speaking positions at this year’s Alaska Federation of Natives convention and warned what a cuts-focused legislature may mean for rural Alaska.

“This pandemic has also highlighted the systemic inequities between urban and rural parts of the state. Whether regarding accessibility to state programs or equitable funding through the state budget, not all communities in Alaska start at the same starting line,” Zulkosky, the chair of the Bush Caucus, said. “As Alaska faces significant uncertainty to declining revenues and lack of political will to address it, we have seen unprecedented attacks to drain the Power Cost Equalization endowment fund, spend down our savings, cut rural public safety, community assistance, education and limit access to health care for short-term gains that put rural Alaska communities on the edge.”

New year, same problem

Even if Republicans manage to cobble together a slim majority with key wins and surprising alliances, they still face the problem that sunk the 21-member majority formed after the 2018 election: Rep. David Eastman.

Republicans had hoped to give him the boot during the primary, an effort that featured big spending and a bitter fight on the far-right end of the party. It was part of an attempt to shore up both sides of the Republican legislative membership and form a more Dunleavy-friendly party-line group.

Eastman not only survived that effort but is set to have at least one ally in former Alaska Right to Life head Christopher Kurka, who beat former Rep. Lynn Gattis in the primary for the seat being vacated by Rep. Colleen Sullivan-Leonard, and several others have pledged hardline opposition to traditional agreements—namely, the binding caucus—that make governing in Juneau possible.

To add to the headaches of Republican control of the House is whatever residual bad blood there is from several Republican legislators’ very public efforts to unseat Eastman, including personally going door-to-door to drum up support for Eastman’s challenger.

Many of those legislators—Reps. Laddie Shaw, Sara Rasmussen, Kelly Merrick and Cathy Tilton—will need to grapple with that when it comes to organizing. One other legislator who was part of that effort won’t have to worry about navigating those internal politics: Soon-to-be-former Rep. Mel Gillis.

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