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Welcome to the latest edition of Friday in the Sun, our increasingly infrequent way to cap off a week of increasingly grim existential dread. This week, I’ll be breaking down the surprises, headscratchers and things to nerd out about as this year’s slate of legislative candidates comes together.
As always, you can get ahold of your dear, tired editor at [email protected] with tips, tricks, corrections and grammatical advice. Can’t do it without y’all.
The last-minute changeups
In what was the biggest surprise of the filing deadline, Anchorage Democratic Sen. Tom Begich announced he will not be running for reelection this year. Per KTUU reporter Sean Maguire, Begich on Wednesday was driving around rural Nebraska and plans to focus his efforts on restoring civility in the U.S. and campaigning for strong coalitions in the Legislature. Can’t really imagine a more Tom Begich way for Tom Begich to announce he’s not running.
His departure coincides with the entrance of Democrat Löki Gale Tobin, who worked in Begich’s office since 2019 and was instrumental on a lot of education work (including the Alaska Reads Act), who now has about as clear a shot as any at joining the Alaska Senate. While Senate District I has changed substantially with redistricting—now covering Downtown Anchorage, South Addition, Government Hill and Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson—it’s still seen as a solidly blue district with the only opponent in the race being independent Heather Herndon, who ran a conservative fringe campaign for Anchorage Mayor in 2021.
The whole move is sure to ruffle feathers among Democrats who would’ve liked a shot at that seat—after all there are two incumbent Democrats running against each other in House District 17-I—but those feathers are already plenty ruffled from the contentious passage of the Alaska Reads Act at the end of the session. Still, in the grand scheme of things, I think there’s a lot of excitement about what Tobin will bring to the table.
“It’s not often that an older white man is going to step aside and say, ‘I think it’s time to make space for a younger woman of color who is as connected and deeply engaged with the community as I am but may not be given this opportunity because of whatever factors come down society-wise,’” Tobin told the ADN.
On a similar front, East Anchorage Rep. Liz Snyder also announced that she was not running for reelection shortly before the filing deadline. She endorsed Democrat Donna Mears, who was originally positioned to run for the East Anchorage/Eagle River Senate seat before redistricting challenges changed the layout. Mears has long been involved in local community council work and was involved advocating for East Anchorage during the redistricting process.
While Senate District I is deep blue, House District 21 has been swingier. Snyder won her race by a nail-biter of just 11 votes over Republican Rep. Lance Pruitt in 2020. Redistricting has seen the district move a bit to the left but it’s still solidly in competitive territory. The race, as it stands, will pit Mears against Republican legislative aide Forrest Wolfe and independents Peter Knox and Ian Sharrock. Talking with folks, there’s not nearly as much consternation about the last-minute switch as it likely kept out a stronger Republican candidate—like Pruitt—from filing again.
Ballot Measure 2 tees up many one-party races
Under the past election system, we saw plenty of races decided at the primary level where the underlying numbers in heavily Republican or Democratic districts gave whoever emerged from the primary an effectively uncontested race in the general election. The system resulted in candidates who only had to appeal to the politics of a party’s primary and it resulted in increasingly extreme candidates… at least that’s the pitch behind the state’s new election system in Ballot Measure 2. Thanks to the system’s open top-four primary, every single legislative candidate except for literally one—Fairbanks’ House District 35 has five candidates—will be headed to the general election to have their fate decided by the entire district.
It’s opened the door for an interesting development this year: One-party races.
By my count, there are 13 races where every candidate belongs to the same party:
- Senate A—Southeast: Bert Stedman* (R), Mike Sheldon (R)
- Senate C—Kodiak/Homer: Gary Stevens* (R), Heath Smith (R), Walter Jones (R)
- Senate L—Eagle River (formerly Reinbold’s seat): Kelly Merrick (R), Ken McCarty (R), Joe Wright (R), Clayton Trotter (R)
- Senate N—Wasilla: David Wilson* (R), Stephen Wright (R), Scott Clayton (R)
- Senate O—Greater Wasilla: Mike Shower* (R), Doug Massie (R)
- House 5-C—Kodiak/Seward/Cordova: Louise Stutes* (R), Benjamin Vincent (R)
- House 7-D—Soldotna/Kenai: Ron Gillham* (R), Justin Ruffridge (R)
- House 17-I—Downtown Anchorage: Harriet Drummond* (D), Zack Fields* (D)
- House 19-J—Anchorage Mountain View: Genevieve Mina (D), Russell Wyatt (D)
- House 23-L—Eagle River/Chugach Park: Jamie Allard (R), Roger Branson (R)
- House 25-M—Palmer: DeLena Johnson* (R), Lawrence Wood (R)
- House 27-N—Greater Wasilla: David Eastman* (R), Stu Graham (R), Brendan Carpenter (R)
- House 28-N—Wasilla: Rachel Allen (R), Jessica Wright (R), Jesse Sumner (R)
For the most part, these are all races where candidates from the opposing party would get somewhere in the 30% range in the general election. That’s nearly a third of voters who have never effectively had any impact on their representation. Now that 30% could prove critical in deciding some of these races under ranked-choice voting, there’s reason for candidates to appeal to more than just the most ardent primary voters. It’s also why some people are more bullish on moderate Republican candidates like Rep. Kelly Merrick, who would almost certainly have been sent packing by Eagle River Republican primary voters under the previous system. The race for the Eagle River Senate seat is still set to be a contentious four-way race among Republicans but Merrick—and other moderates—have a far better chance than before.
On the other end of the political spectrum, voters in Anchorage’s downtown and Mountain View districts will each have a pair of Democrats to pick between—Reps. Harriet Drummond and Zack Fields in the downtown district and Genevieve Mina and Russell Wyatt—that ought to make for more interesting races where the nuances of progressive politics will be front and center.
It didn’t stand out to me as unusual until I saw Alaska Beacon reporter James Brooks point out that Juneau Democratic Rep. Andi Story is running unopposed this year. Juneau’s Mendenhall Valley—which makes up a good part of her district—has been the source for some well-resourced challenges from Republicans in the past and was represented by a Republican until a narrow loss in 2016. The layout of the district was also at issue during the Alaska Redistricting process, where
Sitka Skagway was challenging the layout of the district with the allegation that Republican board member Budd Simpson drew the district in a way to make it more friendly for a pro-Juneau Road Republican. Sitka’s Skagway’s challenge failed but a pro-Juneau Road Republican never materialized.
Another head-scratcher is the Republicans’ decision to put up Forrest McDonald against independent Anchorage Rep. Calvin Schrage. Schrage had a solid 4-point win over less-than-exciting Republican Rep. Mel Gillis in 2020 and the district hasn’t changed significantly in redistricting. You’d think a solid Republican candidate would be able to put up a good fight here but McDonald, who turned into a pretty conservative Republican after running as a Democrat in 2016, is not exactly solid.
There are a handful of other races where Republicans have put up folks who are largely fringe candidates that is giving at least some Democrats hope that they can hold onto enough numbers to maintain a coalition or, if things go just right, gain the numbers for an outright majority in the House after this election. I have my doubts as misplaced optimism is a signature for Anchorage Democrats.
- Doug Massie, who retired from his job at the head of the Alaska Wildlife Troopers this week (a tenure that wasn’t without controversy), has filed to run against Republican Sen. Mike Shower. It’s likely to be the most serious in-party challenge for any incumbent this year.
- Anchorage’s Turnagain/Sand Lake district—House District 16—has turned so blue that it scared off Republican Rep. Sara Rasmussen and Rep. Matt Claman is now running for Senate against Republican Sen. Mia Costello, leaving an open seat. Democrat Jennie Armstrong is the clear favorite for the race, especially with challengers like former Rep. Liz “Losing Streak” Vazquez and Joel McKinney, the gentleman who was arrested with a concealed gun during the Anchorage Assembly’s hearings on the mask mandate.
- While Reps. Drummond and Fields look like they’ll see the race out, paired-together Reps. Andy Josephson and Chris Tuck sound like they’ll take some time to decide before one drops out of the race. Unlike the downtown Anchorage seat, their House District 13 is not nearly as blue and could be competitive with Republican Kathy Henslee. The new ranked choice voting system sounds good but there’s concern about how it’ll work in close races.
- As another reader requested, Senate District T is the only seat of the 60 legislative seats not up for election this year. It’s a product of redistricting. District T covers Nome, Kotzebue and Utqiaġvik and is currently represented by Golovin Democratic Sen. Donny Olson.
- Independent candidate Jennifer Sonne, who had filed to run for Anchorage’s House District 11, has announced she will be withdrawing from the race for personal reasons. She’s putting her support behind independent candidate Walter Featherly. Candidates have until June 25 to withdraw from the primary (and Sept. 5 to withdraw from the general election).