Alaska, home to Sarah Palin, Lisa Murkowski, and a U.S. Senate candidate who should not be slept on, is easily among the most fascinating states in the nation, both culturally and politically. Although it’s a red state, Republicans lack full control in the state, owing to a far better strategic effort from Democrats in recent years. In this installment of “Let the States Decide“, I’ll be discussing the Alaska House of Representatives, where Republicans have been denied control thanks to an unusual coalition.
As I mentioned in the inaugural installment, there are just two state legislative chambers in the nation that aren’t controlled by the winning party of the state in the 2016 presidential election. The Minnesota Senate is one, and the other is the Alaska House of Representatives. A coalition of Democrats, independents, and moderate Republicans control the chamber, rather than a single party, making Alaska unique in the nation. The Alaska coalition was brokered in 2016 in the midst of a fiscal crisis and has controlled the chamber ever since.
The period of time between then and now has been extremely eventful, to say the least. So, to help readers understand it better, I’ve written a timeline.
The Timeline (2018-present)
- Before 2018 elections: The coalition held a 22-18 majority over Republicans. The coalition comprised of 17 Democrats, 2 Independents, and 3 Republicans.
- November 6th, 2018: Following the elections, Republicans win 3 coalition-held seats, effectively giving them a majority.
- January 16th, 2019: Newly elected House is seated.
- January 22nd, 2019: Republicans nominate Dave Talerico (R, HD-06) as Speaker. Gary Knopp (R, HD-30) joins the 19 former coalition members in opposition to Talerico. Talerico is denied the position on a 20-20 vote.
- February 4th, 8th, and 12th, 2019: Following the first vote, Talerico fails to secure a majority three more times.
- February 13th, 2019: Former Speaker Bryce Edgmon (D, HD-37) announces his departure from the Democratic Party, registering as an Independent. On the same day, newly elected Governor Mike Dunleavy announces sweeping spending cuts in his budget.
- February 14th, 2019: Edgmon is nominated for Speaker and is successfully re-elected on a 21-18 vote (with Knopp absent). Chuck Kopp (R, HD-24) and Jennifer Johnston (R, HD-28) of Anchorage join the coalition in support of Edgmon. Bart LeBon (R, HD-01), Steve Thompson (R, HD-02), and Tammie Wilson (R, HD-03) of Fairbanks join the coalition, giving them a 25-15 majority. The coalition now consists of 15 Democrats, 2 Independents, and 8 Republicans. Thompson becomes Majority Leader.
- May 7th, 2019: Gabrielle LeDoux (R-Co, HD-15) is removed from the coalition after siding with Republicans on a budget vote. Coalition reduces to 24 members.
- July 11th, 2019: Wilson leaves the coalition, reducing it to 23 members.
- July 31st, 2020: Knopp dies in a plane crash, reducing it to 22 members.
- August 18th, 2020: Primaries held across the state. Republican challengers soundly defeat Kopp and Johnston. Meanwhile, the other three coalition Republicans hang on.
- October 6th, 2020: Bart LeBon and Steve Thompson express support for a Republican majority going into 2020. LeBon, Thompson, and Louise Stutes (R-Co, HD-32) hosted a fundraiser the week before in support of Republican control.
State of play
So to sum it up, of the eight Republicans who joined the coalition originally, two left, one died, two lost their primaries, and three have campaigned against the coalition. So, needless to say, things haven’t been so rosy for Alaska House Speaker Bryce Edgmon and his coalition. Democrats and Independents, even if they do stick together, only hold 17 of 40 seats in the chamber. Therefore, although they hold an effective majority, Democrats will need to play offense if they want to keep control of the chamber. Like previous articles in this series, I’ll be going over each party’s targets below.
Highly competitive seats
Almost all of the Democratic targets are in Anchorage, the most likely pickup being in the 25th district. In the last decade, Democrats have strategically run independents to flip Republican seats. This tactic is one of the reasons that Democrats have grown in the state over recent years. In the 25th district, Democrats are using this tactic and it appears to be going well. Independent Calvin Schrage won the Democratic primary to take on incumbent Republican Mel Gillis. The district was won by Donald Trump by 5.4 points, so it would be one of the first to go blue in a good year for Democrats. Schrage has seen spectacular fundraising numbers and thus is well-positioned to win this seat for Democrats. Moreover, his independent label may help him. Overall I’d even go so far as to say that Gillis is a slight underdog, but anything could happen.
The second best target for the coalition is the 27th district. Held by Minority Leader Lance Pruitt, the district is even less red than the 25th at Trump+4.0. Pruitt won a very narrow re-election bid in 2018 against challenger Liz Snyder. Now Snyder is running again, and Pruitt may have built a bad reputation as Minority Leader due to association with Dunleavy’s budget, which may push the race in Snyder’s favor. Additionally, Snyder has outraised Pruitt, putting her in a strong position for the next few weeks.
In the northeastern parts of Anchorage is the 15th district, which is an open seat. This seat is currently held by Gabrielle LeDoux, who, as mentioned above, is a former coalition member. LeDoux suffered a landslide defeat in her primary as a result of electoral fraud allegations. Her primary challenger, David Nelson, will be going up against Democrat Lyn Franks. The district is Republican leaning, at Trump+14.0, although Mark Begich, the Democratic nominee for Governor, won it in 2018. Franks leads narrowly in fundraising, but it will be an uphill climb to flip the seat.
Finally, going north to Fairbanks, Democrats recently started targeting the 1st district. This is the seat that coalition member Bart LeBon currently holds. As mentioned above, LeBon has been actively campaigning for a Republican majority, and given the opportunity, it’s apparent that he would side with Republicans next year. Christopher Quist is the Democratic nominee challenging LeBon. LeBon has fundraising, partisan lean (Trump+9.1), and an independent record on his side. However, he only won by a single vote in 2018 and he may have sparked anger by abandoning the coalition.
Also in Anchorage are a few more seats that Democrats could target. While Kopp and Johnson’s seats staying red this year is looking likely, it’s not a certainty. Both the 24th and 28th districts are light red and have credible Democratic nominees running. Additionally, the 22nd district, which Republican Sara Rasmussen won in 2018 after the independent incumbent split the vote with the Democratic nominee, is a realistic target for Democrats. Independent Stephen Trimble is running and could have a shot in a seat with a history of electing Independents.
On the Republican side, targets are very scarce. Essentially the only two seats that Republicans have any chance of flipping are the 4th and 5th in Fairbanks. Democratic incumbents hold both seats, who won their 2018 races by single digits. The 4th is Clinton+1.0 and the 5th is Trump+6.3. The 5th is probably a better target for Republicans due to partisan lean and fundraising. However, the incumbent Democrats are clearly favored in both districts, hence me not listing them as ‘highly competitive’ like I usually do.
An alternative strategy would be to target the 36th district in Ketchican. Held by Independent Dan Ortiz, the district is very Republican at Trump+21.4, but Ortiz has generally won by fairly large margins historically. However this year Republicans have a strong candidate with strong fundraising numbers, Leslie Becker. Becker could cut into Ortiz’s margins, but it is difficult to see her winning at this point.
Other than these three seats, there is little room for Republicans to grow. There are two other Democratic held seats won by President Trump, the 23rd and 35th districts. However, most consider incumbents Chris Tuck and Jonathan Kriess-Tomkins to be strong candidates, and therefore safe for re-election.
Path to victory
When I wrote the first draft this article, the news regarding LeBon and Thompson abandoning the coalition had not yet come out. I had a whole article ready explaining how the coalition were in a good position to keep the majority. I was ready for the possibility of changing alliances, as happens frequently in Alaska. But I didn’t expect it to happen so soon.
With the dynamics of these elections completely flipped in their head, Democrats will likely need to pick up some seats. If they pick up three seats, that would bring Democrats and Independents to 20 of40 seats, or a tie. In this event, the majority would likely come down to Louise Stutes. While she held the fundraiser, she has not committed to joining a Republican caucus and has been with the coalition since its inception in 2016. In the case of a tie, I’m inclined to believe she would go back to the coalition to break the deadlock.
Therefore I believe that the path to the majority for Democrats would be to pick up three of the four seats listed above. But I’d be remiss not to warn of the complexity of Alaskan politics. Allegiances of members are fickle and ever changing, and may be even more so with the possible abolition of partisan primaries. So the apparent result in November may not be the result in January, when members take their seats. I’d advise looking carefully at the actions of lawmakers following the elections.
The Alaska House of Representatives: What’s at Stake
Efforts to recall Mike Dunleavy are underway in the state of Alaska over his budget, and organizations are doing everything they can to get it on the ballot in 2021. But before that point, if it ever comes, Dunleavy will still be Governor, and he will most likely be trying as hard as ever to pass his budget cuts. If a Democratic-led majority remains in power in the House, this would be a big detriment to those goals. If Republicans gain a majority, they will be much more likely to pass these cuts into law, which would likely deeply affect the education and healthcare of Alaskans.
Alaska is in many ways a unique state, and its politics are extremely fascinating. I’ve really enjoyed doing the research for this article, and I encourage you to find out more. Several of our contributors have written about the state, so be sure to check them out here. As ever, make sure to keep an eye out for future developments in these elections.
If you want to check out fundraising data for these races, they are available here.
Next week I’ll be looking at elections in both chambers of the North Carolina legislature, and there will be a lot to look at. Be sure to look out for one, if not two, articles on the state. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave a comment, email me, or send me a direct message on Twitter.