After weeks of debate and deadlock, Alaska’s House of Representatives finally has its majority. On February 11, Representative Kelly Merrick (R-HD14) broke a stalemate between the 20-member Republican caucus and the 20-member coalition of 15 Democrats, four independents, and Republican Louise Stutes by voting for Stutes for Speaker.
At the time, she insisted she had not joined the Democratic-led coalition and had only voted to make a Republican the Speaker. However, earlier today it was announced that she had joined the coalition, giving them an exceedingly narrow 21-member majority. Alaska will now enter its fifth-straight year with a Democratic-led coalition running the House. However, Merrick’s political future may well be on thin ice.
House District 14
House District 14 is a solidly conservative district. Out of the 40 House districts in Alaska, it ranked as the 13th-most conservative in the state in the 2020 presidential election. While former President Donald Trump won the state by 10 percentage points, he won HD14 by an impressive 21 percentage points – a 58-37 margin. Even in the narrow 2014 victory of Democratic-backed-independent Bill Walker, the state went Republican by a decisive 16-point margin.
The district is rooted in the Anchorage area, a traditional bastion of Republican strength and conservatism. As one would expect, Kelly Merrick, a Republican first elected to the seat in 2018, has cruised to victory in both of her elections.
With the exception of labor issues, where she has been supportive of unions, Merrick voted roughly in line with her fellow Republican caucus members. She received a grade of 75% from the American Conservative Union in 2019, tying her the 10th-most conservative member of the body. Her grade was above-average for a Republican in the body as a whole, and roughly where one would expect a representative from the district to lie.
As a fairly average Republican and a representative of a suburban, conservative district, Kelly Merrick is an odd addition to the Democratic-led coalition. The coalition has defined itself by its opposition to Governor Mike Dunleavy’s spending cuts and a strong focus on rural issues like ferry access.
The only other Republican coalition member, Louise Stutes, represents House District 34, a rural, coastal seat based in Kodiak Island. Merrick appears set to co-chair the House Finance Committee with Independent Bryce Edgmon, who served as Speaker in the last House term. She has expressed a desire for other Republicans to join the coalition and for Republicans to chair a number of committees.
The Shadow of 2020
However, attempts to bring over other members seem to be going poorly. This might be due to the primary losses of three Republicans in the last cycle: Gabrielle LeDoux (HD15), Jennifer Johnston (HD28), and Chuck Kopp (HD24). Two of these Representatives, (LeDoux and Johnston), were from Anchorage in far less conservative seats. In 2020, Trump won HD15 by under a percentage point, and he actually lost HD28 by a similar margin. Coalition members (and former members) from Fairbanks survived primary challenges; Stutes ran unopposed.
Going forward, then, the prospects seem grim for Kelly Merrick. A glimmer of hope lies in Alaska’s new four-way ranked-choice-voting system. All candidates will run in a blanket primary, with the top four advancing to the general. The winner would then be chosen in that election by ranked-choice voting. In theory, this system could help coalition members like Merrick by allowing Democrats to distribute their votes to her. The problem lies in her seat’s partisanship; if it looks anything close to what it does right now following redistricting, strategic ballot referencing by Democrats probably won’t be enough to save her.