In recent weeks, Alaska has received more media attention than normal. The drama of the Alaska House, where a majority-Democratic coalition holds power despite a nominal Republican edge, has both bemused and confounded the nation. From the outside looking in, the coalition politics of The Last Frontier more resemble those of Italy than any American state. But coalitions aren’t new in Alaska.
Senate Coalition (2006-12)
The most recent run of Alaska coalition politics began in 2006. Following the 2006 elections, the incoming Senate was to be comprised of 11 Republicans and nine Democrats. In a coup, Wasilla Republican Lyda Green and four other Republicans opted to form a coalition with the Democrats. Green was named Senate President. Within a month, an additional Republican joined the coalition, bringing them to 15 members.
Much to the chagrin of the other Republicans, the coalition managed to hold firm through two more cycles – Democrats had gained a seat in the 2008 elections and then held it in 2010, making a coalition a necessity. Governor Sean Parnell and other Republicans argued the coalition was obstructing their legislative priorities. The Senate had stopped Parnell’s plans for an adjustment of the state’s oil tax laws, despite support from the House. However, with redistricting on the horizon, Republicans saw an opening in 2012.
First, the Tea Party targeted coalition members for primaries. Linda Menard, a Republican from Matanuska-Susitna Borough, was defeated by Mike Dunleavy, while Kenai Republican Tom Wagoner was unseated by Soldotna Mayor Peter Micciche. Other coalition members were double-bunked against each other. When the dust had settled, Republicans had secured a 13-7 majority and had successfully beaten back the coalition. Even better, one Democrat – Dennis Egan of Juneau – agreed to coalition with the Republican majority, with an additional Democrat (Lyman Hoffman of Bethel) joining in 2014. In the opening months of the 2013 legislative session, Parnell’s oil tax reforms were passed.
The Interregnum (2013-16)
With the Senate coalition defeated, Republicans now held a trifecta in Alaska for the first time since late 2006. That changed when Independent Bill Walker managed to unseat Parnell by a narrow margin in the 2014 gubernatorial race. Walker’s campaign was supported by most statewide Democrats but also gained support from some Republicans. Most notably, former Governor Sarah Palin, upset that Parnell had repealed her signature oil tax, prominently endorsed Walker. The ensuing budget shortfall, combined with a scandal revolving around Parnell’s handling of sexual assault allegations at the National Guard, helped Walker secure a 6,000 vote victory.
Despite the change of guard at Governor, Republicans held firm legislative majorities. In the Senate, the Republican caucus had a 15-5 advantage, while in the House they had a 30-10. Two Democratic Senators and four Democratic Representatives contributed to these legislative supermajorities. Walker immediately faced a budget crisis; faced with the choice between raising taxes or cutting spending, Walker opted to instead slash the Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD) in half. The dividend is paid annually to eligible Alaskans based on oil revenues; predictably, this move outraged voters and tanked Walker’s approval ratings and chances at re-election. The wounded Governor hobbled his way through the remainder of the term, but the budget crisis he inherited would have even greater impacts.
The House Coalition (2017-present)
The budget crisis also led to a crisis in leadership, dividing moderate Republicans from conservatives. After the 2014 election returned a House with 21 Republicans, 17 Democrats, and two independents, three moderate Republicans (Gabrielle LeDoux, Paul Seton, and Louise Stutes) defected and formed a coalition with the Democrats. Bryce Edgmon, a Democrat from Dillingham who had previously caucused with the Republicans, became the House Speaker. They united around a fiscal plan that would have cut spending, cut the PFD, and raised taxes. The Senate, meanwhile, remained as firmly Republican as before. Combined with Walker as Governor, this resulted in a deeply divided legislature left to hash out a major fiscal crisis.
Republicans gained two seats in the 2018 midterms and flipped the Governor’s mansion with Dunleavy. The coalition appeared done; Seaton, who had opted to run as an independent, was soundly defeated in his re-election bid, Republican Sara Rasmussen had defeated independent coalition member Jason Grenn in the Anchorage-based HD-22, and Fairbanks Republican Bart LeBon had flipped HD-01 by a single vote.
Instead, the infighting began. Republicans had initially claimed they were ready to organize a majority immediately after the election, with Dave Talcerio of Denali set to become Speaker. But when the legislative session began, deadlock had ensued. For a record 30 days, the legislature remained unable to elect a Speaker. Three Republicans (LeDoux, Stutes, and Gary Knopp of Kodiak) sided with the coalition on every vote, leading to a 20-20 deadlock. A Speaker was only elected after Edgmon changed his affiliation to an independent. Shortly thereafter, he was elected in a 21-18 vote, with Anchorage Republicans Jennifer Johnston and Chuck Kopp providing the deciding votes. The new coalition would ultimately grow to add a total of eight Republicans, giving it a decisive 25-15 majority.
The coalition immediately met Dunleavy’s budget with opposition. Dunleavy had run on restoring the full PFD without tax hikes. This would be paid for by massive spending cuts; major cuts were planned for, among other things, the University of Alaska and the Alaska Marine Highway system. Even some members of the Senate, like Senate President Cathy Giessel, were critical. The legislature passed its own spending plan, but Dunleavy used his line-item veto to slash $440 million in spending.
The Incredible Shrinking Coalition
Over the remainder of the session, the coalition shrank and shrank. LeDeoux was kicked out in May, but wasn’t welcomed back to the minority Republican caucus. Tammie Wilson of Fairbanks left in July; she later resigned and was replaced by an anti-coalition Republican. Later that month, Knopp was tragically killed in a plane crash. Primaries in August resulted in the defeat of coalition members Johnston and Kopp, as well as LeDeoux. In the Senate, Giessel was resoundingly defeated in her primary. By October, coalition Republicans LeBon and Steve Thompson both expressed their desire for a Republican majority in the next session. Stutes would later join the two in a fundraiser for a Republican majority.
For those keeping count – this meant all of the Republican coalition members had either left the coalition, lost a primary, died, or signaled their support for a Republican majority. While the Republicans lost two members in the November election (one losing to independent Calvin Shrage, the other to Democrat Liz Snyder), Democrats had also lost ground – HD40 was narrowly flipped by Independent Josiah Patkotak. This left the legislature with 21 Republicans, 15 Democrats, and four independents.
Republicans were dealt an immediate setback when Stutes announced her intention to caucus with the Democratic-led coalition. With Democrats and independents united in their desire for a tripartisan coalition, this left the legislature deadlocked at 20-20 for a second term in a row. 28 days would pass before a Speaker was elected. In a surprise, conservative Eagle River Republican Kelly Merrick crossed party lines. First, she voted for Stutes as Speaker and said she wasn’t joining the Democratic-led coalition. Then, a few days later, she made it official.
As of February 15, the coalition now had 21 members – enough to organize and do business, but not enough to be safe. In a recent town hall meeting, Merrick said that attempts were made to sway other Republicans to join, with Stutes and Merrick offering chairmanship of the Rules Committee to four of the most conservative House members. All refused, and the role was ultimately given to Edgmon. Chugiak Republican Ken McCarty said he was offered chairmanship of the Health and Social Services Committee (HSS) if he joined the coalition, but he declined to do so.
On February 15th, Rasmussen announced she was also leaving the Republican caucus but also wouldn’t join the coalition. Her move earned her a seat on the House Finance Committee, an important spot for the fiscally conservative Rasmussen. The very next day, another defection happened – this time from the coalition. In a letter, Anchorage Democrat Geran Tarr cited the coalition handing “crucial leadership roles” to Representatives who threatened to join the Republicans. In all likelihood, she was referring to Patkotak, who was awarded sole chairmanship of the House Resources Committee. Tarr had previously been co-chair of this committee. This left the coalition at only 20 members – not the majority needed to organize.
Both Rasmussen and Tarr voted to organize the House under the lines the coalition had drafted. However, the coalition remains tenuous at best. In a 40-member body, 20 is not enough to pass anything. In effect, Stutes now heads a minority government, reliant on either Rasmussen, Tarr, or members of the Republican minority for support on key votes. Stutes might be in a relatively safe position as Speaker, but no other Republicans seem interested in joining the coalition. This leaves overall control of the House at a razor-thin level.
Where Things Might Go From Here
Further complicating things are two factors. The first are the state legislative lines. The current map is somewhat favorable to Democrats; Joe Biden won 19 of 40 seats, and three Trump seats were decided by under 1.5%. On the Democratic side, six seats were decided by under 3.5%. Even without a redraw, a red wave year could flip many of those. But it is also quite possible that, like in the Senate last decade, a redraw could result in Republican gains.
Second and more important is the new four-way ranked-choice voting system. Under this system, the top four candidates in a blanket primary advance to a general election decided by ranked-choice voting. In a typical Alaska race, this would likely result in two Republicans, one Democrat, and a fourth candidate from a minor party making the general. Coalition allies are hoping this will result in 1v1 matchups between coalition Republicans and conservatives, allowing coalition members to survive where they might have previously failed to clear a primary.
This isn’t a ludicrous idea. In theory, Merrick could make it to the runoff with as little as 30-35% of Republican support, provided somewhere around 20% of Democrats first-preference her. If Merrick were to make the top two, she would likely be favored over a conservative challenger. The problem with this concept comes from the lack of success similar moderating measures have shown in other states.
In California, Republican voters have either sat out or voted for the more liberal candidate in 2016 and 2018’s all-Democratic Senate races. While these races were not held under ranked-choice voting, it’s a dangerous sign for advocates of moderation. Democratic voters may well opt not to first-preference, or even preference at all, a pro-life Republican like Merrick, even if control of the House may depend on it.
A recall campaign against Dunleavy is ongoing, but regularly-scheduled elections are set for 2022. While nothing is quite predictable in Alaska, it might actually be harder for Democrats to unseat him now as compared to before RCV passed, as their traditional path of a plurality win is now virtually impossible. Additionally, the budget still hasn’t been resolved – although liberal hopes for an income tax appear to be dead. Not only does Rasmussen oppose it, Finance co-chair Merrick has said she will use her power to stop it.
All eyes will be set on both redistricting and the intra-party Republican fight sure to come. Regardless of if the coalition holds on, this likely isn’t the last time that Alaskan politics will confound the expectations of those in the lower 48. The wild, chaotic coalition politics of Alaska will be hard to fully extinguish.