Ahead of primary, House ‘Musk Ox’ incumbents counter bipartisan chatter

(Illustration by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO with modified Creative Commons images by Ronald Woan and Wellcome Images and background photo by Skip Gray/360 North)
(Illustration by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO with modified Creative Commons images by Ronald Woan and Wellcome Images and background photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Republican primary challengers in some races for seats in the Alaska House of Representatives fear that Republican control is threatened by members of their own party.

It’s important for majority-caucus Republicans to maintain party discipline, the challengers said, but some lawmakers said focusing on constituents’ needs can conflict with the party line.

There are two groups talking about the possibility of a bipartisan coalition: primary challengers who don’t want it to happen and Democrats who do.

The one group that isn’t raising the idea is the so-called “Musk Ox Caucus,” a group of six Republicans and Democrats who opposed using Permanent Fund earnings to pay for the budget last year, and advocated for cutting oil and gas tax credits this year.

Two Musk Ox incumbents are facing Republican primary challengers. George Rauscher of Palmer is challenging Rep. Jim Colver. Homer Mayor Beth Wythe is challenging Rep. Paul Seaton.

Both challengers say they’re concerned about incumbents switching from the Republican-led House majority to a bipartisan coalition.

Republicans haven’t been able to count on Seaton to support party-backed positions, Wythe said.

“I am concerned that if a person is running under a party affiliation, they should at least represent the values of the party they’re aligned with,” she said.

Another candidate opposing Seaton, John Cox of Homer, also opposes having a bipartisan coalition, although he said he isn’t focusing on the issue.

“A bipartisan coalition of course would wind up wanting to implement taxes – that’s not what we need,” Cox said. “We need tax cuts.”

It’s way too soon to talk about a bipartisan coalition, Seaton said. He hasn’t been in any discussions to form one.

Lawmakers should put their constituents’ interests first, he said. But he also noted that he usually votes with his party. He voted the same way as House Speaker Mike Chenault on all but four of 115 bills that passed the past two years, he said.

“You have to take an independent review of each of the bills that you have before you and make a decision based on … what the constitution is, and what your basic philosophy is and what … your constituents tell you,” Seaton said.

The House majority currently has 22 Republicans and four Democrats, while the minority has 12 Democrats and an independent.

Eagle River Republican Rep. Lora Reinbold doesn’t belong to either caucus.

While Colver may not always vote with party leadership, he said he wants to stay in the Republican-led caucus.

“I have no plans and, no, I’m not going to join a bipartisan coalition,” Colver said.

Colver first described the group of lawmakers as Musk Ox last year, when he and five others opposed a move by majority caucus leaders to use Permanent Fund earnings to pay for the budget, without negotiating a budget with the minority caucus.

The nickname refers to how the animals form a circle for protection, and Colver said they were protecting the Permanent Fund. They gathered again this year to seek cuts to oil and gas tax credits.

Colver said corporations are behind accusations of disloyalty. The Accountability Project is an Alaska group that’s putting money into efforts to defeat Colver and Seaton. The Alaska Dispatch News reported that the Accountability Project is funded by the Washington, D.C.,-based Republican State Leadership Committee, which receives donations from corporations.

“The accusation that I’m going to organize with anyone other than the House Republican majority — that’s just a false and misleading cover-up for this mischief to bring in this tons of corporate cash from Outside,” Colver said.

Colver opponent Rauscher and many other Republicans are concerned about a bipartisan coalition. If one formed, then it would have a small majority and would likely be ineffective, he said.

“It could be an obstructionist coalition, more than it would help,” Rauscher said.

One of the Accountability Project-funded groups is named Conservatives for George Rauscher. Rauscher said that while he knows leaders of the group, he isn’t coordinating his campaign with it.

Talk about a bipartisan coalition isn’t confined to races with incumbents.

Republican Rep. Shelley Hughes of Palmer is leaving her seat to run for Senate. One of her possible successors, Richard Best, said he’s concerned his opponent, Palmer Mayor DeLena Johnson, would join a bipartisan coalition.

“I actually have great fears of that,” he said. “I’ve been on Palmer City Council for 11 years and six of those have been with my opponent, and to nail down a position sometimes is kind of difficult.”

Johnson plans to join a Republican-led majority, and not a bipartisan coalition, she said. She added that she often can’t figure out where Best stands.

“To me, it’s just obvious what I would be doing,” she said. “I’d be working for my constituents. I’m a Republican. They’re going to elect me as a Republican, and I’ll work with the Republican leadership to, you know, to try to solve the problems that we have before us.”

Legislative caucuses won’t formally organize themselves until after the Nov. 8 general election.

The primary elections are Aug. 16.

Andrew Kitchenman

State Government Reporter, Alaska Public Media & KTOO

State government plays an outsized role in the life of Alaskans. As the state continues to go through the painful process of deciding what its priorities are, I bring Alaskans to the scene of a government in transition.

Like what you just read? KTOO news stories are member supported. Support your community news source today. Donate to KTOO.
Site notifications
Update notification options
Subscribe to notifications