What is an ‘independent’ candidate this election?

I voted sticker
Secrecy folders for ballots and “I Voted” stickers at a polling place in the State Office Building for early and absentee voting, Aug. 15, 2016. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

If you’ve felt like there are a lot more candidates in this year’s state elections running as independents, you are not alone.

Races up and down the ticket in Alaska have candidates dropping party affiliations all together. And, of course, Gov. Bill Walker ran and won as an independent after dropping his Republican affiliation.

But is this an ideological shift, or just a new form of political calculus?

House District 22 in southwest Anchorage is heavily Republican, but it could quite feasibly elect an independent representative next week, political newcomer Jason Grenn.

“I literally did not know where the Division of Elections was,” Grenn said by phone.

Up until a few months ago, the 35-year-old was a registered Republican all of his adult life. His wife is still registered with the party. But after feeling like the state GOP drifted further to the right of his moderate beliefs, and hearing frustrations about the district’s incumbent, Grenn decided on a last minute run over a phone call with his wife.

“We decided it was OK,” Grenn said. “The timing in our life was good, and the timing for our state was good.”

The good timing Grenn is referring to concerns what he sees as the state’s biggest single issue: the need to secure a comprehensive budget solution amid the state’s economic crisis. It’s a topic he was loosely involved with even before his candidacy.

But there may be another timing advantage, too. Grenn is part of a trend this election cycle of strong independent candidates for office. He’s one of three running as independents in Anchorage. In southeast’s District 36, Dan Ortiz is running to keep his spot as an independent in the statehouse. In the U.S. Senate race, independent Margaret Stock trails well behind incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, but has pulled in $627,404 so far in campaign funds, the majority of it from individual donations.

As he’s door-knocked in the district, Grenn said his nonaffiliated status has helped him connect with voters on issues, rather than getting stonewalled or pigeonholed once he mentions a party.

It’s an optimistic and bipartisan vision that Grenn’s opponent, incumbent Republican Liz Vazquez, doesn’t find plausible.

“He’s really a Trojan horse, because he hasn’t really exposed what he really thinks and how he thinks,” Vazquez said by phone.

She sees independents like Grenn as merely Democrats going by another name, a claim often leveled against Ortiz and Anchorage Senate District L candidate Vince Beltrami, head of the state’s largest labor union.

Vazquez points to Grenn’s prominent liberal donors, including many public employees and union groups, as well. Grenn also got $7,584 in donations from Together for Alaska, a political action committee made up of labor interests that’s poured $174,600 into this election, including a recent $25,000 donation from attorney Robin Brena, who purchased Gov. Walker’s law firm. Together for Alaska also spent $2,285 on materials opposing Vazquez.

Vazquez believes that after Walker’s victory as an independent, his allies are trying to replicate the successful model by backing other independents they think will help advance a similar agenda.

“It did work for the governor, he did run as a quote ‘independent,’ although there’s a lot of buyer’s remorse on that,” Vazquez said. “People are now seeing (him) for what he really is, and he’s not as independent as he claimed.”

Vazquez and leaders of the Alaska Republican Party see the independent push as having two components. The first is political opportunism by Democrats hoping to break apart Republican control in the legislature. Alaska GOP Chairman  Tuckerman Babcock said state Democrats are passively supporting the independents by pulling or not running candidates of their own in some races, including district 22, where Ed Cullinane dropped out after winning the Democratic primary.

Less passively, liberal donors are making individual contributions to independents like Grenn, who’s own politics are more center-right than the state Democratic Party’s platform.

“There are some strange bedfellows,” Babcock said.

“I think there are two paths,” he added. “The Democrats themselves have not been in the majority for decades, and they very much would like to be, to advance Democratic policies.”

The second path, as the GOP sees it, is an effort by Walker and his political allies outside the party system, to address the budget crisis with their particular fiscal strategy. Babcock sees this year’s cluster of independent partisans running for state seats as loosely united on an economic platform that includes an income tax, cuts to the dividend, increased oil taxes, and minimal cuts to state government. It’s an alliance he thinks will be only temporary.

“It’s definitely a flash in the pan, and it’s a unique set of circumstances that have come up,” Babcock said.

But that doesn’t account for why independent candidates are getting traction among voters in districts with Republican incumbents. Or why, unlike the third candidate in the District 22 race, independent Dustin Darden, funders and PAC groups have stepped in with a lot of cash.

Taylor Bickford has worked as a Republican political consultant, though he’s not involved with any campaigns this cycle. Speaking recently on the Midnight Sun podcast, he said that part of the reason independents like Grenn are politically viable now is dissatisfaction with how Republicans have governed in the legislature.

“I think that incumbents are unpopular everywhere,” Bickford said, speaking about the District 22 race.

“I think Republican incumbents are especially unpopular everywhere in the state, and I think that in some way it has less to do with (Grenn) and his campaign than it has to do with just the simple math and structural advantage you have running as an independent against a Republican without a Democrat on the ballot,” Bickford continued.

And that dissatisfaction isn’t exclusive to the legislature. With low favorability ratings across the country for the two major party candidates running for president, Bickford and others believe there could be a down-ballot boost for anyone without a D or and R next to his or her name.

Alaska Public Media

Alaska Public Media is our partner station in Anchorage. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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