After a first round of vote-counting in Alaska’s primary election Tuesday, an array of incumbent Republican legislators fell behind their hard-line conservative challengers — and in some cases, very far behind.
There are still tens of thousands of absentee votes to be counted, and some of the races could flip. But political observers said the early results still carry some lessons about the Alaska Republican Party and the Permanent Fund dividend.
Election Night was still sinking in Wednesday for surprise leaders like Stephen Duplantis, a conservative Anchorage Republican who’s leading incumbent GOP state Sen. Natasha von Imhof by 85 votes.
In a phone interview, Duplantis said he hadn’t planned to watch the results come in and instead learned about them from his wife.
“I was just sitting down playing guitar and singing. And all of a sudden she said, ‘You’re tied.’ I just looked at her and I was like, ‘What?’” he said.
Von Imhof is co-chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee and part of the well-connected Rasmuson family. She raised some $110,000 for her campaign, though she’d spent only about $13,000 through a week before the primary, according to her financial reports.
Duplantis raised less than $2,000. He’s a pastor currently unemployed because of the pandemic, and his campaign mostly consisted of unpaid social media posts and periodic sign-waving around Anchorage, he said.
“It wasn’t anything I did, at all,” he said. “If it was up to me, I’d done screwed it all up anyway, and I’d be back to whatever I’d be doing before — waiting for my job to come back online so I could get back to work.”
Some of Duplantis’ ideas are outside the mainstream: He said he’s still not totally convinced that the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer actually happened, in spite of the national media coverage.
But a core plank in his campaign platform has been accepted by a big faction of the Alaska Republican Party, along with Gov. Mike Dunleavy: paying a much larger Permanent Fund dividend based on a decades-old formula set by the Legislature.
Duplantis, along with several other GOP candidates who did well Tuesday night, support paying as much as $7,000 to each eligible Alaskan. That represents what they call a “full” dividend, plus the amounts that lawmakers have cut from the payments over the past few years.
“We’re surviving off of my wife’s disability income from the V.A., and we’re hurting,” Duplantis said. “So, why isn’t the state helping? The PFD was always there for a rainy day, and guess what: it’s freakin’ storming. Why aren’t we getting any of it? And I think people see that.”
Duplantis and other Republican challengers focused their campaigns on the larger dividend payments — not on the deep budget cuts that would almost certainly have to come with them, given Alaska’s precarious financial position.
This year’s state budget already has a $1 billion deficit, which would drain about two-thirds of the $1.5 billion in Alaska’s primary savings account.
That’s with a dividend of $992, or about one-third of the size of the annual payment pushed by candidates like Duplantis. Paying the “full” dividend would cost the state roughly $1 billion more, and that doesn’t even account for the added expense of paying residents back for the reduced dividends from previous years.
Duplantis said he couldn’t answer a question about whether the larger dividends would force sharp cuts to core state programs like public schools and the Medicaid health-care program for poor and disabled Alaskans — as the Legislature’s own budget analysts suggest.
“I don’t know, because I’m not there,” Duplantis said. “I don’t see the numbers.”
Duplantis’ opponent, von Imhof, didn’t return phone messages Wednesday. But she and other incumbent members of the Senate’s Republican majority have opposed a larger dividend.
“I’ve got to tell you, it’s pretty easy to say, ‘I’ll give you a full dividend if you vote for me, no matter what the consequence. We can deal with the consequence,’” said North Pole GOP Sen. John Coghill, who’s narrowly trailing challenger Robb Myers. “And then you get me coming along and saying, ‘We don’t want to have that consequence. So let’s clip the dividend, clip government and manage them both.’ Well, that just did not resonate.”
Coghill comes from a longtime Republican family and considers himself a fiscal conservative. But for the past two years, he and a number of the other incumbent Republicans who fared poorly Tuesday night have aligned with Democrats in fighting deep budget cuts pushed by the governor and GOP activists.
“There is a kind of a talk radio sphere that has been saying to people for years, ‘This is not the government’s money, it’s your money,’” Coghill said in a phone interview Wednesday. “But what they fail to say is, ‘That’s all through your schools, your roads, your public buildings, libraries. It’s all yours, it’s just not yours personally.’”
Dunleavy’s allies celebrated Tuesday’s outcome. Tuckerman Babcock, the governor’s former chief of staff and a former chair of the Alaska Republican Party, said in a text messages that primary voters “sent a clear message to many powerful Republican members of the Legislature who opposed the governor.”
That includes Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, who was trailing challenger Roger Holland by a huge margin.
“An unprecedented and sweeping rebuke to Sen. Cathy Giessel and her leadership team in the Senate,” Babcock said, referring to the results. “A devastating and clear rebuke to those Republicans who abandoned their fellow Republicans and joined the Democrats.
In addition to a larger PFD, another common campaign theme among the successful Republican challengers was their opposition to an arcane legislative rule.
For years, the presiding majorities in both the House and Senate have agreed to be what’s called a binding caucus; that’s where members have to vote with leadership on the state budget and procedural questions.
Conservative Republicans, led by Wasilla state Sen. Mike Shower, oppose the binding caucus and campaigned against it, saying that it’s forced some GOP lawmakers to accept smaller spending cuts than the ones their constituents want.
“Honestly, if I had signed on to the Binding Caucus, the voters in my district would have roasted me alive, and with good reason,” conservative Wasilla Rep. David Eastman wrote in a blog post last month. “Binding caucuses serve one function: to ‘bind’ legislators into voting against conscience and against those they were elected to represent.”
But others say that the binding caucus is a necessary tool to ensure that the budget process doesn’t devolve into chaos, and that governing without it could be next to impossible — particularly when the state can’t afford a large capital budget with local construction projects that can help bring skeptical lawmakers on board.
“I will look forward to watching them trying to negotiate getting out of Juneau with no binding caucus and no capital budget,” said Joelle Hall, the operations director at the Alaska AFL-CIO, a labor group that backed several of the incumbent Republicans trailing after Tuesday’s vote count. She added: “Be careful what you wish for — you just might get it. Because they will not be able to get out of the building.”
Hall, in a phone interview, still wasn’t ready to accept that the strong showing from conservatives Tuesday would necessarily push the Legislature in a more conservative direction.
Primaries tend to favor candidates at the extremes, and some of the winning Republicans may have a harder time beating Democrats or independents in the general election, Hall noted.
The primary results, she said, seemed like “the Republican Party punishing people for working together.”
“The question is: Is that a feeling shared by the majority of Alaskans? Do Alaskans punish people for working together? I’m actually not sure that’s how Alaskans feel,” Hall added.
If conservatives do end up adding seats in the Legislature after the November general election, even Republicans acknowledged that the party is internally divided enough that it could have trouble organizing GOP majorities in both chambers. That happened two years ago in the House, where a preliminary Republican majority collapsed after the 2018 election and was replaced by a mostly-Democratic coalition.
The rejection of the binding caucus by some of Tuesday’s successful Republican candidates could add to the challenge.
“We’ve got some different players that would like to be speaker and would like to be Senate president. And we’re not going to have a lot of agreement about those. So it’s a little early to be measuring the curtains,” said Suzanne Downing, who runs the conservative political blog Must Read Alaska. “The Republican House and the Republican Senate will have a very difficult time organizing, and it’s going to be a lot of hard discussions between now and January.”