Alaska Senate could see flip to coalition control if Republicans remain divided after election

The Alaska State Capitol doors have required key cards to unlock throughout the 2021 legislative session, June 16, 2021. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and Alaska Public Media)
The Alaska State Capitol doors have required key cards to unlock throughout the 2021 legislative session, June 16, 2021. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and Alaska Public Media)

The makeup of the next Alaska Legislature is as uncertain as ever, after redistricting and with nearly every seat up for election.

In both chambers, political observers are wondering if enough like-minded Republicans will get elected to form a majority, or if there will be coalition majorities of moderate Republicans, Democrats and independents.

It’s been that kind of coalition in the House that in recent years has bucked parts of Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s agenda.

With Republicans showing divisions in the state Senate, there’s speculation that a coalition majority could form there as well.

At least that’s what Alaska Beacon reporter James Brooks tells us. Brooks points to the state Senate’s recent history.

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

James Brooks: Well, over the last few years, we’ve seen senators, Republican senators, really split over the budget and the size of the Permanent Fund dividend. And for the past few years, in fact, the only reason the Senate has been able to pass a budget is with Democratic votes. You had Republican senators voting against the budget written by other Republican senators, and that budget only passing the Senate because Democrats were willing to jump on board. Even though it hasn’t been officially a coalition majority, it’s been one in practice, in terms of the budget.

Casey Grove: Yeah. That, at least with the budget, seems like it looks a lot like a coalition.

JB: Yeah. And so now, there’s a greater thought that there could be an official coalition, as there was in the early 2000s.

CG: So before we talk about, you know, kind of what the potential makeup is there, what what races are you watching the closest?

JB: So there’s four, of the 19 that are on the ballot this year in the Senate, that I think are going to go a long way to determining whether the Senate stays in a solidly Republican majority or a coalition majority. In Fairbanks, where you have Democratic incumbent Scott Kawasaki being challenged by former Fairbanks Mayor Jim Matherly, that’s an important race. In west Anchorage, Democratic Rep. Matt Claman is challenging incumbent Republican Sen. Mia Costello. In Eagle River, you have a race between two Republicans, Kelly Merrick and Ken McCarty, both Republican representatives. Merrick was a member of the House’s coalition majority. She hasn’t said officially that she would join a Senate coalition, but she’s repeatedly said that it’s important for voters in Eagle River to pick somebody who can work in a bipartisan way.

And I’ve heard that language used by a few other Republican senators as perhaps hinting that they’d be willing to join a coalition. One of the Republicans who’s used that language is Cathy Giessel in south Anchorage. If you recall, she was Senate president until she was defeated by another Republican, Roger Holland, who’s now in an incumbent trying to defend his seat against Giessel and a Democratic candidate. That’s another race I’m keeping my eye on. And to a lesser degree, there’s a Mat-Su race between incumbent Mike Shower and challenger Doug Massie, that could be interesting. I’m not certain that Massie would be interested in joining a coalition majority, but Shower has in many ways been a strong conservative voice in the Senate. But in the primary, Massie got many more votes than Shower. And I don’t know whether that was just a factor of redistricting or what, but it caught my attention, and I’m interested in that race.

CG: And speaking of the primary, it’s just the primary and not, you know, maybe as many voters go to primaries as they do general elections, but it is a pretty good snapshot. It’s a pretty big poll, you know, sample size. The races that you just mentioned, how close were those in the in the primary?

JB: Yeah, and how I tend to think of it is that there’s a lot of weathervanes that we can look to when trying to figure out which way the wind’s blowing. In the general election, the primary result is one of those weathervanes. The demographics of the district are another weathervane. Does that district lean Republican? Does it lean Democratic? What are the fundraising totals? Is one candidate raising a lot more money than another candidate, which allows them to buy more ads get their name out? All that. I tend to think of each of those as pointers in one direction or the other. A weathervane could point in the opposite direction of the other ones, but if a lot of them are pointing in the same direction, that’s how I look at close, what I consider close, races or not. And in these four or five, if you want to include shower and Massie, the primary election results indicated close results in the general election. Now, that could be a false indication if a lot more voters or different voters show up next week than we saw in August. But it’s one weathervane pointing towards closer races.

CG: Right. As they say, that’s why you play the game. To find out…

JB: Exactly.

CG: And with the uncertainty there, we really don’t know what the makeup of the state Senate is going to be. I mean, we can talk about whether there may be a coalition majority or not, but this is all pretty far down the road, right? At this point?

JB: Right. And we won’t know on (Nov. 8). We won’t know that night or on Wednesday morning, when you wake up. You shouldn’t expect solid results, because it’s going to take 15 days for the last of the ballots to arrive from overseas. It always does. We have 15 days for absentee ballots to come in and to be counted even without ranked choice voting. And then, on the 23rd, the races with at least three or more candidates go through the ranked choice results. So we’ll get results at that point. There could be court challenges in some of these races, usually there’s one or two in the House. There’s already two court challenges, one against Rep. David Eastman that won’t be resolved until December. There’s potentially another west Anchorage state House race that won’t be decided until after the election. Lawsuits been filed there. And who knows what else will happen between now and then.

Alaska Public Media

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