Internal Republican divides complicate leadership of Alaska House and Senate

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The Senate chambers are seen at the Alaska State Capitol on Friday, May 13, 2022 in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Republicans almost certainly will win a majority of the 60 seats in the Alaska Legislature.

Whether they will control the state House and Senate will come down to which Republicans win.

This year, as has been the case for much of the past decade, the party’s candidates are split. There are many differences, but they tend to fall into two groups:

  • One group’s members eschew compromise as they pursue conservative positions on social issues and seek a Permanent Fund dividend larger than any in recent years.
  • Members of the second group say working with Democrats and independents is essential to improve the state, and they prioritize limits on spending from the Permanent Fund, low (or no) taxes and maintaining or growing spending on services and construction, even if it causes a smaller dividend.

“There’s always been moderates within the Republican ranks who want to just work and move forward,” said Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks. “And then there’s been sort of the ultra-conservative wing that has sort of a blood oath before they come down (to Juneau).”

Speaker of the House Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, sees it more simply: “Well, you’ve either got your moderate Republicans, or you’ve got your far-right Republicans. It’s just pretty simple.”

The divide can be seen in legislative races across the state but is also visible in the statewide race for U.S. Senate. There, the Republican Party endorsed insurgent Republican Kelly Tshibaka, but some voters and local party officials backed incumbent Republican Lisa Murkowski.

But for the past several years, the divide has been particularly significant in the state House and the state Senate, affecting who controls those bodies.

House control

Since 2017, the state House has been controlled by a coalition that includes Democrats, independents and some moderate Republicans.

Republicans won a majority of the House in 2018 and 2020 but failed both times to coalesce into a majority. After a month of impasse, in both 2019 and 2021, a handful of Republicans joined independents and Democrats to continue the coalition.

This time around, the path will be harder. One of the two coalition Republicans, Eagle River Rep. Kelly Merrick, is running for Senate and will almost certainly be replaced by Jamie Allard, an adamant supporter of a Republican-led majority.

After Election Day, Republican candidates led in 21 of the House’s 40 races, and they have the potential to gain more leads as additional votes are counted and ranked choice races are sorted.

The last remaining coalition Republican is Stutes, who said before the election that she isn’t certain if she will continue as a member.

“I don’t think anybody’s going to know anything until the fat lady sings,” Stutes said.

Will Stapp is a Republican from Fairbanks and the winner — based on Election Day results — of the race to replace retiring Rep. Steve Thompson.

“I would probably say that it appears to most people that I have talked to that you might be looking at a coalition in the Senate, and probably a Republican majority of 23-ish in the House,” Stapp said. “That would be my guess. But, you know, the voters get to say, right?”

The results of the 2018 and 2020 elections created a leadership deadlock in the House as Republicans repeatedly attempted and failed to create a majority caucus.

Those deadlocks lasted a month into the opening legislative session and ended only when some Republicans joined the predominantly Democratic coalition.

This time around, candidates say that if Republicans hold only a narrow majority in the House, internal divides could create another deadlock in early 2023.

It isn’t yet clear whether that will happen.

Senate control

The situation in the Senate is more clear-cut, in part because most races have definitive winners. As of Wednesday morning, Democrats lead in nine of the Senate’s 20 seats. If those leads hold up, the party would gain two seats from the pre-election standings.

That leaves Republicans with 11 seats, the narrowest possible majority, but for the past several years, Senate Republicans have been divided by budgetary issues, and the Senate has passed a budget only because Democrats voted in favor of a document crafted by moderate Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee.

“We’ve kind of seen the party structure, to some extent, break down around here,” said Sen. Robert Myers, R-North Pole.

On Wednesday, Democratic senators and senators-elect gathered in Anchorage for a strategy session intended, in part, to determine whether it will be possible to work with those moderate Republicans and others.

Unusually, Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, and Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, were in Anchorage for Election Day and remained in the city afterward. Both men are believed to be likely members of a coalition majority. Stevens served as Senate president from 2009 to 2013, the last time a coalition majority existed in the chamber.

Stevens said it’s “premature at this point” to say whether a coalition will form but said that “it’s possible that within a week,” Alaskans may have an answer to the Senate leadership question.

Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, was among the legislators who flew to Anchorage and said it takes three things for agreement in the Legislature — alignment on politics, policies and personalities.

“The definition of coalition is different in different people’s minds,” he said.

Sen. James Kaufman, R-Anchorage, is the likely winner of the race to replace Republican Sen. Josh Revak, R-Anchorage, and said senators and senators-elect have been trading phone calls and text messages.

“I’m in conversations, but I’m not really ready to say too much,” he said when asked his thoughts about Senate organization.

Kawasaki said he expects negotiations to take place quietly.

“The confirmation will be when the press release comes out,” he said.

This story originally appeared in the Alaska Beacon and is republished here with permission.

Alaska Beacon

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: info@alaskabeacon.com. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

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