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Alaska GOP's big tent: Too big, or too big to fail?

Craig Medred
John Cox "panhandling" at the Alaska Republican Party picnic. August 9, 2012 Loren Holmes photo

Over the course of decades, the Alaska Republican Party built itself a political powerhouse by erecting a big tent with room for a lot of divergent views. And today the party finds itself with a war beneath the big top focused on who is and who isn't conservative enough. On one side are supporters of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the loser of the 2010 Republican primary who pulled off an unprecedented write-in campaign to win the general election. On the other are arch-conservative backers of failed Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul and failed Senate candidate Joe Miller.

Feelings run high on both sides. Angry Murkowski supporters worried about a party takeover by Paul-Miller insurgents rolled party chairman-elect Russ Millette. That left Millette supporters outraged.

After the party's state executive committee voted to oust the 67-year-old Millette, one Miller supporter observed "this stuff has nothing to do with Millette.  These Murkowski pricks are completely corrupt.  They're the ones that are behind the whole thing.  Almost all of them have violated party rules, and then have the audacity to accuse others."

Murkowski and her supporters represent the Republican old guard. She was friends with the late Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican icon. Her father, Frank, served in the Senate with Stevens before resigning so he could run for governor. He won, and then appointed his daughter to his old Senate seat, which helped raise the ire of a former mayor of Wasilla named Sarah Palin.

But that's getting ahead of a story that really goes back to when Democrats controlled Alaska the way Republicans do today. Democrats ruled in the statewide vote of 1958 that paved the way to Alaska statehood a year later. Democrat Bill Egan was elected governor. Democrats Bob Bartlett and Ernest Gruening went to the U.S. Senate. Democrat Ralph Rivers became the state's first Congressman.

The state was a solid Democrat blue.

It didn't last. Businessman Wally Hickel, attorney Stevens, gold-miner's son John Butrovich Jr. and other Republicans who played pivotal roles in the quest for statehood quickly went to work building a big-tent party that would have room for conservatives, libertarians and even a few of those scallywags today's true Republicans might call "liberals."

Alaska GOP split not new

Back in the day, the frontier tent of the Grand Old Party was big enough to hold Hickel, a governor bent on developing the 49th state and a villain to most environmentalists, and Jay Hammond, a green-tinged governor bent on saving the state -- and the man who helped author the Alaska Permanent Fund.

Hickel and Hammond are now gone, but their legacies linger -- most especially Hammond's. The Alaska Permanent Fund, a huge government share-the-wealth scheme, has been backed by almost every Alaska Republican since its creation in 1976, despite the fact it is the bluntest form of government handout. All anyone need do to collect is move to Alaska and live here. The PFD isn't like Social Security, which requires people to work to pay in if they want to collect on retirement in old age.

That the Permanent Fund -- a blatant, government-directed, share-the-wealth scheme -- has yet to come under fire from some in the new breed of Alaska Republicans is slightly surprising given opposition to everything from the U.S. Constitution's 16th Amendment, which permitted an income tax, to Social Security. Miller labeled federal income tax a "deception," and during his 2010 campaign suggested Social Security should be phased out along with a host of other federal government programs.

A politician now turned blogger, Miller led a Tea Party insurgency against establishment Alaska Republicans in 2010. He called Murkowski "all about pork" and tweeted worse. He painted her as part of the ruling elite trying to destroy the country. His views haven't changed since then.

"When I wake up in the morning, and I find out I can't burn wood in my stove because the EPA has put some ludicrous regulation in place ... the federal government is out of control," he told a Tea Party gathering in Kansas in 2011. Miller lives on the outskirts of Fairbanks. The Environmental Protection Agency has classified Fairbanks' wood-smoke-fouled winter air as among the dirtiest in the nation.

Battles over air quality have for the past several winters divided the residents of the Interior city where many turned to wood as a home-heating fuel when oil prices started to skyrocket. With wood-smoke-fouled winter air now sometimes more like that of China than any American city, some have tried to get the Fairbanks North Star Borough to act on the issue of air quality, but state Rep. Tammie Wilson, a Republican from North Pole and a Miller supporter, has led citizen efforts to stop any borough action.

Wilson, who also tried to get the state out of the food-safety business, and Miller are among the new breed of Alaska Republicans who see a minimalist role for government in today's society. They are in step with the Tea Party supporters who have so split the party nationally that there is talk of a Republican "civil war." Karl Rove, seen by many as the mastermind behind the election of former President George W. Bush, is fueling a national effort to out Republican conservative extremists he considers unelectable.

Alaska Republicans are caught in a skirmish along similar ideological lines, and there are those who believe, or fear, it could get worse. Some predict Miller could win the state Republican primary for the seat of Sen. Mark Begich, who is up for election in 2014, though many in Miller's party and most objective observers outside it think Miller fits the Rove category of "unelectable."

Unelectable? Who me?

Anchorage pollster Ivan Moore told RealClearPolitics.com that a December 2010 poll found 66 percent of Alaskans had a negative view of Miller while only 24 percent were favorable. There's been no indication that mood has changed much. Still, those 24 percent tend to be Republican stalwarts, and that is important in a state where neither of the nation's two major parties can be considered robust.

On a statewide level, "nobody gives a shit about the party," said Andrew Halcro, a former Republican state representative from Anchorage and one-time independent candidate for governor. Statistically, there appears more than a little truth to that statement.

Of the nearly 500,000 registered voters in Alaska, only 135,000 are Republicans. The party is large only in comparison to the Democrats, who number but 72,000  registered voters. The vast majority of Alaskans are registered undeclared, no party given, or non-partisan. There are almost 264,000 of those voters.

Despite voter claims of independence, however, there is little doubt the state leans to the right of center. That makes it hard for a Democrat to win a statewide election.

Begich got lucky in 2008. His victory is attributed in significant part to a Washington, D.C., jury finding Stevens guilty of corruption just days before the election. Shortly thereafter, then-Alaska Gov. Palin called for Stevens to resign from the Senate, which didn't help the state's elder statesman at the polls.

Stevens lost the election by fewer than 4,000 votes. A federal investigation later found the FBI had railroaded him, and his conviction was overturned, but Begich was in.

Ever since, he has been polishing his conservative credentials as an advocate for resource development and the Second Amendment in recognition of the reality Alaska is clearly a conservative state these days. How it got there is hard to say, although in some ways its appears Alaska did not so much move to the right as stay where it was as the rest of the country began to march left toward the "Great Society" of late President Lyndon B. Johnson in the mid-to-late 1960s.

A tent too big to fail?

It was about the same time Alaska Republicans started to build their big tent. Hammond, first elected to the state Legislature as an independent and didn't joint the party until 1966. He was always a bit of a square peg in a round hole, but he was not alone in that. The party was also home to Rep. Dick Randolph from Fairbanks, who finally bolted for the Libertarian party in 1976. There have long been many among Alaska Republicans who shared a Libertarian bent.

Alaska was for a long time a live-and-let-live state. So, too, was the state's Republican party until the arrival of the Moral Majority in 1980. Christian fundamentalists pushed the party to the right, but it weathered that and eased back toward the center in the years that followed. Stevens, who considered himself pro-choice, was never actively challenged within the party because of his stance on abortion. Palin, who is pro-life, stayed away from the touchy and divisive subject as governor.

Unity appeared a pretty basic party fundamental until Palin began working her way toward political prominence by calling out fellow Republicans early in the 2000s. Whether she was at the time a true believer in clean government, as she claimed to be, a political opportunist, or a little of both no one will ever know for certain. But she clearly used the misbehavior of Republican party chairman Randy Ruedrich to polish her image as a reformer in 2004. Ruedrich worked with Palin at the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. He was caught doing Republican party work on state time and fined $12,000.

Palin had earlier resigned from the commission, complaining she'd been told to keep quiet about Ruedrich's ethics violations. Two years later, she ran for governor as a political outsider trying to clean up government. She won.

The Republican tent in Alaska has been rocking ever since. The winds have eased at times only to build again. They peaked in April of last year when Ruedrich, who some credit with holding the party together for more than a decade, opted against another run for chairman after a dozen, star-crossed years at the helm. In his place, party dissidents elected Millette, a firmly anti-abortion "Paleo-conservative," backed by supporters of failed candidates Paul and Miller. Bitter infighting followed.

"It's  just great fun to watch," said Ralph Samuels, a former Republican lawmaker and one-time Republican candidate for governor. "But this too should pass. It's like when the Moral Majority took over. It's the same thing."

More than emotion, he said, it takes money for a party to succeed. And most of the money comes from moderate businessmen. Halcro, a successful businessman himself, echoed that view.

"As soon as (Millette) would have taken over and begun to pull the party away from its roots, you would have seen an instant retraction in support," he said. "The money would have dried up."

Did finance laws make parties irrelevant?

That is largely what happened to Miller. He won the primary, quickly came to be perceived as a dangerous extremist headed too far right, and watched helplessly as money poured in to fund a Murkowski write-in campaign that wasn't supposed to have a chance of winning, but won anyway.

"That in and of itself proves the party is completely irrelevant," Halcro said.

Except for one thing, the party remains a statement of legitimacy and a choke point. Aside from Murkowski, an incumbent senator, no statewide candidate has ever won a write-in election. Halcro's campaign for governor as an independent was a miserable failure, too. He simply wasn't considered a serious contender, which doomed him from the start.

He might have won as a Republican, but to get the Republican nomination he would have needed to get past Palin in the primary, and he could see that wasn't going to happen. She had a hold on the right wing of the party and, as he observed, "since the early '90s, whoever is the farthest right wins."

If that holds true, Miller is in a good spot. And if he could win the primary, get a majority of Republicans to stand by him afterwards, and convince 20,000 to 30,000 of Alaska independents that he's not an extremist but a sensible, constitutional conservative who understands the nation's budgetary problems, he just might beat Begich in the general election.

Or at least that would be the case in the politics of yesterday and today. As for tomorrow, who knows?

Follow the money

Halcro and a host of others believe the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case has changed everything. The court held that the federal government violated the First Amendment when it restricted how much money corporations and unions could spend to back candidates. The limitation on spending, the court ruled, was stifling the right to free speech in the political debate.

PACs -- political action committees -- have been sprouting up like dandelions in summer every since. The PACs and super-PACS allow for the collection of funds to be used to further any form of political speech. Rove set up one such PAC to help electable candidates overcome unelectable ones.

Halcro, Samuels and plenty of others both in and outside the state believe the PACs will play havoc with the party structure, not only in Alaska but everywhere.

"I think Citizens United basically made the parties irrelevant," Halcro said. "You don't need the party. Candidates can raise their own money."

"It's a huge disconnect," added Ethan Berkowitz, a Democrat and another unsuccessful candidate for governor. "Candidates could become the creatures of special interests. Instead of candidates trying to find PACs, you could have PACS trying to find candidates."

Miller is at the moment sitting on a PAC that holds about a half million dollars, but that could become mere chicken-feed if other Republican interests start thinking the way Rove is encouraging them to think.

"You're going to see so much money flowing in here" for the race between Begich and the yet-to-be-decided Republican, Samuels said. Aside from Miller, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell is the only one who has publicly expressed interest in that race, although there has been talk that Gov. Sean Parnell might be enticed to enter the fray. Some in the Republican Party believe Parnell might be the only politician capable of beating Miller in the primary.

More work than partying

And it's there -- in the primary -- that party still matters. The Democrat contender in the Murkowski-Miller race of 2010, former Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams, ran a weak third. Begich aside, the road to statewide election success in Alaska still runs through a Republican party that despite its infighting seems to be holding together.

"We've been around for a long time," said state executive committee member Paulette Simpson from Juneau. "I don't think we're going anywhere."

She, in fact, expects Millette and other insurgents to fade away and leave the party little changed.

"All of this happened because a bunch of people who weren't party people ... all showed up at our convention in Anchorage last year," she said. "They were only interested in the delegate slots. They didn't want to do the work" of party politics. And "they totally misunderstood the money thing. A lot of them thought the Republican Party has all this money. We don't."

The Republican Party in Alaska is largely run by volunteers. Nearly all the money it raises goes to candidates. Halcro, who has a reputation as squeaky clean, said it's been hard not to laugh when he's heard party dissidents claim they wanted Ruedrich out because he's corrupting the party. Ruedrich spent tens of thousands of dollars of his own money supporting the party while serving in the volunteer job of chairman.

"The corrupt party?" Halcro said. "What's corrupt about it? It's a bunch of damn volunteers running around. It's not like Spain, where they're giving people envelopes of cash. Before I got into politics, I really thought the party was powerful. I found that to be false. Candidates have to do all the work."

Republican after Republican after Republican interviewed for this story said much the same. Candidates are largely on their own, especially at the state level. The party can help out with some cash once someone wins a primary, but up until that point, the candidates have to take care of themselves. The party itself doesn't really help, Republicans said, but having that "R" next to one's name on the ballot does -- no matter what one's real politics might be.

Excess room in the big tent?

Republican icon Stevens would have made a great Democrat. He grew the federal bureaucracy in Alaska with abandon and helped back federal programs that grew state bureaucracies all across the nation. Citizens Against Government Waste, an interest group, gave Stevens award after award for fueling out-of-control federal spending:

• The Hogzilla Award for $646 million in federal "pork" for Alaska in 2005;

• The Whole Hog Award for $524 million in 2004;

• The Gold Rush Award for $393 million in 2003;

• The Snow Job Award for his blizzard of $451 million in 2002;

• The American Expense Award -- "Don't leave Nome without it" -- for $480 million in 2001, and;

• The Who Wants to Be a Billionaire Award for using the other 49 states as his “porkline” while securing more than $1 billion earmarks for Alaska spend over the course of the 1990-2000 decade.

On paper, Stevens, who died tragically in the crash of an small plane in remote Western Alaska in 2010, looks a lot like a tax-and-spend liberal. He drove federal spending in Alaska to $17,762 per person, the highest in the nation, nearly 70 percent above the national average. And yet there was not just a seat for him in the state Republican party -- there was a throne where he sat for decades as a revered figured.

But that was then, and this is now:

The 2010 Republican Senate primary was won by Miller, a Yale-educated, Tea Party-backed attorney from Fairbanks with ethics issues who wanted to eliminate the minimum wage, stop federal unemployment benefits, abolish Social Security for young Americans just entering the work force, and dump the U.S. Department of Education, among other things, to massively slash the federal budget.

He lost the election to a woman who shares a lot in common with Stevens. There was once room for both of them in the big Republican tent. Whether that will continue remains to be seen. Departing party vice chairman Steve Colligan from Wasilla observed that given the climate of the moment, some heavy cables might be needed to keep the Republican tent from blowing down or shrinking to "D" size. Democrats aren't yet an endangered species in the 49th state, but there are fewer registered in the entire state than in most midsize cities in America.

"The total failure of the Democrats (in Alaska) ... is somewhat outstanding," Berkowitz admitted. "During the height of the (Republican) corruption scandal, the Democrats actually lost (registered) voters."

The trend appears to be continuing. Alaska state Rep. Lindsey Holmes, who filled Berkowitz's old House seat, just changed her "D" to an "R," which has caused much gnashing of teeth in the state Democratic party. Holmes said she bolted because she feels more comfortable in the Republican camp, given her conservative business views and liberal social views. The Democratic response has been to try to organize a recall. The big tent seems to be a structure foreign to that party.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com