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Alaska Senate primary elections primer

Ben Anderson

With 59 of 60 seats in the Alaska Legislature up for election this fall, combat politics are back in season across the 49th state. Primary elections are scheduled for Aug. 28 but Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who oversees state elections, put folks on notice Monday that time was running out for Alaskans who aren't registered to vote.

The deadline to register for voting in Alaska's legislative primaries is Sunday, July 29. Treadwell's memo said Alaska Division of Elections offices in Anchorage, Juneau, Nome, Mat-Su and Fairbanks will be open this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, July 28-29, to help Alaskans meet state and federal voter registration requirements. Voters can also change their party affiliation up until the deadline. Here in Alaska, participating in Republican primaries means registering with the Alaska GOP, or with the state as a nonpartisan or undeclared voter. Alaska Democratic Party primary rules allow anyone registered in Alaska to vote for Democratic candidates.

Here’s a handy guide for other ways to register to vote.

Every seat of the Alaska House of Representatives is up for election this fall and 19 of the 20 Alaska Senate districts are in play. Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, is the only lawmaker in Alaska sitting pretty and not up for election in November. But there are others who will have a relatively laid-back primary season: Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, faces no challengers and is running unopposed. And nine other Senate districts have a one-on-one matchup between a Democrat and Republican, meaning those candidates can safely look ahead to the general election certain of their adversaries.

Why such a busy election calendar? Thank the decennial remapping of Alaska's legislative district boundaries. Alaska endured an exceptionally lengthy redistricting process this go-around, one that only last month produced a map approved by state and federal courts, after more than a year of attempts, for next month's primaries. Will the newly-drawn districts give Democrats or Republicans an upper hand in the next Legislature? That remains to be seen.

Both parties seem optimistic about their chances. David Bremer, a spokesman for Alaska Democrats, said party leaders were "very confident" heading into primary season.

"We have a strong set of a candidates who are working very hard,” Bremer said. “They’re looking out for the interests of Alaskans, and protecting their pocketbooks as much as possible.”

Republicans are banking on their deep list of registered voters to help swing the state Senate back to Republican control after years in the political wilderness. As of January 2012, there were about 60,000 more registered Republicans in Alaska than Democrats.

“We’ve always been pretty good on the get-out-the-vote effort and making sure people are informed about the absentee ballot,” said Frank McQueary, chairman of the Party Rules Committee for the state Republican Party. “So the numbers alone can be helpful for us.”

Some races, though, are shaping up to be particularly contentious.  Below are some of the most heated Senate races for August primary elections. 

Democrat vs. Democrat

Only one primary will pit Democrat against Democrat. Senate District M includes part of Eagle River and East Anchorage, and two big names are squaring off against each other. Incumbent Sen. Bettye Davis faces a challenge from former state Rep. Harry Crawford, whom voters may remember from his unsuccessful bid to unseat Congressman Don Young back in 2010.

Davis is a former Anchorage School Board member who -- prior to her election to the Senate in 2000 -- also served as a member of the State House. Both Davis and Crawford have name recognition and long political careers; expect this one to be one of the most interesting primary contests in Alaska. The winner will face Republican Rep. Anna Fairclough, a former Anchorage Assemblywoman looking to move into the Senate.

Republican vs. Republican

There are a few more primary races featuring Republican candidates facing off against other Republicans, perhaps an indication of some infighting between the party's establishment and its insurgent Libertarian-leaning Ron Paul supporters.

Paul's supporters took over key party leadership positions in May, including the chairmanship long wielded by legendary Alaska GOP boss Randy Ruedrich.

But perhaps the main draw that's pitting conservatives against one another may be bipartisan fatigue. The Senate Bipartisan Working Group -- a group of 10 Democrats and six Republicans caucusing together as the majority -- have decided Senate business for five years now. Many Republicans and pro-oil industry groups view the bipartisan majority as enemy number one in Gov. Sean Parnell's quest to reform Alaska's oil taxes.

Oil taxes are a focal point of just about every primary contest and will undoubtedly consume the general election debate.

Here’s a rundown of Alaska Senate primaries pitting Republicans against each other: 

  • District D (Rural Mat-Su/Greater Palmer area): Incumbent Linda Menard, elected in 2009, faces off against the Matanuska-Susitna Borough’s school board president Mike Dunleavy. Menard is a member of the Bipartisan Working Group. There are no Democrats registered to run in this district.
  • District J (West Anchorage and Sand Lake): This is another two-against-one matchup, with Republicans Bob Bell and Liz Vazquez duking it out to challenge Democratic incumbent Hollis French. Bell is a former Anchorage Assemblyman; Vazquez is a former Alaska Assistant Attorney General and Chugach Electric Association board member.
  • District K (Anchorage’s Oceanview and Taku neighborhoods): Incumbent Republican candidate Lesil McGuire took office in 2007 after six years in the State House, and is facing Jeff Landfield, a graduate of UAA, a supporter of Ron Paul and an employee of an IT Consulting firm in Anchorage. McGuire is a member of the Bipartisan Working Group and has been silent on Landfield’s quest to get her into a debate. Democrat Roselyn Cacy is also registered in District K.
  • District N (South Anchorage and North Kenai): Incumbent Cathy Giessel, elected in 2010, is up against Kenai Peninsula Borough School Board President Joe Arness. Giessel is not a member of the Bipartisan Working Group, and there are no Democrats registered in this district.
  • District O (Kenai, Soldotna, Homer and South Kenai): Incumbent Tom Wagoner, who has already served nearly a decade in the Senate, will see Soldotna Mayor Peter Micciche next to his name on the primary ballot. There are no Democrats registered to run in this district.

Democrat versus Republican

Sens. Albert Kookesh (D-Angoon) and Bert Stedman (R-Sitka) must have drawn the short straws in the redistricting process, because they’re being forced up against each other in the newly redrawn district Q. That district now covers the Ketchikan and Wrangell areas, as well as the islands of Southeast Alaska.

The primary in District Q won’t be particularly interesting -- they’re both running unopposed by any members of their own parties. But instead of riding the small comfort of incumbency during the election, they’ll go up against each other in the general election.

Kookesh is a former House Representative, and has been in the Senate since 2005. Stedman has a one-term edge on Kookesh, having served since 2003. Both men, however, are on the Senate Bipartisan Working Group, which means that the loss of one represents a possible reduction among the coalition.

A similar situation will unfold in district A (North Pole/Farmers Loop), where two other current Senators will face off: Democrat Joe Thomas and Republican John Coghill. Coghill, however, is one of the four members of the Senate who are not part of the Bipartisan Working Group, so a victory for him could be big for shifting influence away from the coalition.

Incumbent-free districts

Two districts feature no incumbent candidates, making them among the most hotly contested.

District H (Anchorage’s Spenard and University neighborhoods): Don Smith, an Anchorage School Board member, is up against first-time candidate Clint Hess in this open seat. One of them will square off against Democrats who have hopes of winning an open Midtown Senate seat. State Rep. Berta Gardner is giving up her House post to run for it.

District C (Richardson Highway and Chena Ridge regions, in the Interior) has three Republicans vying for the general election slot. They are: Click Bishop, Former Alaska Department of Labor Commissioner; David Eastman, a tea party advocate; and Ralph Seekins, a former Fairbanks-area State Senator. Also running unopposed is Democrat Anne Sudkamp.

Learn much more about the candidates and the other races, at the Division of Elections. You can also check out the new district listing, here.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben@alaskadispatch.com