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Follow the money to the hottest races in Alaska primary election

Amanda Coyne,Jill Burke,Ben Anderson
Aaron Jansen illustration

Sure, 2012 may be a presidential election year, but the local races are where the drama is in Alaska. A drawn-out redistricting process has resulted in nearly all of the state’s House and Senate seats being up for grabs, and challengers have come out in force to make a play for those open seats.

The biggest money so far has been flowing into the Republican primary races, where several upstarts are hoping to challenge incumbent lawmakers or claim new seats made available by redistricting. At the heart of the Republican strategy this election season is reducing the size of the Senate Bipartisan Working Group, a coalition of 10 Democratic and six Republican Senators who some allege are holding up oil-tax reforms supported by the Republican-led state House and Gov. Sean Parnell.

Some, of course, are juicier than others, and as is often said in politics, one need only follow the money to see where the hotspots are.

With less than one week remaining before the Tuesday primary elections weed out the candidates who campaign hardest and win the most hearts and minds, here are three high-cost races to watch, and why.

A three-way race for the heart of Alaska

One need look no further than Interior Alaska to see the 2012 election's high stakes and shifting tensions due Alaska's newly redefined political boundaries. It is the home turf of the newly formed Senate District C, a vast swath encompassing Chickaloon, Valdez, Glennallen, Delta Junction, Nelchina, Chena Ridge, the far north of Palmer, and communities in between.

And, it is a wild card in the unfolding drama surrounding attempts to dismantle the Senate's 16-member bipartisan coalition.

This new district -- which has no incumbent and includes one Democrat and three Republicans vying for the seat -- is currently the most expensive Senate primary. Collectively, the three Republicans -- Click Bishop, David Eastman, and Ralph Seekins -- have raised about $219,000 in their effort to represent Alaskans in Juneau, according to the Alaska Public Offices Commission.

Seekins, a car dealership owner and past legislator, has pulled in $108,000 since the start of his campaign. Bishop, a former state labor commissioner, has raised nearly $92,000. Eastman, a U.S. Army veteran and West Point graduate who studied law and has worked as a police officer, had raised $18,720 as of Tuesday.

The pitched battle between Bishop and Seekins plays into the larger power struggle for the Senate as they fall on different sides regarding their willingness to ally with Democrats, and by extension, whether they will embrace or shun the controversial bipartisan coalition. 

In his campaign statement, Seekins calls the Senate "constipated" and, took a jab at his opponents, claiming they will surely "join with that same kick-the-can-down-the-road Senate group."

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported earlier this week that while the candidates largely agree on core values, a Republican party pledge signed by Seekins and Eastman, but which Bishop passed on, creates a bold division within the trio. The pledge asked candidates to promise to caucus only with Republicans. "Bishop said his openness to joining a coalition doesn’t mean he’ll be blindly joining a bipartisan majority," according to the News-Miner.

Big money and mountain peaks in the Mat Valley

The Matanuska Valley is known for, among other things, its vast spaces, farming, drop-dead mountain views, Sarah Palin, and clan-style politics. The area has seen only three state senators in the past 40 years, each of them longtime and established members of the community.

Mike Dunleavy, who’s challenging incumbent Sen. Linda Menard, is a relative newcomer. Campaign ads have said that he’s lived in the Valley since 2000. That, however, is only when he bought his land. He landed there with his family from Kotzebue in 2004 fresh from a gig as the superintendant of the Northwest Arctic Borough School District. After moving to the Valley, he rose quickly in the educational establishment and is now the president of the Mat-Su School Board.

Dunleavy has cast himself as a true conservative, in an area full of them. On social issues, he’s staunchly pro-life, believing that abortion should be illegal in all cases. He believes that his role as a senator is to think less about bringing home projects for his district and more about where the state is headed.

Menard is more moderate on social issues, and has the more traditional, time-tested idea about what she owes her constituents: namely, money.

The race, according to people in the know, will likely be a squeaker. Both are roughly even in the fundraising game. As of Tuesday, Dunleavy has raised $66,959 to Menard’s $64,259. But that could change in the next several days as unions, which are big supporters of Menard, will likely continue to pitch in.

At the heart of this race, as is true with many other races across the state, is how the Senate should be structured. Menard is one of the six Republicans aligned with the Senate bipartisan coalition. They make the argument that the coalition is the best way to serve their respective districts. Republican challengers, however, say that those who have joined the coalition have opted to sell their conservative souls. 

Challenges ahead in West Anchorage

While primary battles represent the most significant hurdles for some candidates, that’s not the case in Senate District J, which encompasses much of West Anchorage. Though the Republican candidates there, Liz Vazquez and Bob Bell, have been racking up the cash in the lead-up to the primary, the winner will still have stiff competition in November’s general election.

Both Vazquez and Bell are running on a platform of oil tax reform, and have said they would not join the Senate Bipartisan Working Group, which they both believe has held up legislation in recent years. Bell, however, is the owner of a construction and engineering firm with longtime ties to the oil industry, while Vazquez is a former state prosecutor who touts her lack of connections to oil and gas.

According to the most recent campaign reports filed with the Alaska Public Offices Commission, Vazquez’s spending has been almost stagnant: she reported raising only $580 since her last report, filed July 31. In total, Vazquez has brought in more than $58,000 -- a significant portion of which has come from her own pockets.

Her opponent, Bob Bell, had better luck, raising more than $7,000 and bringing his total fundraising to just over $70,000. Bell has said that part of the reason he decided to enter the race, months after Vazquez announced her own candidacy, was his concern that Vazquez wouldn’t be able to do the fundraising necessary to beat incumbent Democratic Sen. Hollis French -- a member of the bipartisan coalition -- in the general election.

It may be a valid point. French has raised more than $120,000 and says he is hitting the pavement hard in West Anchorage, meeting voters who may be new to him as a result of the redistricting process.

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda(at)alaskadispatch.com, Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com and Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com