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Voters in Alaska buck national trend and shift toward Republican leadership in state races

Craig Medred
Loren Holmes photo

As Americans for better or worse voted to send a gridlocked Congress back to Washington on Tuesday, Alaskans appeared on the verge of something entirely different: choosing instead fundamental change. The prime beneficiaries? Huge, highly profitable, multi-national oil companies, at least in the short term.

Oil-business-backed candidates in Alaska appeared on the verge of rolling enough of the Democratic members of the so-called Alaska Senate Bipartisan Working Group to possibly alter state fiscal policy away from "tax-them-till-they-bleed."

The bipartisan coalition of 10 Democrats and six Republicans that governed the Senate has steadfastly refused Gov. Sean Parnell's requests to grant the oil companies a tax break worth up to $2 billion per year, depending on the price of oil. Parnell argues a big tax cut is necessary to increase the flow of crude through the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. The essence of his argument is simple: The state has squeezed the neck of the golden goose so tight it has cut down on its egg laying.

Members of the Senate majority refused to buy it without some sort of egg-laying promise from the goose: they refused to cut taxes without oil production guarantees in return.

Reform or retire

The end result became an organized and concerted effort to oust the recalcitrant lawmakers from office. The effort was led by Parnell as well as a non-government entity that called itself the "Make Alaska Competitive Coalition" (MACC). Formed more than a year ago, the coalition started pounding a public drumbeat for lower oil taxes as the only way to get more crude flowing through the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

When Senate lawmakers refused to listen, MACC and other groups went after them. 

Three of the 10 Democrats -- Joe Thomas and Joe Paskvan from Fairbanks along with Bettye Davis from Anchorage -- were clear losers Tuesday night and a fourth -- Hollis French -- ended the race on the ropes. With 11,372 votes counted, he was only 249 ahead of challenger Bob Bell, a former Anchorage assemblyman and engineer whose business was made by the oil industry.

The French-Bell race was expected to be decided by absentee votes, which some thought might lean heavily toward Bell, who was polling strongly early in the race. 

Then he made an issue of sidestepping a state law on the subsistence hunting of musk ox, which raised questions about his ethics. He tried to counter that with an attack on the media, particularly Alaska Dispatch, and just ended up making things worse for himself. But some thought Tuesday Bell still had an opportunity to pull victory from the shadow of defeat.

Meanwhile, a fifth Democrat, Albert Kookesh from Southeast Alaska, was losing to Republican Bert Stedman from Sitka. Stedman has been one of the strongest critics of Parnell's oil-tax plan, and as Senate Finance Committee co-chairman, a leading member of the bipartisan coalition. What he does next could depend on what happens to French and how Lesil McGuire, another Anchorage Republican, decides to play her hand. McGuire, also a member of the bipartisan coalition, was trouncing the competition in her re-election bid.

'The jury's still out' 

Many say McGuire would like to become Senate president, a position that was held by Republican Gary Stevens from Kodiak. McGuire is a moderate Republican; so is Stedman. Others among the Republicans are far to the right, especially on social issues. No one in Alaska is very far right on fiscal issues. Even the largest of proposed oil-tax cuts would leave the oil industry paying nearly all the cost of state government, plus a surplus.

Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski from Anchorage, a lawyer who handily won re-election, was at least holding out hope the coalition could be resurrected if French's lead held.

“The jury’s still out," he said Tuesday night. "If (Hollis) wins we still have a shot at a coalition. We’ll see."

Amanda Coyne and Ben Anderson contributed reporting. Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com