current composition: 14 in majority coalition (13 R, 1 D), 6 democrats
For the past several cycles, the upper chamber of the Alaska legislature has been the quieter of the two. Republicans have held a majority for 24 of the last 30 years, often with unassailable margins. Going into 2022, they enjoyed a 13-7 advantage, which was essentially a 14-6 edge given the addition of Democrat Lyman Hoffman, who has caucused with the majority since 2014.
But this year, Democrats made inroads in two different districts. Though final results are not in, Democratic state Rep. Matt Claman appears to have defeated Republican state Sen. Mia Costello in the Anchorage-based Senate District H by a 52-48 margin. Meanwhile, Democrats look to be en route to picking off an open seat in Anchorage that was made substantially bluer in redistricting. Democrat Forrest Dunbar, a former U.S. House candidate, leads in Senate District J with 49.7% of the vote, making him a virtual lock to claim the seat in the instant runoff, and he still retains a decent chance of clearing the bar with the batches of remaining ballots to be counted.
In addition, a pair of Democrats who were potentially vulnerable (Scott Kawasaki in Fairbanks and Elvi Gray-Jackson in Anchorage) are holding on in the latest returns. That would put the nominal totals at 11 Republicans and 9 Democrats, which raises the very real possibility that the Democrats can cobble together a governing coalition as they have done in the state House since 2019 (more on this later).
Why the optimism? Well, for one thing, one of the pair of Republican members of that “Majority House Coalition” in the lower chamber managed to get elected to the state Senate on Nov. 8: Kelly Merrick, a relative moderate and former aide to longtime Rep. Don Young, won her seat in Senate District L by a double-digit margin. Would she be willing to continue her bipartisan ways in the Senate? The early signs are promising. During her campaign, Merrick emphasized the importance of bipartisanship, and she’s regularly been mentioned in meetings among the “coalition-curious,” meetings that apparently began after the August primaries made clear that Democrats had a real chance of moving closer to parity in the Senate.
Another positive sign? The last time Democrats wielded any power in the state Senate came was under a similar coalition arrangement about a dozen years ago. The Senate president at that point was Sen. Gary Stevens of Kodiak, who as luck would have it is still in the the legislature and rather easily defeated two conservative challengers on election night. He’s kept his cards close to the vest so far, but he’s been willing to travel this way before. As have no less than five other members of the Senate (a bipartisan group consisting of two moderate Republicans and three Democrats) who were members of the original coalition more than a decade ago.
Still one more source of optimism stems from Republican vs. Republican general elections in red districts, where more pragmatic candidates may emerge after the instant runoff is tabulated. One such race is in Senate District D, where Jesse Bjorkman leads his far more conservative opponent Tuckerman Babcock by a 46-42 margin. Meanwhile, moderate Cathy Giessel is a betting favorite to defeat conservative Sen. Roger Holland, who successfully executed a primary challenge from the right against Giessel in 2020 for...working too closely with Democrats.
The most likely outcome, ultimately, is a fairly large coalition of Democrats and more moderate Republicans that freezes out the GOP’s far-right faction—which would suit Alaska Democrats quite nicely.
ALASKA STATE HOUSE
CURRENT COMPOSITION: 21 in Majority coalition (15 D, 2 R, 4 I), 19 REPUBLICANS
For all the intrigue in the state Senate, the Alaska House is an even wilder frontier, where all things remain possible.
The House has been governed since 2019 by a self-styled “Majority Coalition,” which has been made up mostly of Democrats but also includes the state’s four independent House members (Bryce Edgmon, Daniel Ortiz, Josiah Patkotak, and Calvin Schrage). Key to the coalition has been the inclusion of a small number of Republicans, who’ve provided the critical margin to give the coalition a bare governing majority.
As a result of last week’s election, many House races are headed to an instant runoff. Given the amount of backroom drama sure to ensue, even the final delivery of the results on that day likely won’t tell us definitively who will be in charge of the lower chamber in Juneau. In fact, in both 2019 and 2021, the Majority Coalition didn’t get itself sorted until well into February both times.
But here’s what we know as of the time of this writing:
- Republicans currently have leads with over 50% of the vote (necessary to avoid triggering an instant runoff) in a total of 18 districts. In most of those, Republican candidates are either staked to substantial leads or all the leading candidates hail from the GOP. However, one Republican with a decisive lead is House Speaker Louise Stutes, who leads conservative Ben Vincent by a 58-42 margin. Stutes has been publicly noncommittal about whether she she'll remain a member of the coalition, but if she does, the scoreboard on the GOP side should read Republicans 17, Coalition 1.
- Democrats currently hold leads in 10 districts. Half of those races are reasonably close, but since later-counted mail ballots tend to lean left, Democrats are a betting favorite to hold all 10. So the score is now Republicans 17, Coalition 11.
- All four independent incumbents are leading their races (two, in fact, are unopposed: Edgmon and Patkotak). Only one of them, Ortiz, is even in a single-digit race, and his lead has expanded as mail votes have been tallied. While Patkotak is a bit of a wild card (he had been mentioned as a possibility to join a Republican coalition when 2022 looked like a more favorable climate for the Rs), let’s assume for the moment that all four stay on board. That makes it Republicans 17, Coalition 15.
- In addition, two other Independent candidates are leading their races, both of whom would probably be comfortable in a coalition government with Democrats. One is Sitka’s Rebecca Himschoot, who currently holds a 57-43 lead over Republican Kenny Skifflestad. The other is Alyse Galvin, who notably ran for Congress as an Independent with official Democratic Party backing. That brings our totals to … Republicans 17, Coalition 17. (Again, all this assumes Stutes sticks with the coalition.)
And that leaves us with six districts where, in all likelihood, no candidate will receive a majority of the vote and only the RCV tallies on Nov. 23 will be dispositive. And in each of those six races, many different pathways could unfold.
- HD-11: In this south Anchorage district, independent Walter Featherly leads a pair of Republicans with 45% of the vote. His likely RCV opponent would be Republican Julie Coulombe, who sits at 39%. But Coulombe could be hurt by the runoff process because there’s no guarantee that all of the supporters of third-place Republican Ross Beiling (who’s at 15%) will list a second choice, let alone select her as their second option. On paper, this district leans Republican (Trump won here 53-44), but Featherly could definitely come out on top.
- HD-15: A similar dynamic exists for Republican Rep. Tom McKay, who serves this 50-47 Trump district just south of Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage. The combined Republican vote makes up a majority of the ballots, but McKay currently sits in second place at just 39%. Democrat Denny Wells is at 46%, while little-known (and lightly crazy) Republican David Eibeck is earning 15% of the vote. Given McKay’s status as an incumbent, Eibeck’s supporters may have cast a protest vote, and that has to make Team McKay quite nervous, indeed.
- HD-18: Republican Rep. David Nelson leads two Democratic challengers here with 43% of the vote. But two things have to make Nelson a bit unnerved: 1) The district he now represents on the north side of Anchorage is legitimately blue (it went 54-41 for Biden) and 2) his status as an incumbent makes it more likely that his leading challenger (Democrat Cliff Groh, who has 36%) will earn votes from third-place Democrat Lyn Franks, as opposed to Franks’ supporters leaving their second choice blank.
- HD-31: This Fairbanks-area seat was a near-perfect tie for president in 2020, with both Biden and Trump both garnering 48% of the vote. Perhaps perfectly, the first round of balloting saw Republicans take a combined 50% of the vote, with Democrat Maxine Dibert at 49%. Republican Rep. Bart LeBon is at 29%, but he’s going to need pretty much every vote from fellow Republican Kelly Nash to fall into his lap, with minimal dropoff of voters choosing not to cast a second choice. If even 1-in-20 Nash backers engage in so-called “bullet voting”—that is, making just a single pick—Dibert would be almost unbeatable.
- HD-34: Ironically, and somewhat painfully, the worst of the six RCV House races involves a Democratic incumbent. Rep. Grier Hopkins holds this brutally tough district that includes the exterior parts of the Fairbanks area and saw Trump beat Biden by more than 20 points. After round one, Hopkins is sitting at 43% of the vote. His problem is that Republican challenger Frank Tomaszewski is at 49.1%, and the third-place candidate is also a Republican. The odds for the Democrats in this red-leaning seat feel pretty long going.
- HD-39: In many ways, this is the weirdest race of all. It may go to RCV, even though there are only two candidates! Right now, veteran Democratic Rep. Neal Foster leads Tyler Ivanoff, a member of the Alaskan Independence Party, by just ten votes (49.8%-49.5%) out of over 3,000 cast. Since neither candidate has a majority, victory may depend on whether any of the two dozen or so people who cast write in votes actually bothered to list either candidate as their second choice. It probably won’t matter in the long run anyway, since this race is nearly certain to be subject to a recount.
Further complicating matters are a pair of ongoing legal challenges. One is to the eligibility of Republican state Rep. David Eastman, whose membership in the far-right anti-government Oath Keepers group may render him ineligible to serve in the House under the Alaska state constitution’s disloyalty clause. The other questions the residency status of Democratic candidate Jennie Armstrong. Both Eastman and Armstrong are currently leading their respective races, but in late October, a judge put the certification of the results in Eastman’s district on hold until a trial resolves his eligibility issue.
Nov. 23 will be like Election Night, the Sequel. On top of the marquee events—will Rep. Mary Peltola earn re-election? will Lisa Murkowski turn back the MAGA-fueled challenger of Kelly Tshibaka?—these state legislative races will have a profound impact on what the Alaska legislature looks like going forward. And, implications for governance aside, it will also be paradise for election nerds, since it’ll present the largest-scale utilization of instant runoffs we’ve seen in this country to date.