Thursday’s recount in Alaska's 15th House District reaffirmed Republican incumbent Tom McKay’s tiny edge over Democrat Denny Wells, though control of the chamber still remains in doubt more than a month after Election Day.
McKay’s lead ticked up from seven votes to nine as a result of the recount, though Wells has five days to appeal the outcome (he has not yet said if he will). A McKay win would leave Republicans with 21 members in this 40-person body, theoretically enough for a bare majority; Democrats won 13 constituencies, while independents took the other six.
One of those Republicans, though, is House Speaker Louise Stutes, a member of the shifting cross-party coalition of Democrats, Republicans, and independents known as the Majority Caucus that has run the chamber since 2017. (The other Republican, Kelly Merrick, successfully sought a promotion to the state Senate, which recently formed its own bipartisan majority coalition.)
Stutes sounds as thought she’d like to keep the status quo intact in the lower chamber: She recently put out a joint statement with two fellow members of the Majority Caucus, independent Bryce Edgmon and Democrat Neal Foster, praising the group’s efforts and adding, “Alaskans expect us to be ready to work in January and to get the job done on time.”
However, the outcome of a trial concerning a very different Republican, far-right state Rep. David Eastman, could indirectly end up determining whether or not the Majority Caucus continues. There’s no question that the obstructionist Eastman beat Wasilla City Councilman Stu Graham, who has a far better relationship with the GOP leadership, by a 52-28 margin in their November intra-party contest. One of Eastman’s constituents, though, is suing over whether he can actually serve because of his membership in the Oath Keepers, a group that was involved in the Jan. 6 attack.
A judicial order has prevented election authorities from certifying Eastman as the winner, and if he’s ultimately disqualified, the seat would go to Graham as the second-place finisher. That outcome could be very good for Republicans who want to control the chamber on their own: One state representative said of Eastman, “He's voted with us. He's voted against us. I can't say any more than that, other than he's got some issues.”
The suit argues that, because the state constitution prevents anyone from holding office who “advocates, or who aids or belongs to any party or association which advocates the overthrow by force or violence of the United States,” an Oath Keeper like Eastman cannot serve in the state House.
Eastman attorney Joe Miller (yes, that Joe Miller) has pushed back, insisting that none of the federal charges say that “alleged Oath Keepers in any way attempted [to] overthrow the government.” The trial is set to start Monday, and multiple people told reporter Nathaniel Herz that it’s unlikely anyone will form a majority before the verdict is in. (The founder of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, was convicted of seditious conspiracy last month by a jury in Washington, D.C., for his role in fomenting the Jan. 6 attacks.)
Eastman isn’t the only problem for anyone looking to cobble together a 21-person majority, though. Herz writes in the Northern Journal that two independent members of the Majority Caucus, state Reps. Dan Ortiz and Josiah Patkotak, haven’t closed the door on siding with most of the GOP.
Patkotak, who also kept everyone guessing about his plans two years ago, appears to be the more unpredictable of the two, saying, “All options are on the table.” Patkotak, who won re-election without opposition, represents a seat in the North Slope in the far northern corner of Alaska that, while Democratic-leaning, is in a major oil-producing region, which Herz says that this could make him an appealing ally for Republicans who favor the resource-extraction industry.
Ortiz, who won a close race against a Republican foe, also hedged, saying, “There’s not much I can say other than time will work it out.” However, a Democratic colleague, state Rep. Andy Josephsen, told Herz he wasn’t concerned that Ortiz might side with the GOP.
It’s also possible that the Majority Caucus could win over some additional GOP recruits, though two Republicans elected last month sounded unlikely to go for it. “I just don't think that an organization of 19 Democrats and independents, Stutes, and me is going to be in the best interests of the state,” Jesse Sumner said to Herz, predicting, “They'd run circles around me.” Will Stapp in turn said of partnering with the coalition, “I haven’t seen or heard anything that would make me think that it’s in the best interests of the Interior, or my town or community.”
Whatever happens, we could be in for a long wait: Following both the 2018 and 2020 elections, alliances in the House weren't finalized until February, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see a similar delay this time.