Alaska lawmakers look at election results and ponder policies, politics and personalities in coalition discussions

The Alaska State Capitol is seen on Friday, May 27, 2022 in Juneau. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Alaska lawmakers are starting to think about picking teams, in a way, as early election results show who won their races, who’s likely to win and how like-minded legislators might form groups to advance their agendas.

With nearly every seat in the Alaska Legislature up for election this year, one big question has been whether Republicans will form a majority in either the state Senate or House, or whether either chamber will be controlled by a coalition of Democrats, moderate Republicans and independents.

Alaska Beacon reporter James Brooks says some state senators have been talking about the very real possibility of forming a coalition. But Brooks says the future of a coalition-controlled House is much murkier.


James Brooks: It’s too early to say in the House. But right now, Republicans have leads in 21 of the 40 seats, a bare minimum majority needed. But it’s not guaranteed. The last few election cycles, we’ve seen Republicans win a majority of seats in the House but be unable to form a majority caucus because of divides between Republicans.

Casey Grove: Right. And what are some of those key races for Senate seats that either surprised you or just that factor in heavily here?

JB: Right now we’re seeing Democratic Sen. Scott Kawasaki leading in Fairbanks. That was close race and still is a close race. But he seems to have a comfortable lead at this point. The closest race in the Senate right now is Democratic Rep. Matt Claman, who challenged incumbent Republican Sen. Mia Costello. He’s got a very small lead. But right now it looks like absentee and early votes that haven’t yet been counted are more Democratic than the Election Day ballots. So it seems like Claman is going to expand his lead rather than see it shrink. We’ll keep a close eye on that. In Eagle River, we’ve got Republican Kelly Merrick winning that race by a fairly large margin. The result isn’t expected to change there. If you’ll recall, Merrick, as a representative, was one of two Republicans who joined the coalition in the House last term. So she’s considered a possibility for a coalition in the Senate, as well. It remains to be seen there, though.

CG: And then same question for the House. What were key races that you were watching there and how did they turn out?

JB: You know, a lot of the races in the House that I had an eye on, I’m still waiting to see what’s going to happen. There’s a couple in East Anchorage that I’m not comfortable on calling. The one covering Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Government Hill, we’re going to need to wait until Nov. 23, until ranked choice voting kicks in and we see how those sort out. Up in Fairbanks, where Maxine Dibert, the Democrat, was challenging Republican incumbent Bart LeBon. It looks like Dibert has enough to win and flip that seat to the Democrats. On the other side of Fairbanks, Democratic incumbent Grier Hopkins looks like he’ll lose. He was placed in a heavily Republican district by redistricting. So that’s effectively a draw if you’re considering control of the House, both of those two races.

CG: So James, getting back to this idea of of whether or not a coalition would form in either chamber of the Legislature, I’ve always wondered, what are they actually talking about? I mean, are they talking about specific issues? The PFD? The budget? Or is it just sort of general philosophy or what?

JB: Yeah, I was talking to Sen. Jesse Kiehl, the Democrat from Juneau, and he said that whenever you’re talking about an agreement in the Legislature, whether it means a coalition agreement or just a piece of legislation, you need three things, three P’s. And he said, it’s alignment on policies, politics and personalities. You need all three to align in order to get an agreement. So as senators and representatives talks to each other, they’re gonna be saying, “Well, can I get along with this guy or these ladies who are in a group with me? Do we have the same ideas, the same priorities, on say, the budget? On the dividend? Can we vote together on this? Do we have a good idea of who the Senate president or the Speaker of the House, and the finance chairs, the leadership positions, who are going to take those?” Is there agreement on that? How do you handle a situation where, say, there’s a controversial bill that splits the majority? Are people going to be allowed to vote how they want, or are they going to need to follow a single majority caucus line? Those are the kinds of things that get hammered out.

CG: Yeah, that’s interesting.

JB: As one senator told me, there’s a lot of calls going on right now. Lots of text messages. Lots of calls. People coordinating and saying, “Well, how do you feel about X? And do you like person Y?” One thing that surprised me that I heard while talking to senators was that there was the suggestion that the reelection of Gov. Mike Dunleavy might encourage the creation of the coalition there in the Senate, the idea being that some of the moderate Republicans have different views on the budget than Dunleavy, and they’re concerned about a repeat of Dunleavy’s 2019 budget plan, where he proposed really drastic cuts to state services in order to pay for a larger Permanent Fund Dividend. And while Dunleavy eventually backed away from most of those cuts, there’s a lot of long memories in the Senate.

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