JUNEAU - Voters in Tuesday's primary election were deciding the final lineup for the November general election, but at least seven Democrats are already assured a free ride to Juneau.
After years of struggling to recruit a full slate of candidates for state legislative races, Democrats this year are armed with big hopes and a well-stocked pool of contenders.
Fifty seats, 40 in the House and 10 in the Senate, are open in the Alaska Legislature. Only two races do not have a Democrat in the running, while 10 races, or one in five, have no one running from the Republican Party.
With 70 percent of precincts reporting late Tuesday night, incumbents from both parties appeared to be surviving the primary comfortably, though it was too early to tell in some rural districts.
Incumbent Rep. Mike Kelly of Fairbanks won the Republican nomination in his district with about 50 percent in a three-way race. Palmer Republican Carl Gatto also won with 63 percent of the vote in a three-way race that was noted for its profusion of campaign signs.
It was too soon to tell how Democrat Richard Foster of Nome would fare against challenger Charles Pullock with only three of 27 precincts reporting. The longest-serving member of the Legislature, Foster missed a large portion of the last session while recovering from a stroke in Seattle. Foster, who has a genetic kidney disease, is also awaiting an organ transplant.
In Sitka, grant writer Lily Herwald trounced Mayor Marko Dapcevich in the Democratic race and will face Wrangell Republican Peggy Wilson in the fall.
Meanwhile, it's Democrat Bronson Frye against Republican Randy Roosdett to fill the Anchorage House seat being vacated by Republican Ralph Samuels. Samuels abruptly announced during the summer special session that he was pulling out of the race to take a new job.
And former Juneau assemblywoman Cathy Munoz, a Republican, will face Democratic incumbent Andrea Doll for the Mendenhall Valley seat.
Candidates with no opposition in the fall include Reps. Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan, Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, Les Gara, D-Anchorage, Lindsey Holmes, D-Anchorage, and Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue. Sens. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, Hollis French, D-Anchorage and Donny Olson, D-Nome, will also be returning to Juneau.
The fallout from the recent FBI corruption probe may account for Republicans' lackluster participation this year. Alaska Republican Party spokesman McHugh Pierre said recruiting candidates was tough.
"You know about the climate in Juneau. I don't know that a lot of folks are that excited to run, quite honestly. It's just a flux year and that's why we see some Democrats that are uncontested."
The federal probe, which became known two years ago with FBI raids on six legislators' offices, has already landed three former lawmakers, all Republicans, in jail. More trials are pending, including that of Alaska Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, who is running for re-election.
With Stevens and U.S. Rep. Don Young, another Republican under investigation, looking vulnerable, the competition to unseat them has been fierce. And that's injected a shot of adrenalin into the state races, said Mike Coumbe, executive director of the Alaska Democratic Party.
The last time Democrats had control of the state House was in 1992, but the Senate last session had a bipartisan majority for the first time since the early 1990s.
Democrats have been slowly gaining ground in recent years, said Coumbe, and this could be their best chance in years to be a part of majorities in both chambers.
"It's a real different election than it has been in many years. I think people see an opportunity to go there and be in power," Coumbe said.
The breakdown of the current Legislature is 23 Republicans and 17 Democrats in the House and 11 Republicans and nine Democrats in the Senate.
To take power, Democrats would have to pick up four more seats than they have in the House and two more seats in the Senate. Pierre said he doubts Democrats can do it.
He said registered Republican voters outnumber Democrats in a majority of districts while nonpartisan and undeclared voters tend to lean Republican.
"I really feel at the end of the day, the majority of folks voting will vote for the Republican candidate because they best follow their beliefs," said Pierre.
But Coumbe said this year is different.
"There's never been a time when all the stars are aligned and every race, from president to Congress to the Legislature, are all in play. We've never seen this before in our history and it's very exciting to be a part of," Coumbe said.
Coumbe said his party is hopeful that members will unseat incumbents in South Anchorage, typically a Republican stronghold, and he predicts a tough fight ahead for Fairbanks incumbents, Reps. Jay Ramras and Mike Kelly, if they survive their primary challenges.
Pierre said Democrats are vulnerable, too. He pointed to the Juneau valley seat where two well known Juneau women, former assemblywoman Cathy Munoz and executive director of the At-sea Processors Association, Stephanie Madsen, were vying for the Republican nomination.