Young barely leads Parnell

152 VOTES: GOP House primary will take weeks to decide.

August 28, 2008 

U.S. Rep. Don Young maintained a slim lead over Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell Wednesday in the fight to be the Republican candidate for U.S. House. But a winner won't be known for at least two weeks.

With all but one of Alaska's 438 precincts reporting in the Republican primary on Wednesday night, Young had 45.47 percent of the vote to Parnell's 45.31 percent. The difference is just 152 votes, with Young up 42,539 to 42,387. State Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux had 9.21 percent .

The remaining uncounted precinct is the Interior village of Hughes, where the phone lines are down, according to the state Division of Elections. Hughes has only 63 registered voters, so won't make much of a difference in the outcome.

Thousands of questioned and absentee ballots will decide the race. Elections workers won't count them until Sept. 5 and the Young campaign said it expects whichever candidate is losing after they are tallied to request a recount.

The Young and Parnell campaigns are in limbo while they wait for a winner. That could make it harder for them to raise money to campaign for the Nov. 4 general election.

Meanwhile, former state Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, who defeated Diane Benson in Tuesday's Democratic primary, is off and running with his campaign to beat the Young-Parnell winner in November. "I'll take either one of them," Berkowitz said on Wednesday. "I could beat either one of them."

Young, who is in Fort Yukon, told reporters in a telephone news conference that he'll be returning to Washington D.C. on Tuesday and his campaign wouldn't be hurt by the delay in getting a result.

"If I was behind and losing the election of course there would be no fundraisers," Young said. "But the reality is we're ahead and we expect to be ahead when the absentee votes are done."

THOUSANDS OF ABSENTEE BALLOTS

Parnell said Wednesday he's "cautiously optimistic" he's going to beat Young.

"I'm excited that we have a 152-vote spread and we've got thousands of absentee ballots yet to count," Parnell said. "We're just going to have to patiently wait and see what happens."

Parnell said he's going to prepare for a November matchup with Berkowitz while he waits word on whether he's going to be the Republican nominee.

"There's no way a campaign at this point can just stop and lose those two weeks," Parnell said.

He said the campaign will do "strategic planning," including working on how it's going to approach fundraising for the fall campaign. Most of the money for Parnell's primary race came through the Washington D.C. anti-tax and anti-spending group Club for Growth .

One wrinkle in this tight race is that Parnell, as lieutenant governor, is the state official in charge of overseeing the Division of Elections. Parnell recused himself from oversight of the primary when he became a candidate and said he has no role in the ballot count.

Mike Anderson, Young's chief of staff who is working on his campaign, said it is a unique situation to have Young's opponent have elections authority.

"We can't go to the lieutenant governor and ask him for advice," he said.

Anderson said former Democratic Lt. Gov. Stephen McAlpine has offered the Young campaign some advice on the elections process. Anderson said the campaign is not hiring McAlpine but is "looking to retain a lawyer, should we need it," to consult about its options as the ballot counting process moves forward.

Anderson said Young isn't challenging Parnell's role and has nothing but respect for Gail Fenumiai, the state elections director overseeing the ballot count. Fenumiai is a Parnell appointee with long experience in the state elections office.

QUESTIONED BALLOTS

It's unclear how many absentee ballots the elections office will have to count in the race. The state mailed out over 16,200 and has received about 7,600 back.

"So there's still a potential for 8,000-plus of those to come back," Fenumiai said. Elections officials have counted absentee ballots they received so far but stopped the tally and will not be counting any more until Sept. 5. So long as the absentee ballots were postmarked Tuesday, the elections workers will count them.

Fenumiai said she's also expecting there will be between 5,000 and 10,000 questioned ballots in the election, all of which the division will count or disqualify on Sept. 5.

Some ballots from Southeast Alaska won't be counted until September as well.

That's because poll workers ran out of Republican primary ballots in Petersburg and Wrangell late Tuesday afternoon. Voters in those towns were then allowed to vote using sample ballots, which are valid, but will not be counted until the state election review board starts its work on Sept. 8, Fenumiai said.

Fenumiai said 204 voters in Petersburg used the sample ballot and 53 voters in Wrangell did so.


Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344. Reporter Wesley Loy contributed to this story.

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