Leadership scramble begins with races undecided

November 5, 2008 

A handful of races in Tuesday's state House and Senate elections are so close the outcomes won't be known for days. But lawmakers in both chambers have already begun efforts to organize for the session that starts in January.

The state Senate is headed for a 10-10 split if Democrat Joe Paskvan can hang on to a lead in Fairbanks Senate District E.

Paskvan is ahead of Republican Cynthia Henry by 214 votes, but an unknown number of absentee, early votes and questioned ballots remain to be counted in that district as well as all the others.

Statewide, more than 60,000 votes are yet to be counted.

Sen. Bert Stedman, a Ketchikan Republican, said there's "a small chance" the Fairbanks race could turn around, but he thinks it's more likely the Senate will end up divided evenly and that some sort of coalition will evolve.

"You have to build a consensus ... but first you have to get a majority," Stedman said Wednesday afternoon.

Paskvan's skimpy lead looks like a landslide compared to a couple of races in the House. Both parties lost seats in the election and Republicans ended election night with 22 seats to 18 held by Democrats. There are close races on both sides, but Republican leaders think they'll hang on to a majority.

EVEN CLOSER

In House District 27, incumbent Democrat Bob Buch holds a 67-vote edge over Republican Bob Lewis in a South Anchorage/Sand Lake neighborhood that was traditionally Republican until Buch won in 2006.

Lewis said he feels optimistic.

"This is a very conservative, Republican district," he said, admitting he's puzzled that returns suggest a number of people who voted for McCain/Palin jumped ranks to vote for Lewis's Democratic opponent.

Buch said he doesn't expect to find out for days if he's returning to Juneau. Hundreds of absentee and other ballots are yet to be counted, and the outcome won't be known until at least Nov. 14.

"I'm not one bit surprised (the race is so tight)," Buch said. "I've been telling people for two years this is going to be a very, very tight race."

Other tight races:

• Democrat Pete Petersen leads incumbent Republican Bob Roses by 136 votes in Anchorage's District 19 to represent Muldoon and East Anchorage.

• Democrat Chris Tuck leads Republican Ron Jordan by 158 in Independence Park's District 29, a race with no incumbent.

• In Fairbanks District 9, incumbent Democrat Scott Kawasaki has an 87-vote edge over Republican Sue Hull.

• Republican incumbent Mike Kelly leads Karl Kassel by 137 votes in Fairbanks House District 7.

• And in Kodiak's District 36, Republican Alan Austerman has a 111-vote lead on Democrat Andrew Lundquist in a race for retiring Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux's seat.

THE NEXT SPEAKER?

Kenai's Republican Rep. Mike Chenault is angling for the Speaker's chair in the House, and said "an organization that works" may come together soon.

"There are a couple races that could go either way, but I still think we'll end up in the majority," Chenault said.

"There will be a discussion that has to take place. I think we've got to talk to the majority and see how comfortable they are in organizing with a couple of people. We certainly want to include everyone that would be in the majority."

Current House Speaker John Harris, a Valdez Republican, said he's not interested in keeping the job. Harris said he's thinking about running for a statewide position in two years - maybe Congress, maybe governor, depending on what Gov. Sarah Palin does.

"I'll just have to look and see what my options are, but it's hard to run from the speaker's seat," Harris said. "If you run statewide, you need to be able to have the time to do it."

MAT-SU REPUBLICAN ROUTS

No close calls in the Mat-Su. More like stampedes. Republican incumbents easily turned back all challengers Tuesday in five state House races.

In District 13, Palmer bookstore owner David Cheezem, a Democrat, more than doubled incumbent Republican Carl Gatto's campaign bank, taking in more than $30,000 to Gatto's $12,000. Didn't matter: Gatto trounced Cheezem by more than 2-1.

Republican Rep. Mark Neuman kept his District 15 seat representing the northern Mat-Su over Democrat Lew Dischner. Republican Wes Keller, of Wasilla, overwhelmed Democrat Rose Smith to retain his District 14 seat representing Wasilla.

Incumbent Rep. Bill Stoltze, of Chugiak, beat Democrat Beverly Serrano in District 16, which includes Chugiak, Butte and Lazy Mountain. Harris, the House speaker, was also reelected over Democrat challenger Nancy Lethcoe in District 12, which includes Sutton, Chickaloon and Valdez.

And in the only open Mat-Su race, Republican Linda Menard defeated Democrat Erick Cordero by a 4-1 margin to take over the Wasilla-based Senate seat held by Lyda Green who didn't run for re-election.

Daily News reporter Rind White contributed to this story.

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