Alaska Democratic leaders are expecting the general election to yield big gains for the party in both state legislative chambers, a confidence that gives Republicans pause.
"I think that's a very interesting concept, just not well-founded in reality this year," said Randy Ruedrich, chairman of the Alaska Republican Party. His own forecast is that Republicans will reclaim the majority in the 20-member Senate -- whose power has been equally split -- and add to their 22 seats in the 40-member House.
For at least one political observer, however, there is no crystal ball for this highly competitive election season in Alaska.
Conditions here can't be compared to races in the Lower 48, where the economy has fared far worse, fueling an anti-incumbent rage among voters, said Jerry McBeath, a veteran political science professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He believes most incumbents running for state office here are fairly safe, unless the voter anger personified by the national tea party movement spills over onto local races.
"It's really exceptionally hard to predict how much Alaska voters are going to be affected by national conditions, which are bad, when Alaska conditions are very good," he said.
One thing is fairly certain. Voters of all stripes are expected to storm the polls Nov. 2, driven by an intense three-candidate battle being waged in the U.S. Senate race, with early voting already off to a hectic start. In that headline-grabbing race, tea party favorite Joe Miller defeated GOP incumbent Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary, and now she is running as a write-in candidate, with former Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams on the Democratic ticket.
In Alaska, Republicans far outnumber Democrats, but independents account for more than half the state's nearly 495,000 registered voters. They hold considerable sway for either major party.
State races being closely watched include one open Senate seat held by a Republican. Four seats in the House also are open among the 40 on the ballot, three formerly held by Republicans and one by a Democrat. Only half of the 10 Senate seats on the ballot are contested, while all but 14 of 40 are contested in the House. An open seat is an election where no incumbent is running.
Alaska Democratic Party Chairwoman Patti Higgins said the morale among the Democratic candidates is high as they campaign in legislative districts across the state.
"We're optimistic at winning races and we're going to make some gains," Higgins said. "How many? I don't know."
State races being closely watched include the open Senate seat held by Anchorage Republican Con Bunde, the minority leader who decided not to seek re-election, citing frustrations with the bipartisan majority composed of the 10 Democrats and six Republicans.
The race pits Republican Cathy Giessel against Democratic Janet Reiser. It the first legislative campaign for both.
Giessel, a registered nurse and advanced nurse practitioner, describes herself as a lifelong Alaskan and "responsible, conservative Republican" who has knocked on more than 8,400 doors to meet with voters. She is a former GOP vice chair who in 2008 was promoted for the top spot by Miller, who would later be accused of improperly using government computers in a failed effort to oust Ruedrich at the state party convention that year. At the time, Miller was working as a part-time attorney for the Fairbanks North Star Borough.
Giessel, 58, said she knew only that she was being promoted to replace Ruedrich, with no knowledge of any channels used to do so, improper or not.
"I knew nothing about it," she said. "My job as the vice chair was to organize that convention. I knew nothing about what he was doing."
Reiser, 55, is a member of the Chugach Electric Association's board of directors and said her education was in chemical engineering. She lists her occupation as a business executive with 25 years in Alaska and describes herself as a fiscal conservative and social moderate.
"We're facing some pretty critical areas, issues in this state," she said. "I think the overarching issue is energy -- energy and energy policy -- and I've spent most of my career in some facet or form of that."
Phil Dziubinski is running as an independent candidate in that race.
In other House races of note, Anchorage Democrat Mike Doogan is seeking re-election following removal of a brain tumor in July. Democrat Barbara Norton and Republican Lance Pruitt are among those vying for an East Anchorage seat vacated by Democrat Harry Crawford, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.
In Eagle River, Bill Cook has mounted a write-in campaign after losing the Republican primary by four votes to Don Saddler. The open seat was formerly held by Republican Nancy Dahlstrom, who left when she was assigned by Gov. Sean Parnell to a newly created position as military affairs adviser, then resigned from that job amid questions about the legality of her hire. The Democrat in the race is Martin Lindeke.
Also on the ballot is a measure calling for an increase in the number of state legislators, from the current 60 to 66. The measure would amend the Alaska Constitution to expand the Senate to 22 members and the House to 44.