The upcoming legislative session could be the last for Democrats to hold real power in the Legislature, with the Republican-led redrawing of the district lines having put some key Democrats in tough spots for next year's election and races already starting to take shape.
The biggest battle next fall will be for control of the state Senate, which is split between 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats. It's ruled by a bipartisan majority including all the Democrats and six of the Republicans, a power-sharing arrangement that puts lawmakers from both parties in key positions on spending and social issues.
Alaska Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich said he sees the GOP with a "very good" chance of taking full control of the Senate in next November's election. The Republicans already control the House and the governor's office.
"I believe there is a chance of us picking up, under very, very ideal circumstances, six" Senate seats, Ruedrich said.
Democrats call that fantasy. But it's clear the Republicans, with new districts, do have a good chance to make gains. And even one Senate seat could tip the balance.
Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bettye Davis is among the senators Republicans see as vulnerable. Davis has long represented an East Anchorage district but because of the redrawing of the district lines she'll have to run for election next year in a new district that includes more conservative areas of Eagle River and the lower Hillside.
Davis attracted a well-known challenger in Eagle River Republican Rep. Anna Fairclough, who is looking to move up to the Senate and has filed for the seat.
Alaska's election districts are redrawn every 10 years after the new Census numbers come in showing population changes in the state. This year the board that redrew the districts was made up of four Republicans and one Democrat. The board said the work it did was nonpartisan and reflected the shifts in population while meeting the Department of Justice mandate that the voting power of Alaska Natives is not weakened.
Democrats were critical of the result, but the state Democratic Party chose not to challenge it in court. The Fairbanks North Star Borough at first decided to sue but then earlier this month opted to abandon its challenge.
The City of Petersburg pared down its lawsuit, dropping some claims. That leaves the whittled down Petersburg effort and a pair of Fairbanks-area voters as the only ones challenging the plan.
Fairbanks is the place where Republicans appear to have the best chance to make gains in the Senate. The new redistricting plan pits two incumbent Fairbanks Democratic state senators against one another, Joe Paskvan and Joe Thomas. At least one of them will be gone after the election.
There is also a new Senate district that runs from west Fairbanks down through conservative areas including Delta Junction, almost to Palmer. Well-known Fairbanks auto dealer Ralph Seekins, previously in the state Senate, has indicated his interest in the seat.
Republican Party chairman Ruedrich, who maintains Republicans were ill-treated in the last redistricting a decade ago, brought up Fairbanks first when asked which seats he thought he could pick up.
But Alaska Democratic Party Chair Patti Higgins said she isn't ready to give up on Fairbanks. "Fairbanks has been trending to more progressive ideas. ... they have a Democratic mayor; they just elected a couple of good guys to the Assembly."
Democrats also will face challenges in Anchorage. Democratic Sens. Bill Wielechowski and Hollis French will be running in much different districts from the ones they've represented. Republicans particularly think they have a chance to knock off Wielechowski, whose new district includes Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, which votes more conservatively than the rest of East Anchorage. Democrats brush off the suggestion Wielechowski is vulnerable.
Republican chairman Ruedrich said Bob Roses, a former state representative who lost his bid for re-election to the House in 2008, was filing to challenge Wielechowski in the new Senate district. Other Republicans might also get in the race.
A wild card Anchorage race that will help decide party control of the state Senate is in a newly created district that includes Spenard, parts of Midtown, the university area and Lake Otis south to 56th Avenue. There is no incumbent and Anchorage Democratic Rep. Berta Gardner will take on Republican Don Smith, a former Assemblyman now on the school board, for the Senate seat.
"I think we're going to do really well," said Democratic Party chair Higgins.
Another key race will be in Southeast Alaska, where Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman and Angoon Democratic Sen. Albert Kookesh are pitted in the same district and must run against one another.
The outlook for the election will continue to take shape over the coming months, with a June 1 candidate filing deadline. The Legislature convenes on Jan. 17.
Reach Sean Cockerham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4344.
By SEAN COCKERHAM
Anchorage Daily News