Don't expect the current lull in political messaging to last long. With billions of dollars in oil taxes at stake and a handful of state Senate seats controlling the outcome, November's election will be a furious media affair.
The Senate already was shaken up in the Aug. 28 primary, when two Republicans in the 16-member bipartisan coalition controlling the Senate were knocked off by insurgents opposed to joining with Democrats.
In November, the targets will be Democrats themselves, who outnumbered Republicans in the coalition 10-6. The Senate is where Gov. Sean Parnell's House-passed oil-tax cuts died.
For the past four years, voters kept the partisan balance in the Senate even at 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats. Senators resolved the deadlock by creating the two-party coalition, with the presidency going to a Republican, Sen. Gary Stevens of Kodiak, and key chairmanships split between the parties. Important questions of legislation and policy were decided behind closed doors in the bipartisan caucus. The purist, four-member conservative Republican minority caucus watched from the outside.
"Obviously, this year's election is a referendum on the bipartisan Senate coalition and the public's feeling on whether they're right in their decision to stiff-arm the governor's oil and gas tax," said Andrew Halcro, a blogger and former two-term Republican House member from Anchorage.
David Gottstein, a member of Backbone, the organization asking Alaskans to stand up to the oil industry on taxes and to also support the coalition, said he'd like to slow the efforts of outgoing Republican Party chairman Randy Ruedrich to build a clear Republican majority in the Senate, as exists in the House.
"You have an attempt by the Randy Ruedriches of electing a bunch of people that won't work across the aisle so they can accomplish their agenda," said Gottstein, a Democrat. "The one place in America where having people work across party lines is trying to be destroyed."
Ruedrich didn't return several calls seeking comment.
There's another big factor working to change the Senate's chemistry: With the new census, Republicans controlled the drawing of new legislative districts and their math doesn't favor the Democratic Party. Optimistic Democrats think they can hold nine seats, leading to an 11-9 Senate in favor of Republicans. Optimistic Republicans think they can take as many as 14 seats.
"I think if the Republicans pick up three seats or four seats, you could very well see a solid Republican majority versus the bipartisan working coalition," Halcro said.
What about 12-8?
Stevens, among others, says a 12-8 division might well precipitate another coalition. Democrats and moderate Republicans like Stevens and Sitka's Bert Stedman who believe that oil taxes should be modified but not cut by billions could still be allies in a power-sharing deal.
And though some conservatives have vowed to not join Democrats, other Republicans are less certain. In the Republican primary for an open seat in Fairbanks, for instance, former labor commissioner Click Bishop beat conservative former Sen. Ralph Seekins. Bishop refused to sign a pledge that he would only join a Republican caucus. In Anchorage, Sen. Lesil McGuire beat a Republican who challenged her membership in the coalition, and Republican Sen. Kevin Meyer, the coalition's majority leader, faced no primary opponent and is running in a safe district.
As for a possible 11-9 split, it would almost have to trigger a coalition, ideally with 14 to 16 members, Stevens said.
"It's unhealthy to have an 11-member caucus -- that would be just a disaster, where every member is walking around with a veto in his pocket," Stevens said.
Education consultant Tom Begich, brother of U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, said he expects to see Super PACs pour a fortune of oil and resource money into the race, primarily on television commercials. The U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision equated free spending with free speech and the speech of businesses, organizations and unions with that of people, opening the way to unlimited fund-raising by Super PACs as long as they were independent of candidates.
The recent success of business PACs in crushing the coastal zone management ballot initiative last month and with Native organizations helping U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski defeat Joe Miller and Scott McAdams in a write-in campaign in 2010 is likely to encourage their participation in this year's Senate races, Begich said.
Labor unions will also join the fray, he predicted.
"They're going to throw nukes at each other," he said.
But in the case of Senate races, he added, candidates matter too. Unlike a ballot initiative or a statewide congressional race, Senate districts are small enough for candidates to go door-to-door to meet voters and have an opportunity to overcome hostile, negative ads on TV.
"The dialog changes at the door," Begich said. "People are hearing it from an individual as opposed to hearing some broad, 30-second or 60-second message. That can make a difference."
RUNDOWN OF RACES
Here's a brief rundown of the 19 upcoming Senate races. Because Juneau and Petersburg's District P, occupied by Democrat Dennis Egan, is largely unchanged by redistricting, there will be no election there until 2014. Otherwise nine seats are for two-year terms, and 10 for four-year terms.
• District A (North Pole, Fairbanks), four years: Redistricting paired two incumbents in the same district, Republican John Coghill, a conservative who declined to join the coalition, and Democrat Joe Thomas. While Democrats say this race in play, it's an uphill fight for Thomas in a district where Republican voters outnumber Democrats nearly 10,000 to 2,700. As in every other district in Alaska, voters registered as nonpartisan or undeclared outnumber either party in District A.
• Senate B (Fairbanks), two years: Democratic incumbent Joe Paskvan faces former Republican Rep. Pete Kelly in another race that's in play. While Republicans have a 3-2 advantage in this district, the margin is much smaller than in District A.
• Senate C (Fairbanks, Delta, Valdez), four years: Three Republicans in the primary together outpolled the Democrat five-to-one in the most lopsided of all the primary "beauty contests" for Senate. That makes Republican Click Bishop the strong favorite against Democrat Anne Sudkamp.
• Senate D (Rural Mat-Su, Palmer, Talkeetna), two years: Republican primary winner Mike Dunleavy has no opponent after unseating incumbent coalition member Linda Menard.
• Senate E (Wasilla, Big Lake), four years: Incumbent Republican Charlie Huggins faces Democrat Susan Parsons Herman.
• Senate F (Chugiak, Eagle River), two years: Republican registrations outnumber Democratic four-to-one in this conservative district that keeps sending minority caucus member Fred Dyson to the Senate. The Democrat is Martin Lindeke.
• Senate G (Muldoon, College Gate, Russian Jack), four years: A hotly contested seat in play between a key coalition member, Democrat Bill Wielechowski, and former one-term House member Bob Roses, the Republican. Wielechowski only has 53 percent of his original district and so is introducing himself to many new voters.
• Senate H (University, Spenard, Rogers Park), two years: Democratic Rep. Berta Gardner is attempting to move up to the Senate in a race in play against Anchorage School Board member Don Smith. Democratic and Republican registration numbers are close to equal, but Gardner got more votes in the primary beauty contest than Smith and his Republican opponent combined.
• Senate I (Mountain View, Airport Heights, Downtown), four years: Incumbent Democrat Johnny Ellis has token opposition in cold-fusion advocate Paul Kendall, the Republican.
• Senate J (West Anchorage, Turnagain, Sand Lake), two years: Another pitched battle for a seat in play held by Democrat Hollis French, another key coalition member. He's facing former Anchorage Assemblyman Bob Bell. The new district has 65 percent of French's previous district, and Republican registrations outnumber Democrats nearly 2 to 1.
• Senate K (Oceanview, Bayshore, Midtown), four years: After winning her primary, Sen. Lesil McGuire, a coalition member, is facing a relatively unknown Democrat, Roselynn Cacy. McGuire's district encompasses only 38 percent of her previous district, but her name is generally well known after more than a decade in the House and Senate, and the district is heavily Republican.
• Senate L (Huffman, Lower Hillside), two years: Republican Kevin Meyer, the coalition's majority leader, would have a difficult time if he tried to lose in this heavily Republican district to Democrat Jake Hale.
• Senate M (East Anchorage, Eagle River), four years: Long-term incumbent Bettye Davis, a Democrat, is trying to hold on against Rep. Anna Fairclough, a Republican who wants to move up from the House. Hopeful Democrats say Davis has a chance to keep her seat and that the contest is in play, but redistricting has left only 31 percent of her original district intact, the lowest percentage of any in the state, and the new district tilts heavily conservative and Republican..
• Senate N (South Anchorage to Nikiski, Seward), two years: Republican Cathy Giessel, a conservative who refused to join the coalition, faces independent Ron Devon, a retired Anchorage retail store owner and husband of Mudflats blogger Jeanne Devon. Devon has endorsements from members of Backbone, who say the race is in play despite Devon's lack of party affiliation.
• Senate O (Kenai, Soldotna, Homer), four years: After knocking off incumbent Sen. Tom Wagoner in the Republican primary, Peter Micciche is unopposed in the general election. Wagoner was a coalition member.
• Senate Q (Most Southeast communities south of Juneau except Petersburg), four years: Redistricting pitched two coalition members against each other, Republican Bert Stedman of Sitka and Democrat Al Kookesh of Angoon. Count the race among those in play, though Republicans outnumber Democrats in the district, 3 to 2.
• Senate R (Kodiak, Cordova, Dillingham, Naknek), two years: Senate President Gary Stevens of Kodiak faces Democrat Robert Henrichs of Cordova. Republican and Democratic registrations are closely balanced and in the beauty contest in the primary, Stevens only got about 400 more votes than Henrichs.
• Senate S (Bethel to Nenana), four years: Democratic Sen. Lyman Hoffman, a coalition leader, is unopposed.
• Senate T (Nome, Barrow, Interior Villages, Tok), two years: Incumbent Democrat Donny Olson faces Republican Allen Minish of Chitina. Democrats outnumber Republicans 4 to 3 and Bush villages traditionally vote Democratic in large numbers.
Reach Richard Mauer at email@example.com or 257-4345.
By RICHARD MAUER
Anchorage Daily News