Low-profile Democratic primary a challenge for oil tax repeal supporters

Nathaniel Herz

The campaign to repeal the 2012 oil tax cut is already being vastly outspent by its opponents, who are capitalizing on millions of dollars in contributions from oil companies in advance of the Aug. 19 vote.

But there's a second dynamic likely to hurt the repeal effort as well: a hard-fought Republican primary on the same ballot likely to bring out conservatives who favor keeping the tax cut, and a relatively low-profile set of Democratic races that could leave many repeal-minded liberal voters at home.

Supporters and opponents of the repeal emphasize that the referendum is a nonpartisan issue, with high-profile Democratic and Republican backers on both sides. But a poll released Tuesday suggests there is a distinct partisan split, with 65 percent of Democrats supporting repeal compared to just 23 percent of Republicans.

That dynamic presents a challenge for the repeal campaign, since the Democratic primary Aug. 19 includes just one serious statewide race, the contest for the lieutenant governor nomination between Hollis French and Bob Williams. Even that campaign has attracted far less attention, and spending, than the GOP U.S. Senate race, a high-profile three-way contest that’s seen millions of dollars in ad spending.

“There’s nothing, there’s no motivation if you’re a Democrat,” said Marc Hellenthal, a Republican consultant and pollster in Anchorage who’s not working for either side on the referendum issue. “The only motivation is proposition 1.”

Polling on the referendum has so far shown a tight race.

The survey released Tuesday, conducted by liberal-leaning firm Public Policy Polling, had the repeal measure in a dead heat among 673 Alaska voters, with 42 percent on each side and 16 percent undecided. Another poll of likely voters conducted at the end of last month showed the repeal opponents up 46 percent to 40 percent.

A big question, though, is how much success each side will have in rallying its supporters to the polls.

Willis Lyford, the campaign manager for the oil industry’s anti-repeal effort, which has raised some $9 million, said his group is relying on both paid staff and volunteers to help boost voter turnout.

The anti-repeal effort, Lyford said, “resonates with Republicans,” adding that the “dynamics of the ballot,” with the hotly contested Senate race, give his group an advantage.

But Lyford said his group would be trying to attract centrist voters as well, including Democrats. Former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles has endorsed the vote-no campaign, and Lyford noted his group had received support from labor unions as well.

“You have to keep your base and then add to it,” Lyford said.

T.J. Presley, the campaign manager for the leading group backing repeal, Vote Yes! Repeal the Giveaway, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

But Jack Roderick, a former Anchorage mayor and a key figure in the repeal campaign, downplayed the GOP primary’s effect on the oil tax referendum.

Roderick is a Democrat, some of the key backers of the repeal effort are former or current Democratic lawmakers, and the state Democratic party has endorsed a "yes" vote. But Roderick noted that two Republican state legislators -- Gary Stevens and Bert Stedman -- are joining them.

“I know it appears to be sort of Democratic, but boy, we worked hard not to make it so,” Roderick said in a phone interview. “This is just a tax matter.”

Presley is the group’s only paid staffer, Roderick said, adding that Vote Yes! Repeal the Giveaway had not coordinated its efforts with the Alaska Democratic Party.

A party spokesman, Zack Fields, wouldn’t directly answer a question about whether the Democrats had incorporated a pro-repeal message into party canvassing efforts, responding: “We’re just working on reminding Democrats that we have an important primary election.”

While the partisan dynamics of the primary are drawing attention, Democrats and Republicans represent just one slice of Alaska’s electorate.

In the past three primaries — 2008, 2010 and 2012 — voters who were registered as nonpartisan or undeclared represented 50 percent, 49 percent and 49 percent of the people who made it to the polls.

Republicans represented between 30 and 34 percent of voters, while Democrats ranged from 14 to 17 percent.

Until April, three other initiatives had been scheduled to appear on the August primary ballot that could have driven up turnout among more liberal voters. Those measures dealt with the legalization of marijuana, raising the minimum wage and adding hurdles to the development of large-scale mines in Southwest Alaska.

But the vote on those initiatives was delayed until November when the state Legislature failed to adjourn on time this spring, thanks to a provision in state law requiring 120 days between the end of the legislative session and any initiative votes.

While the U.S. Senate campaign seems likely to have a significant impact on the outcome of the oil tax referendum, experts also said that effect could cut both ways: Voter turnout for the referendum may end up twisting the Republican primary too.

The pollster for GOP front-runner Dan Sullivan, Hans Kaiser, noted that Sullivan tends to do better among more conservative voters, citing the results of the Public Policy Polling survey released Tuesday.

If either side of the referendum campaign is successful in drawing out sympathetic moderate voters, that could swing the election in favor of one of Sullivan’s opponents, Mead Treadwell, who did better in the Public Policy Polling survey among less conservative respondents.

Kaiser, however, said he did not expect a huge turnout from that group.

A spokesman for Treadwell did not respond to a request for comment.