Mat-Su Republican incumbent faces primary defeat in tight House race

Zaz Hollander
Mat-Su Assembly member Jim Colver was leading incumbent Eric Feige Wednesday in a hotly contested Republican primary for a state House district that runs from Whittier to Valdez to Delta Junction. But some party faithful say Colver is more D than R.

WASILLA -- Eric Feige, the Chickaloon pilot who served two terms representing a sprawling Mat-Su state House district known for its conservatism, was losing his bid to try for a third.

Jim Colver, a Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly member and surveyor from the Hatcher Pass area, appeared to be the Republican who will face Democrat Mabel Wimmer in November’s general election, according to early results posted Wednesday.

Colver's signs blanketed the massive district that stretches from Whittier and Valdez to Palmer-area subdivisions to Delta Junction and Glennallen. He wore his pickup tires down to the metal threads driving its far-flung reaches.

He also out-raised both his rivals when it came to campaign financing, attracting heavy contributions from unions. 

On Wednesday, Colver said he expected to hold his lead and credited his support from labor organizations to what he described as $500 million in Mat-Su Borough construction projects -- the partly funded Point MacKenzie rail extension, schools, roads -- and the jobs they created. 

"The story here is I think that the people in District 9 really felt like they weren't getting representation, they weren't being listened to," he said. 

Feige, who didn't return calls for comment, was trailing not only Colver but a third Republican primary challenger, Sutton construction remodeler George Rauscher. Absentee, questioned and some early votes still remained to be counted.

Colver won more than 38 percent of the more than 2,950 votes counted by Wednesday, or 1,140. Rauscher had nearly 32 percent and Feige nearly 30 percent.

State House District 9 is considered a Republican stronghold.

But a disappointed state Republican Party executive in his district on Wednesday said Colver didn’t deserve to have that “R” next to his name.

“His signs, they say ‘Republican’ really big on them,” said Debbie Joslin, a Delta Junction real estate agent who serves as Republican National Committeewoman for Alaska. “And why did he do that? Because he knew. This is a heavy Republican district.”

According to the Alaska Division of Elections, Colver’s voter registration was “undeclared” until he switched to Republican in February 2012.

Colver worked as an aide to a Democrat, Nome Sen. Donny Olson, during the 2010 legislative session. A state campaign donations search shows that Colver gave money to numerous Democratic candidates, including former Gov. Tony Knowles and legislators Eric Croft and Johnny Ellis, through the 2010 elections. Colver gave two separate $500 donations to U.S. Sen. Mark Begich during the 2008 campaign and again in 2009.

Joslin made no bones about her feelings in a post on her public Facebook page in mid-April: “Jim Colver is not a Republican.”

Colver said he stands on his record as a public official, pointing to his work on fisheries issues and road projects in the Valley, and said he was the lone Assembly member to vote against putting an alcohol tax on the ballot.

“I am a Republican and a conservative and my record reflects that,” he said in an email.

He said the grievances against him came from party members who either liked the status quo or favored Rauscher, a conservative with an endorsement from Alaska Family Action. 

Colver said his support for Begich came after the former Anchorage mayor supported Colver's proposal for a Mat-Su anti-meth ordinance with a similar one for the municipality. 

“I don't support Mark but he was very helpful with the meth issue here in the Valley,” he said. “I think our country needs more people reaching across the aisle, working together.”

Wimmer, the Democrat in the race who owns the Mendeltna Creek Lodge near Glennallen, said she was “very pleased” with Colver’s lead. She said Feige didn’t represent the district well, specifically referencing a new law he sponsored that makes it harder for Alaskans to challenge industrial or construction projects in court.

Colver, who served three separate terms on the Mat-Su Assembly, has also served on the school board. This wasn’t his first try at state office; he tried to unseat the late Rep. Carl Gatto as an independent candidate in 2002.

This time around, Colver promised more salmon if elected, ramping off his seat on a local commission that convinced the state fish board to curtail the Cook Inlet commercial fleet to let more Valley fish get past. But he also went negative against Feige, accusing him of not safeguarding education or keeping energy costs down and “fumbling” state gas line routes along the Richardson Highway or to Palmer.

In his campaign newsletter this month, Feige shot back at his opponent’s tactics, saying, “This is the first time I have seen any candidate in any race go this far overboard,” since Feige moved to Chickaloon from Aniak in 2000.

Members of the Legislature are watching, Feige continued. “A classless, arrogant fool in a campaign is likely to behave in the same manner during the greater pressure of the Legislative session, and therefore is not trusted by other members.”

He also ran a list of Colver’s contributors beneath a headline reading, “Where the money comes from: Does that mean we owe these people or have similar interests?”

Prominently featured: the $22,500 in union political action committee contributions to Colver from December through July.

Feige served as co-chair of the influential House Resources Committee. He was elected to the House in 2010 in a tight three-way race that he won by just seven votes. He defeated Rauscher in 2012 by 172 votes.

Rauscher on Wednesday said Colver’s apparent victory didn’t surprise him. He praised his rival’s diligent campaigning efforts -- “in March, he was putting signs up in the snow” -- but said voters may not have realized what they’re getting, politically.

Colver made a lot of promises, Rauscher said.

“I guess we’re all going to get new, safe roads, we’re all going to have a lot of salmon, moose and caribou, there’s going to be a pipeline to Valdez now, and I think we’ll all have a lot of cheaper energy,” he said, making sure a reporter knew he was joking. “He has his own big shoes to fill.”

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