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Alaska GOP picnic mellow, despite party infighting

Amanda CoyneThe New York Times
Mike Dingman sports a Ronald Reagan shirt at the Republican Party picnic. August 9, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Outgoing Alaska Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich at the party picnic. August 9, 2012
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The scene at Kincaid Park for the Alaska Republican Party picnic. August 9, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
A balloon artist entertains the future of the Alaska Republican Party. August 9, 2012
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Representative Mia Costello at the Alaska Republican Party picnic. August 9, 2012
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Senator Lesil McGuire at the Alaska Republican Party picnic. August 9, 2012
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John Cox "panhandling" at the Alaska Republican Party picnic. August 9, 2012
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Senate district 22 candidate Lisa Vaught's son Caden, left, and Stefan Johnson at the Alaska Republican Party picnic. August 9, 2012
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Alaska house district 19 candidate Anand Dubey at the Republican Party picnic. August 9, 2012
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Alaska Republican Party Chairman-elect Russ Millete serving popcorn at the party picnic on August 9, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo

There are certainly some factions in the Alaska Democratic Party. At least in public gatherings, though, they’ve managed for the most part to get along, to politely clap when called upon, to sip their wine and nibble on cheese at social gatherings without hissing at each other.

But for years now -- and maybe for as long as there have been Republicans in Alaska -- the state GOP’s avid members have been anything but lockstep. At various times, and with various amounts of vigor, the Christian Right has sparred with the Alaska Republican Party establishment, the establishment with the libertarians, the big-business Republicans with the populists. Most recently the Tea Party, which recently began a star-crossed affair with the Ron Paul supporters, has been caught up in a clumsy dance with the establishment.  

At the Alaska Republican Party convention in April, a group of Paulites and Tea Partiers went as far as to heckle U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, one of the establishment Republicans, when she tried to give the keynote speech.

Historically, GOP members haven’t even been able to get along at something as seemingly ambient as the party’s annual picnic in Anchorage.

In 2006, when Sarah Palin was running against incumbent Gov. Frank Murkowski, an establishment Republican like his daughter Lisa, the precursors to the Tea Party made big hay at the picnic. One Palinite, as we called them back then, a 69-year-old Wasilla woman, went as far as to whack the party’s lawyer across the head with a Palin-for-governor campaign sign. That was lots of fun for some, especially Palin.

But Thursday night was not nearly as dramatic at this year’s Alaska Republican Party picnic. The weather was gorgeous. The burgers and hot dogs hot, the candidates and the party apparatchiks filled with smiles.

The buzz earlier in the day was that it might not be so copacetic. An email had been sent Thursday afternoon to Republicans including the Ron Paul faction, accusing Republican Party assistant treasurer Frank McQueary of using a pseudonym in a mass email to defame the character of Ron Paul organizer Evan Cutler.

In a string of emails, McQueary admitted he didn’t trust Cutler, but denied sending the email. Paulites were convinced otherwise, however. One Paul supporter wrote McQueary, “You are a gutter rat and that is paying you a compliment.”

That, coupled with the fact that this is a big election year for Alaska -- 59 of the state’s legislative seats are up for grabs, with many Republican newcomers pitting themselves against incumbents -- could have proved a toxic mix at the picnic, held at Anchorage’s Kincaid Park.  

A few Paulites hovered in a group, but they didn’t show up en masse. A few GOP candidates who are challenging party incumbents in the Alaska Legislature stood at opposite sides of the room, sometimes griping about their opponents.  Aside from that, on the surface at least, most picnic-goers got along.

Russ Millette, chairman elect of the Alaska Republican Party and a Paul supporter himself, was at the picnic, jovially making popcorn.

The outgoing chair, Randy Ruedrich, looked relaxed while overseeing his people. This is his last picnic as chair. Early next year, Millette will head the party.

“I survived,” Ruedrich smiled. “At least nobody hit anyone tonight.”

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda@alaskadispatch.com