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Alaska House primary election primer

Ben Anderson

It may be known as the "lower house" but that doesn’t mean election drama in the Alaska House of Representatives will be any less heated than the Senate. As the deadline to register to vote in Alaska's primaries nears (July 29), candidates are making the rounds in preparation for the Aug. 28 primary elections.

Though many of the Senate's most interesting races revolve around potentially unseating members of the Senate Bipartisan Working Group -- a majority coalition made up of 10 Democrats and six Republicans -- the House is more solidly Republican, currently made up of 24 Republicans and 16 Democrats.

All 40 House seats are up for re-election and some lawmakers will have it easier than others, at least in the primary season: 14 Alaska House districts have only one Democratic and one Republican candidate, meaning they'll duke it out in November's general election. Seven incumbent legislators are running entirely unopposed -- including House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski -- so they'll be able to coast back into their seats come January 2013.

But that means about half of the House seats are still going to see primary battles later this summer, and some of them are bound to be ugly.

Incumbents not running

In addition to Ketchikan Rep. Kyle Johansen, who filed as an Independent after redistricting forced him into a competition for the same seat with incumbent Wrangell Republican Rep. Peggy Wilson, five current House members will not show up on August primary ballots for House seats. They include:

  • Sharon Cissna, D-Anchorage. Cissna earned a higher profile last year when she made national news after refusing a TSA patdown in Seattle and taking a ferry home instead. She's gunning for Congress and has taken on the Herculean task of unseating U.S. Rep. Don Young.
  • Anna Fairclough, R-Eagle River. Fairclough, a six-year House veteran, is moving on to challenge either former Democratic Rep. Harry Crawford or current Sen. Bettye Davis for a recently redefined East Anchorage-Eagle River district.
  • Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage. Gardner is also making a move on the Alaska Senate, as the only Democratic challenger in a Midtown Anchorage district. She'll face one of two non-incumbent Republicans also running for that seat.
  • Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue. Joule initially filed for re-election in 2012, but later decided to retire from the seat that he has occupied for 16 years, instead filing to run for Northwest Arctic Borough mayor.
  • Mike Doogan, D-Anchorage. Author and former newspaperman Doogan was elected to the state House in 2006, but decided to retire during the course of the 2012 session.

Incumbent-free districts

Seven districts lack incumbent challengers, which should make them among the most hotly contested. They include:

  • District 1 (North Pole/Eielson): Tammie Wilson formerly represented the Alaska city of North Pole, but has been moved into another district. That means the contenders for the conservative Interior region came fast and furious, including four Republicans. They are: Lynette Bergh, a "social, fiscal and constitutional conservative"; Paul Brown, president of the North Pole Economic Development Corp.; Dave Gardner, vice president of marketing for Golden Valley Electric Association; and North Pole mayor Doug Isaacson. Also running is Democrat Janice Golub.
  • District 5 (Chena Ridge): Two Republicans, University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student Aaron Lojewski and former Alaska Senate candidate Pete Higgins, will square off in this primary. David Watts is the sole Democrat running.
  • District 9 (Greater Wasilla): Wes Keller used to represent Wasilla but will now be vying for the Rural Mat-su vote in 2012. Instead, Republicans Lynn Gattis, a Mat-Su School Board member, and Mark Ewing, a former Mat-Su assemblyman and candidate for lieutenant governor, will face off in the primary.
  • District 13 (Anchorage-Elmendorf): Part of what makes up District 13 was represented by U.S. House candidate Sharon Cissna, a Democrat. To possibly capitalize on that constituency, Democratic attorney Hal Gazaway hopes to take her place in the House. Also running is Republican Gabrielle LeDoux, a former mayor of the Kodiak Island Borough and a former House representative from 2005-2009.
  • District 16 (Anchorage-Spenard): The district formerly represented by Mike Doogan sees two contenders from either side of the aisle: Republicans Jimmy Crawford and Roman Romanovski, the latter of whom also ran for state Senate in 2010. The Democratic side sees Anchorage community organizer Hugh Brown III facing Anchorage Assemblywoman Harriet Drummond.
  • District 17 (Anchorage-Mountain View): Republican Cean Stevens will face off against either Geran Tarr or Cal Williams in the general election.
  • District 26 (Eagle River Valley): Three Republicans have filed to run in this district. Lora Reinbold and Kim Skipper have each held numerous community positions. Skipper is a former constituent relations director for Rep. Anna Fairclough, who is making a run at the State Senate. Larry Wood is an attorney who has served as Alaska's chief assistant attorney general. Only one Democrat has declared an intention to run: Roberta Goughnor is a former state Senate candidate and Human Resource Manager with Trailboss, a government service contractor.
  • District 40 (Arctic): There are no Republicans who have filed for the vacant seat left open by outgoing Kotzebue Rep. Reggie Joule, but the Democratic field is bloated, with four candidates. Barrow resident Adeline Hopson has a long history of community involvement. Benjamin Nageak is a former North Slope Borough Mayor. Also running are Robert Nelson of Kotzebue and Greta Schuerch of Kiana.

Democrat vs. Democrat

As in the state Senate races, there are relatively few Democrats competing against each other in the House primary season. In fact, counting the districts lacking incumbent candidates, there are only six districts with more than one Democrat vying for a House seat.

  • District 25 (Anchorage-Basher): This East Anchorage neighborhood sees two Democrats hoping for the chance to go up against incumbent Republican candidate Lance Pruitt in the general election. And thanks to redistricting, one of them is also an incumbent. Democrat Pete Petersen has served two terms in the House for the area around Boniface and Patterson streets, while his Democratic opponent, Lynette Moreno-Hinz, is a former candidate for lieutenant governor.
  • District 39 (Bering Strait region-Interior Villages): Incumbent Neal Foster, a relative newcomer to the House since assuming office after his father’s death in 2009, will see Woodie Salmon's name next to his on the primary ballot. Salmon is also a former state House representative, serving from 2005 until losing the 2010 election to Republican Alan Dick. Whoever wins this contest will have smooth sailing after the primary, though; there are no Republicans registered to run in this district.

Republican vs. Republican

There are far more districts -- 14 total -- in which Republicans will square off against other Republicans. There are even five districts in which incumbent Republicans won't see Democratic contenders come the general election, but will see Republican challengers in the primaries.

Part of the reason for this might simply be numbers: There are about 70,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in the state of Alaska. But there are also numerous first-term legislators (and even one Republican representative who has only served a very brief partial term after being appointed by Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell in May), which may seem vulnerable to other relatively untested candidates looking to shake things up within the party.

  • District 6 (Richardson Highway): Single-term Republican incumbent Eric Feige is set to face George Rauscher in the primary. Rauscher is a construction contractor and Sutton Community Council member. Democrat Jamey Duhamel is also registered in this district.
  • District 7 (Rural Mat-Su): Incumbent Wes Keller, first appointed in 2007, will be challenged by Roger Purcell, a former mayor of Houston, Alaska, who stepped down in the face of a recall effort that alleged Purcell had borrowed a police car to travel to Fairbanks, and used the emergency lights to pass vehicles on the way. Whoever comes out on top in the primary election will go into the general election unopposed.
  • District 8 (Greater Palmer): Shelley Hughes is the incumbent in this district, but is a newcomer, having been appointed by Gov. Sean Parnell after Rep. Carl Gatto passed away in April. Hughes will see her first real election against Daniel Hamm, a commercial jet pilot and small business owner. There are also no Democrats registered in District 8, so the winner of the primary should cruise into office in November.
  • District 11 (Butte-Chugiak): Another no-Democrat race, and incumbent Bill Stoltze now has a decade of House experience under his belt. He will face Chugiak resident Thomas Connelly at the primary.
  • District 12 (Eagle River): Single-term incumbent Dan Saddler is up against newcomer Glen Eichenlaub in this winner-take-all primary.
  • District 20 (Anchorage-Sand Lake): Rep. Mia Costello, another single-term legislator, will see Tamara Von Gemmingen in the primary. The winner will then face Democrat Michelle Scannell in November.
  • District 29 (Kenai-Soldotna): Rep. Kurt Olson, in office since 2004, will be caught up in a three-way primary race before the winner is able to rest easy in this otherwise uncontested district. Running against Olson are Gary Knopp, president of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, and former Kenai Rep. Kelly Wolf.
  • District 30 (Homer-South Kenai): 10-year House veteran Paul Seaton will first face Land's End Resort owner Jon Faulkner in the primary, then the winner of that race will see Democrat Elizabeth Diament in November.
  • District 33 (Ketchikan-Wrangell): This would be a two-incumbent primary, but Rep. Kyle Johansen dropped out of the primary to run as an Independent after redistricting pitted him against Wrangell Rep. Peggy Wilson. That left Wilson, Ketchikan Visitors Bureau Executive Director Patti Mackey and Ketchikan Borough Assembly Member Agnes Moran in the primary race. The winner there will then see Johansen in the general election, alongside Democrat Matt Olsen.

Double incumbent races

As demonstrated by the District 33 snafu that pitted two Republican candidates against one another, redistricting can sometimes lead to doubling up of incumbent candidates, reducing the benefit of name recognition among voter constituencies.

It happened twice to House representatives under the current interim redistricting plan, meaning incumbent Democrats and Republicans would square off in two districts. It has no bearing on the primary election, but can make for an interesting campaign season as both parties try to keep those legislative.

In District 2 (which includes the Interior communities of Farmers Loop and Two Rivers), North Pole Republican incumbent Tammie Wilson will face Democrat Bob Miller. Wilson has been a representative since 2009, when she was appointed by Gov. Sean Parnell to take the seat previously occupied by John Coghill, who himself was appointed to replace Sen. Gene Therriault. Miller is a single-term legislator who won a hard-fought race against incumbent Republican Rep. Mike Kelley in 2010.

Finally, in District 38 (Southwest and portions of Interior Alaska), Republican Rep. Alan Dick is up against Democrat David Guttenberg of Fairbanks. Guttenberg wins the seniority race, having served in the House since being elected in 2002. Dick has just completed his first legislative term after being elected in 2010.

CORRECTION: This article was updated Thursday, July 26, 2012 as follows: It originally stated Bryce Edgmon was running against David Guttenberg in District 38. Edgmon is actually running in District 36. Additionally, Wes Keller was inadvertently listed as a candidate in District 9, but he is actually a candidate in District 7, as noted later in the article.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com