In the first test of new Alaska House and Senate districts following reapportionment, lower Kenai Peninsula voters delivered a mixed message on the status quo. The power of the incumbency prevails — except when it doesn't.
In an aggressive challenge against fellow Republican Paul Seaton, the incumbent legislator who represented Homer in the former District 35, businessman Jon Faulkner lost by nine percentage points, 1,636 votes for Seaton to 1,352 for Faulkner. Seaton swept all but one Kachemak Bay precinct while Faulkner took all four central peninsula precincts and Fox River, the East End Road precinct that includes the Russian Old Believer villages.
"I appreciate the voters' confidence in me," Seaton said. "I'm pleased that most of the district that knows me supported me in the election. The other precincts will get to know me in the future."
In the District O Senate Republican Party primary race between incumbent Sen. Tom Wagoner and Soldotna Mayor Peter Micciche, all 11 precincts in District 30 delivered a resounding defeat to Wagoner. Wagoner lost by 20 percentage points in District 30 and 19 points overall, with Micciche winning 1,760 votes to Wagoner's 1,155 locally and 3,274 to 2,225 overall.
Voter turnout locally and statewide was low, with 28 percent out of 14,800 registered voters turning out in District 30 and 21 percent out of 497,000 registered voters statewide. However, because of strict procedures in purging voter rolls, voter registration numbers tend to be inflated. The number of registered voters in Homer, for example, is 4,342 compared to the total population of about 5,000.
Losing in Homer might have been payback for Wagoner's early lack of enthusiasm for the Homer-Anchor Point natural gas line, but Wagoner also lost all six upper peninsula precincts, too — a defeat the two-term senator called shocking. With no Democratic Party or other party challengers in the general election, barring a miraculous Lisa Murkowski style write-in campaign, Micciche is the presumptive senator-elect.
"I'm very surprised," said Micciche on Wednesday morning. Micciche is currently the mayor of Soldotna, superintendent of ConocoPhillips Kenai LNG facility and a commercial fisherman.
"No one could possibly point to how voters make a decision, but I think what's clear is that folks are ready for some new ideas. ... They were dissatisfied with the lack of performance in the Senate and the felt that it was worthwhile to make a jump to someone they believe will move us in the right direction."
As to what that direction is, Micciche defined it as working together "as a more cohesive state."
"I said throughout the campaign and tried to explain in several different ways that I think I've proven I can work with anyone, that I can work across the aisle with others who may not share my philosophy, but I do believe in the aisle," said Micciche. "I think the lack of two sides discussing the issues in a healthy manner has resulted in the lack of a Senate that can make the decisions it needs to make to head forward."
Wagoner also was surprised with the election results.
"I can't figure out what happened," he said. "The results are exactly opposite of what our polls showed the first of June."
He explained it by saying the results "show that a negative campaign works."
Among criticisms directed at Wagoner was his participation in a bipartisan working group.
"I think my being part of that coalition played a lot on the Republicans that voted and used to support me," he said.
Pointing to accomplishments since being elected to the Senate in 2003, Wagoner said, "I've done a lot of good things while I was down there (in Juneau). Contrary to what my competition said, we're seeing a lot of (oil and natural gas) activity on Cook Inlet because of legislation I sponsored and co-sponsored."
In the District 30 House race, Seaton now faces political newcomer Elizabeth "Liz" Diament, the sole candidate and winner of the Democratic Party primary election for District 30, in the November general election. Diament received 786 votes in the primary.
Faulkner, owner of Land's End Resort in Homer, Kenai Landing in Kenai and the Van Gilder Hotel in Seward, ran a well-funded and aggressive campaign. On Tuesday afternoon in Homer and Anchor Point, enthusiastic volunteers wearing blue campaign shirts and waving signs gave a spirited response to about an equal number of Seaton supporters amicably sharing street corners and sidewalks.
"Absolutely I ran the best campaign I could run. I can't think of anything I could have done better," Faulkner said. "I ran hard and I ran every day."
Faulkner said Seaton's strong support of Ballot Measure 2, the initiative that would have brought back a coastal management plan, helped Seaton in winning Kachemak Bay precincts. Although the measure failed in the district and state wide, five out of six precincts that voted for Ballot Measure 2 also voted for Seaton. The measure failed in upper peninsula precincts that Faulkner won. Anchor Point voted for Seaton but against the ballot measure.
"That clearly factored in," Faulkner said. "If I'm looking for some sort of parallels to draw between support of me north of here and lack of support locally, Proposition 2 seems to be one of the factors."
Seaton's 10 years in the Legislature also helped, Faulkner acknowledged — but only locally. Where Seaton was new to voters north of Anchor Point, Faulkner won. Faulkner also noted that combining his and Diament's votes, more people voted against Seaton than for him. Faulkner also saw a less-rosy economy in the upper peninsula.
"The people north of here are just suffering more," he said. "I think they're probably more receptive to two things: more jobs, more diversity to the economy, and less government in their lives."
Pitching himself as a conservative more in line with the Alaska Republican Party, Faulkner said he met two of his objectives in running: strengthen the party and bring awareness to Seaton's record as being what he called out of touch with the Republican Party. Faulkner said he thought he did that, but admitted he failed on his third objective: winning.
One factor may have played into the Republican primary: crossover voters registered as undeclared or nonpartisan who could choose the Republican ballot. With two competitive Republican races, independent voters — or even Democratic Party voters who changed their registration — might have chosen the Republican ballot to have a voice, particularly in the Senate race.
"I do think the Micciche-Wagoner race probably influenced more people to grab the Republican ballot," Faulkner said. "I don't think that was a huge factor (in District 30). If that were, you'd see more varied results north of here."
Faulkner and Diament both said they're looking ahead to the general election.
"I'm glad to finally know who my opponent is and I'm delighted that it's a familiar face," Diament said. "The race ahead is not just about our economy or our resources. It is about preserving a way of life that is threatened by the group-think in Juneau. I'm looking forward to meaningful discussion."
"It will be interesting to talk and have debates and see where issues come down," Seaton said, noting that though Diament was at primary debates, his focus was more on Faulkner. "We really didn't explore that much in this primary forum."
Faulkner said his first political campaign may lead to another run at political office.
"Absolutely," he said. "I'm heartened by the results."
Leading in all 17 precincts of House districts 29 and 30 that comprise Senate District O, Micciche said it was particularly important to him that the southern peninsula trust his commitment to represent the district equally.
"I will be making decisions on how to best represent the district as a whole, from Kenai to Seldovia, without any special interest in any special area," Micciche told the Homer News.
In the next six months, Micciche will be working through his to-do list as mayor of Soldotna. A special election will fill Micciche's spot with the city, according to Larry Semmens, Soldotna city manager. Micciche said he will take a leave of absence from ConocoPhillips during the legislative session "just so I can stay focused and dedicated to the people of Alaska."
On Wednesday, Micciche and his family — wife Erin and daughters Madeline, Sophia and Lucia — were "getting our home back in order. There are commercial copies and campaign materials stacked in every corner. We'll be regrouping," said Micciche. "A huge thanks to my lovely wife and daughters for all their support. To the hundred of people form Kenai to Seldovia that worked so hard on this race, I simply couldn't have done it without them and to the citizens that took the time to fulfill their civic duty and vote on Tuesday."
He had thanks to Wagoner, as well.
"I'll like to remind folks to remember to thank Sen. Wagoner for his years of service," said Micciche. "He served honorably and did what he thought was best and for that we owe him our thanks."
As far as what comes next for Wagoner, he said he and his wife, Dorothy, were preparing to head to Fairbanks and visit their grandson, a student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
"It's isn't my first rodeo, but it probably will be my last rodeo," he said. "I'm 70 years old and Dorothy said, 'Well, now we've got our life back, let's go enjoy it.' So that's what we're going to do. Enjoy the things we want to do instead of things that are incumbent on being a state office holder. It's been a fun experience. I've enjoyed it."