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Alaska Senate: A tough night for bipartisan coalition

Alaska Dispatch staff
Democrat Hollis French waves signs on the corner of Jewel Lake and Raspberry on election day. November 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
State Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, and supporters from the Alaska Correctional Officer's Association campaign on Election Day, Nov. 6, 2012.
Jill Burke photo
Aoife Stout, 3 1/2 years old, peeks out from underneath a voting booth while her mom Kristine Stout votes. According to her mom, Aoife is a "super voter," having tagged along with her on every election since she was born. November 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
On Election Day, Nov. 6, 2012, Republican Senate candidate Bob Roses campaigns at the corner of Debarr and Boniface in Anchorage.
Jill Burke photo
The Alaska Club West, a polling place for Spenard. November 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Alaska voters voting early at the Anchorage city hall. November 5, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Bob Bell at election central. Unofficial results show him trailing incumbent challenger Hollis French by 86 votes, with 100% of precincts reporting. November 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Incumbent representative Les Gara works out at the Alaska Club West, a polling place (but not his polling place), on election day. November 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Alaska voters voting early at the Division of Elections Region II office in Anchorage. November 5, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Politicos watch election returns come in at election central. November 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
An "I Voted Today!" sticker adorns a downtown Anchorage sidewalk on election day. November 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
3 week old Vaughn Dudukgian sleeps while his mom Sara Acharya votes early at the Division of Elections Region II office. November 5, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
David Schwantes watches election returns come in at election central. November 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Voters enter a downtown Anchorage polling place on election day. November 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Randy Ruedrich at the Alaska GOP's headquarters on Election Day, Nov. 6, 2012, his final election as chairman of the Alaska Republican Party.
Jill Burke photo
Congressman Don Young greets supporters at election central after winning re-election. November 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Bob Bell backers and supporters of his rival Hollis French wave signs in Spenard on the eve of the election. November 5, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Supporters of President Obama listen to his victory speech at election central. November 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
A Hollis French supporter jumps in the air to keep warm during sign waving on the eve of the election. November 5, 2012
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Leslie Ridle, staffer for U.S. Senator Mark Begich, obsessively refreshing election results at the democratic party event. Behind her is state senator Hollis French. November 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Republican Bob Bell and supporters of his rival Hollis French wave signs in Spenard on the eve of the election. November 5, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Randy Ruedrich, outgoing chairman of the Alaska Republican Party, being interviewed by TV news after news broke of President Obama's re-election. November 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
On Election Day 2012 at Williwaw Elementary School in Anchorage, Election worker Shirley Cordle uncovers the mysteries of the voting booth for second-graders.
Jill Burke photo
Susan Lutz, assistant city administrator for the city of Akutan, announces the news of President Obama's victory to the streets of Anchorage. November 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
On Election Day 2012 at Williwaw Elementary School in Anchorage, Election worker Shirley Cordle uncovers the mysteries of the voting booth for second-graders.
Jill Burke photo
Pollster Ivan Moore watches the national election returns in a hotel room on election night. November 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Republican state Senate candidate Bob Bell campaigns in Midtown Anchorage on Election Day, Nov. 6, 2012.
Jill Burke photo
First-time voter Jose Oualles and second-time voter Georgina Perez, both originally from the Dominican Republic, proudly displaying their "I Voted Today" stickers at Williwaw Elementary school. November 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
State Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, campaigns on Election Day, Nov. 6, 2012.
Jill Burke photo
Amy Tullos fills out her ballot on the floor of Williwaw Elementary school, rather than waiting for an open booth. "I'm proud of who I voted for," she said when asked about the lack of privacy. November 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The sock monkey, spotted during previous elections, campaigns for Alaska state Rep. Lindsey Holmes in South Anchorage on Nov. 6, 2012.
Jill Burke photo
A young Hmong man, who asked that his name not be used, helps his aunt vote at Williwaw Elementary school on election day. November 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
On Election Day, Nov. 6, 2012, Republican Senate candidate Bob Roses stands next to a life-size cutout of himself (from his 2008 campaign) in East Anchorage.
Jill Burke photo
Republican Mia Costello waving signs in west Anchorage on election day. November 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Republican state Senate candidate Bob Bell campaigns in Midtown Anchorage on Election Day, Nov. 6, 2012.
Jill Burke photo

11:30 p.m.: With a majority of precincts reporting, the Alaska Senate Bipartisan Working Group looked poised to take a big hit Tuesday night. In five races that featured members of the bipartisan coalition, those members appeared to be losing, by varying margins.

They included Democrat Joe Paskvan, who continued to trail Republican Pete Kelly close late into the evening. Sen. Hollis French and Republican challenger Bob Bell were neck and neck, with about 77 percent reporting, though the districts yet to come could change the sway of the few dozens of votes that separated them.

Other races weren’t so close. With almost 85 percent of precincts reporting, Sen. John Coghill looked poised to take the race against Democrat Joe Thomas. Sen. Bettye Davis, facing a redistricted constituency and a tough fundraising road, lost by a wide margin to Rep. Anna Fairclough. Democratic coalition member and sitting Sen. Albert Kookesh lost to another incumbent, Republican Sen. Bert Steadman.

All in all, it was a rough night for members of the coalition, which have been targeted this election cycle by those in favor of major oil tax reforms in the state that would provide significant oil tax breaks in hopes of spurring new production.

10:30 p.m.: Alaska Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski showed up at Rep. Don Young’s office after the race had been called for Obama. “I’m here to hear the good news about Don Young,” she said. Young is about to win comfortably against Democratic lawmaker Sharon Cissna, though the results aren't yet official.

There wasn’t much good news about the situation in Murkowski's own party. She had been an active supporter of Romney. She’s also been one of the few moderate Republicans left in the Senate. Early projections predicted the that Democrats would be picking up some seats in the Senate.

“I think that the message that it sends is that people need us to be working together. Unfortunately I fear that we will be more polarized than ever.”

The lesson for the Republicans? “I’m looking around the country and I see that as Republicans, we need to figure out how we are relevant to all the demographics: Democrats, the young, woman and minorities,” she said.

For his part, Democratic Sen. Mark Begich stayed in D.C. He sent the following release about the election:

“I want to congratulate the President on a successful campaign and second term. Both he and Mitt Romney deserve congratulations for a healthy exchange of ideas and a well-fought contest. I look forward to continuing to build on the important progress we have made not only on Arctic development, but on other critical Alaska issues like supporting our veterans, balancing the budget, permitting mines and improving education. I am also happy to see that voters have sent common-sense moderates from across the country to join me in the Senate. Not only do we share common ground on policies, but we have a like-minded approach of reaching across party lines, rolling up our sleeves, and looking for solutions. Tonight's results also sent a clear message to those who want to overrun our elections with unlimited secret money and divisive politics. I am hopeful the newly elected group of senators and representatives will join me in pushing for a bipartisan, balanced and swift approach to cutting our federal deficit. I hope my colleagues will heed the centrist message of this election when they come back to Washington so we can reach across party lines, work together and deliver real solutions for the American people.”

9:50 p.m.: Alaska's polls had not yet closed when many of the nation's media outlets began to call the U.S. presidential election for Barack Obama. They made the call as soon as polls closed for West Coast states -- California, Oregon and Washington – that historically vote Democratic. Alaska, predictably, will swing in Romney's direction, but it was too little, too late.

One Alaska Dispatch staffer noted that the mood was mellow at a party for Alaska Democrats at Snow City Café in Downtown Anchorage, but at least there was cheese.

Alaska poll results began rolling in a few minutes after 9 p.m. on the big screens at Election Central, with some early indicators of how the night might go for some candidates. Rep. Don Young, has won his 21st term in the U.S. House of Representatives.

For the many legislative seats up for grabs, the races to watch are those in which members of the Senate bipartisan coalition are being seriously challenged. Republicans have made it a goal to unseat as many members of the coalition as possible, whom they view as slowing the progress of oil tax reform in the state.

That includes the race between two incumbent senators, Pete Kelly and coalition member Joe Paskvan. Kelly, the Republican, was narrowly winning that Fairbanks race with 2,081 votes to Paskvan's 1,967, with 40 percent of precincts reporting.

Also in trouble was Democrat Joe Thomas, another senator locked in a race against a fellow sitting legislator, Republican John Coghill. Coghill held a 16-point lead with 46 percent reporting.

Sen. Bettye Davis, who faced a challenge in the primary from former Rep. Harry Crawford, was also losing her bid for re-election to Republican Rep. Anna Fairclough. That race stood at about 40 percent to 60 percent in favor of Fairclough, with nearly half of all precincts reporting.

One race that may have drawn more scrutiny than any other, a fight for West Anchorage's Senate District J, saw incumbent Sen. Hollis French narrowly in front of Republican challenger Bob Bell, a longtime oil-industry insider. A mere 66 votes separated the two with 46 percent of precincts reporting.

Another close race was taking place in Southeast Alaska, where two members of the bipartisan coalition were facing off against one another. Democratic Sen. Albert Kookesh was barely losing to Republican Bert Stedman -- and fewer than 30 votes were determining that race with 44 percent of precincts reporting.

9:20 p.m.: When U.S. Rep. Don Young walked into his campaign office in midtown Anchorage, he yelled, in typical Don Young fashion: “Obama-wama!” at the television set, and at the crowd, who were glued to the television set looking rather shocked.

“I can’t believe how many misinformed voters there are in the country,” he said. Actually, he initially said something not as politic, but told a reporter, wearing a typical Don Young smile, that he would throw her out if she printed it.

He said that he was happy about the U.S. House races, which picked up a few seats. “We’re doing something right, even though the country voted for a Socialist,” he said.

Young is facing a challenger in Rep. Sharon Cissna, but he doesn’t seem to be worried, nor should he be. What he’s waiting to hear are how big his win is. Since 2006 at least, he hasn’t hit 70 percent. Getting 70 percent will stave off future challengers, of which he expects many next time around.

He’s served under eight different presidents and he’s determined to work under his ninth.

State Republicans worried, upbeat at Hilton

Alaska Republicans who had rented a conference room at the Hilton weren’t necessary ebullient as the national map turned blue, and probably less so when the news channels announced that President Obama won a second term. But many were still optimistic about the local races.

House Speaker Mike Chenault predicted that the Republicans would pick two or more seats in the House, and that many in the Senate. For his part, Rep. Mike Hawker wasn’t making any predictions, and campaign staffer Laura Maketa for Republican Shelly Hughes, a Palmer Republican House contender, seemed just happy to be involved.

Maketa is nothing if not earnest, and she has a future in politics in Alaska, if she wants it. For one, she looks like she just stepped out of an Herbal Essences shampoo commercial. Secondly, she knows how to give a speech. Months ago, when the Legislature was still in session, she gave probably the best speech than anyone has given in the state in months. The event was put on by the Make Alaska Competitive Coalition, an independent group whose mission is to lower taxes on the oil industry. In the speech, she pleaded with the Legislature to lower taxes. She said her family businesses were losing business. She said that she had two young sons, and that she was worried that the Alaska she knew wouldn’t be there for them. Anyway, with two teenaged sons -- one of whom, the 14-year-old, she’s grooming for statewide office. All of which she’ll leave in the hands of Jesus.

Anyway, she’s very optimistic, and very worried, etc, etc. As is Randy Ruedrich, who showed up to the part bearing good news about early voting numbers, which show Republicans with a significant advantage. According to his numbers, about 11,000 Democrats voted early, compared to about 26,000 Republicans, and 18,298 undeclared voters.

“We’ve never seen these numbers,” Ruedrich said.

Youth Vote: Big wins for Obama, Don Young

Though the polls don’t close in Anchorage until 8 p.m., ballots are in from the Anchorage School District’s Youth Vote after students in Alaska’s biggest city held a mock election during school on Tuesday.

Obviously not a strong election indicator, given that children in fourth grade and below are included in the tally, the mock election is a fun way for kids to learn about civics on Election Day.

If Alaska’s students were determining Tuesday’s election results in Alaska:

  • Barack Obama would win by a wide margin in the race for U.S. president, defeating Mitt Romney by 57 percent to 36 percent. Libertarian Gary Johnson would get almost 5 percent of the vote.
  • Don Young would win another term as Alaska’s lone representative in the U.S. House by an even larger margin: 61 percent to Democratic challenger Sharon Cissna’s 25 percent. Both the non-affiliated and Libertarian candidates earned about 6.5 percent of the vote.
  • About 53 percent of students would have Alaska hold a second constitutional convention. This ballot measure, which appears every 10 years, has been rejected by Alaska voters the last five decades.
  • Finally, students said -- in a remarkably close vote -- that the voting age should be lowered to 16 for local elections. The results there were 51 percent in favor, 49 percent against.

    14,230 elementary, middle and high school students took part in this year’s Youth Vote.

    The Alaska GOP's outgoing election savant

    Holed up inside the Alaska GOP headquarters -- a small, one-story building in Spenard in Anchorage -- Randy Ruedich fielded a flurry of phone calls in "dressed-down" attire: Crocs, dark slacks, a burgundy polo shirt, no tie. It's his last election as chairman of the Alaska Republican Party, but he was totally in the moment Tuesday afternoon.

    In his 12 years heading the party, and even a longer history as a poll watcher in Alaska, Ruedrich has demonstrated himself to have a uniquely "intense management" style for discerning trends and developing strategy. He's a numbers man and can near-instantly recall statistics, candidates and campaigns from prior elections, local and statewide, over casual conversation. He's deployed myriad election monitors to the polls looking for specific things that he says he's not ready to disclose. Yet, even with this precautionary move for the sanctity of the vote, Ruedrich admits the Alaska Division of Elections generally does a pretty good job running smooth and fair operations.

    Ruedrich offered a glimpse into his realm of analysis from the U.S. presidency to the partisan fate of Alaska's next Legislature. "This is one of the most complicated elections I've ever had to deal with," he said Tuesday, referring to 59 local races across the state and how hard it's been to get voters to turn out. Yes, it's a presidential election, but with Alaska not a battleground state, the presidential get-out-the-vote politicking in Alaska has been minimal, making it that much harder to energize and access Alaska's electorate. Even so, Ruedrich predicts overall voter turnout to exceed 60 percent.

    Presidential election: Ruedrich believes Mitt Romney will carry Alaska and has a good chance of beating President Obama. He's calling Colorado and Wisconsin for Romney, with Ohio a possible third state to come in favor of the Republican challenger, followed by Pennsylvania and New Hampshire but thin margines. 

    Early and Absentee voting: Sixty-thousand votes are already in, with 15,000 yet to arrive in Alaska. Of the returns so far, Republicans represent nearly 11,000 more of those voters than Democrats, Ruedrich said. What's it mean? Republicans look to have the edge in early voting, which the party pushed. "You encourage people to vote, (and) some of them will," he said.

    Alaska Legislature: Reudrich expects the Alaska House of Representatives to gain at least two seats, raising its majority from 24-to-16 to 26-14. As for the Senate, he anticipates the Republicans will gain at least two seats, ending the 10-10 stalemate that existed last session, and returning, he hopes, the body to what he calls a better form of government. The Senate has lacked a majority, with the controversial bipartisan coalition running the show, and that hasn't worked well, Ruedrich said. It may be an occasional tradition in Alaska, but Reudrich calls coalitions an "unfounded tradition in American politics" in which "the electorate is not well served by a coalition, because it gets nothing done." His ideal party ratio for the Alaska Senate? At least 13 or 14 Republicans, which he said would "produce some substantial changes."

    Specific races: Looking to the Senate bipartisan coalition, Ruedrich thinks at least two Democratic incumbents will fall to Republican challengers -- Hollis French to Bob Bell and Bettye Davis to Anna Fairclough. French and Bell are in a close race, but Reudrich says he's seen recent polling data that suggests Bell is ahead and can win.

    Meanwhile, incumbent Democrat state Rep. Bill Wielechowski and Republican challenger Bob Roses also appear to be in a close race, Ruedrich said. It's too close to call, but he thinks "Bob has a good chance of winning."

    Part of Reudrich's optimism comes from the state's redistricting process, which he says returned the state to a purer form of neighborhood and community representation, especially in Anchorage, compared to the last map drawn in 2002. The bottom line: "Always respect the wisdom of the voters," Ruedrich said.

    Voting going smoothly at Wayland Baptist

    At Wayland Baptist University, a polling location at Muldoon Road and 32nd Avenue in Anchorage, election workers reported a steady stream of voters mid-Tuesday. Because it's a good distance from major work centers, the election crew didn't expect much of a lunch rush. The big push usually comes before and after the work day, veteran election volunteers said.

    Theresa Novakovich, who has worked the precinct for six years in a row, says Tuesday's turnout seems like the strongest she's seen over the years. By noon, 240 voters had come through. In an average year, the polling place sees maybe 400 voters by the end of the day.

    Election workers also had a few visits from an election "troubleshooter" -- someone tasked with making sure the precinct has the ballots it needs and that machines are working correctly. Wayland Baptist University is one of the precincts that ran out of ballots in Anchorage's April city election. So far Tuesday, there was no indication the location was at risk for a repeat. It hosts six voting booths, and turnout has been steady enough that at times all of them have been full.

    Where the magic happens

    Several hours into what's likely to be a 16-hour day, election workers at Williwaw Elementary School in Anchorage's South Mountain View neighborhood were energized. "We've been busy," said Shirley Cordle, a 40-year veteran of volunteerism on Election Day, always in Mountain View and always at Williwaw Elementary.

    More than 130 voters had already passed through the school, with a dozen waiting in the cold before the doors opened at 7 a.m. Election workers predict that by the end of Tuesday, at least 1,000 people will cast their votes there.

    Seated at a card table positioned opposite of the voting booths in the school's narrow hallway entry, Cordle checked IDs while co-staffers handed out ballots, fed finished ballots into tally machines, and assisted voters with questioned ballots. Cordle, who expects lunch will "be on the run, if at all" on Tuesday, enjoys seeing her neighbors and voters she's come to know over the years on Election Day. Mountain View may be one of the city's most diverse precincts, representing the neighborhood's robust mix of ethnic and cultural backgrounds: longtime Alaskans, Lower 48 transplants, immigrants old and young.

    As a steady stream of voters came through the doors, a second-grade teacher named Mrs. Smith brought students by the polling place for a hands-on show-and-tell. Fiddling with a pencil in her hair, Mrs. Smith explained to the students -- who had mistakenly thought an earlier picture of a voting booth shown to them was a magician's closet to make people disappear -- about how ballots are filled out, how to vet candidates and issues, and what to expect on voting day when they're finally old enough for their voices to count. The reward for her class? At the end of the day, students get to vote on whether Mrs. Smith stays or goes. "I feel pretty confident," Smith said of her chances for a positive endorsement.

    "This is a pretty important day for our country, isn't it," Smith stated with plain-spoken excitement to her students, who looked on as election volunteer Shirley Cordle opened the red, white and blue-striped curtain to reveal what the inside of a voting booth looks like. "It looks fun," one child said. Later, while watching a voter get an "I voted sticker," the voter came over and shook hands with the kids, like a celebrity. "That's part of our responsibility of citizens," he said.

    Bell and French square off

    Rival state Senate candidates Bob Bell and Hollis French spent Tuesday morning at Minnesota and Benson in Anchorage. Bell, the Republican challenger, claimed the southeast corner of the busy intersection, while French, the Democratic incumbent, stood opposite his foe on the northeast corner. Handfuls of supporters surrounded both candidates. French, a member of the state Senate bipartisan coalition, has been under attack by Bell, who believes the legislature runs more smoothly with partisan tensions than when it's mired in middle-ground politics.

    Both candidates had a strong early-morning presence as voters headed to work and the polls. Bell's camp was well-dressed, perhaps following the lead of Bell himself, who wore a handsome black wool trench coat and leather gloves. He beamed as he waved at drivers, statesmanlike in both stature and presence. The French camp was dressed more casual, with down coats, wool caps, lighter-hued clothing. Maybe red -- the dominant color in Bell's signs -- set a more regal tone against the morning's dark blue sky. The blues of French's signs cast a different tone on his corner.

    By 8:30 a.m., with daylight starting to loom and the traffic lessening as the workday started, both groups dissolved, moving on to their next rounds for Election Day.

    ‘I did everything I could do'

     Republican Senate candidate Bob Roses -- challenger to incumbent Democrat Sen. Bill Wielechowski -- kept up his campaigning early Tuesday. He waved to commuters for a half-hour before the polls opened in Anchorage. Roses positioned himself at the corner of Boniface and Debarr at 6:30 a.m. A spunky addition to an otherwise sleepy intersection, it was too early for traffic to have yet really gained steam.

    Wearing wool gloves, he sipped tea from a travel mug, glad the 20-degree morning proved milder than had been experienced earlier in the week. "It's the final push," he said, keeping an eye on traffic. "I did everything I could do."

    All eyes on Senate bipartisan coalition

    Because of a massive redistricting, all but one of the state's legislative seats are up for grabs. The shakeup has injected partisan-based, industry interests into the election process.

    In a state reliant on crude to pay for government and a Republican governor working diligently to lower state oil taxes to promote new investment, oil industry supporters have backed Republican candidates in an effort to dismantle what they perceive as a road block: the 16-member bipartisan coalition of the state Senate, comprised of 10 Democrats and six Republicans.

    Some have viewed the coalition’s across-the-isle cooperativeness as returning to the principles of the state's founding leaders. But Parnell and others have seen it as a body entrenched in gridlock and inaction, one dominated by Democrats demanding too much from oil companies, which pay taxes, royalties and fees that fund some 90 percent of state government.

    Got a news tip from Election Day? Email info(at)alaskadispatch.com