In Anchorage, the August primary elections opened to sunny skies without a cloud in sight. Now, let's see if Alaskans actually decide to head to the polls, instead of being tempted to enjoy one of summer's fleeting five-star days in the Far North.
In the 2012 election cycle, all but one of the seats in the Alaska Legislature are up for grabs, the result of a massive redistricting. Some of those seats will no doubt go to their incumbents. But there are quite a few seats hotly contested in the primaries, especially some key races that could change up the state Senate bipartisan coalition.
Liz Vasquez, who is running against Bob Bell in the Republican primary for Senate District J in West Anchorage, was riding her Segway and waving a sign on the eve of the primary elections.
In Mountain View, Cal Williams, a Democrat candidate running for Alaska House District 17, was out campaigning from a colorful truck. Funk music blasted from the truck bed, where Williams stood waving a campaign sign and holding a microphone. The truck was decked out in balloons and yellow banners bearing the motto: "You + Me = Strong We." Another yellow car with the license plate "1977" followed behind, the driver pumping his fist sporadically to the music.
The streets were mostly empty in Mountain View, but Williams didn't seem discouraged. He called out to whoever he could spot on the streets and sidewalks: "I need your vote!" As he passed a school, Williams turned down the music.
"We won't disturb the kids," he said into the microphone. "Stay in school. Study hard."
The Tuesday morning commute was quieter, at least politically, than Anchorage drivers experience during the lead-up to the general election in November. By 7:30 a.m., handfuls of sign-wavers dotted intersections in Midtown, rather than the dozens you usually see around October and November.
The "Vote No on 2" folks -- they're the people and corporations spending big bucks in hopes of keeping Coastal Zone Management dead -- had a lock on New Seward and Benson, and a few Harriet Drummond signs could be seen nearby. At Seward and O'Malley, signs were up for Jodie Dominguez. And at Tudor and Minnesota, in a Midtown neighborhood that's new to Lesil McGuire, a campaigner dressed as a life-size sock monkey brushed shoulders with supporters of the Republican incumbent senator.
Farther south in Anchorage, near Mears Middle School, McGuire was camped out at the corner of Victor and 100th, comfortably waving to drivers in her home turf. This is the neighborhood she grew up in. As she took time to direct a driver to the correct polling place, McGuire explained that come election day, sign-waving is about the only thing a candidate can do. Or maybe should do.
"It's the only thing that keeps you calm," she said between smiles and hand waves, with her husband, 12-year-old-son, campaign supporters, and a loyal yellow lab named Snowball working the corner with her. Snowball, 10, has been on the campaign trail with the McGuire camp since she was 5 months old.
A box of donuts sat in the grass behind the group, quick fuel to supplement the "campaign high" that was getting them through the final hours of the primary push.
McGuire, a member of the embattled Alaska Senate bipartisan coalition, is among the incumbents coalition critics are looking to oust. But her Republican challenger, Jeff Landfield, is not nearly as well-funded as challengers in other Senate races -- a signal perhaps that the would-be ousters know McGuire can't be beat, although the anti-McGuire rhetoric has flowed generously.
Hoping for low voter turnout
Why hasn't Landfield, a 27-year-old political newbie, raised more money in his fight against McGuire? In a Tuesday interview, Landfield said his freshman run for office as a young unknown may make donors hesitant.
But he's also hearing from many voters who have said he's their guy, but can't risk being outed by giving to his campaign. Translation? He's earning votes behind the scenes from people who don't want to rock the boat in their everyday lives should they fail to support McGuire, and thus find themselves alienated from needed business or other relationships.
He'll spend most of election day at his job as an IT consultant, but will head to the streets for sign-waving for the afternoon rush-hour commute. Landfield has concentrated his campaign efforts on super voters -- people who have demonstrated they are likely to vote in a primary when election turnouts are historically low. People who vote a lot pay attention to the issues, and they know those issues more substantially than 30-second campaign soundbites can deliver, he said. They are more apt to be familiar with Mcguire's rise to power and will have followed the details of bipartisan coalition's standoffs and gridlock, he said.
And he's hoping for a low turn-out election. Between the uncontested state House races in his district and Don Young up for re-election in the U.S. House -- a presumed easy return to office, Landfield suspects only two contests will bring his constituents to the polls: Coastal Zone Management (Prop. 2) and his race against McGuire.
Low voter turnout, he reasons, will mean more of the deciders this election day will be those super voters he's worked so hard to sway.
McGuire not worried
McGuire feels confident South Anchorage voters who have stuck with her throughout her career will stick by her again. But Midtown is something of an unknown. She said she worked hard going from door to door there, and at times would run across voters whom Landfield had gotten to first. In those instances, where new constituents are just learning about McGuire, she wonders if the negative campaigning from Landfield supporters will take hold. And she acknowledges there's an anti-incumbent sentiment in politics in general these days that may help create appeal for a newcomer. She's already talking like the job is hers, though.
During her morning campaigning on the street corner, McGuire chatted with AM radio talk-show host Rick Rydell. She admitted the Senate bipartisan coalition has grown dysfunctional and "is where good things have gone to die."
"I have been in a blood bath," she told Rydell, explaining the legislative gymnastics she's had to go through to get bills she or the governor believes in.
The forces looking to dismantle the coalition perhaps best sum up the sentiment in a radio ad supporting Wasilla Sen. Linda Menard, a Republican. Her challenger, Mike Dunleavy, has pledged to resist membership in the coalition if he topples Menard in the primary race. A new radio ad accuses Menard of being unable to break through the wall put up by "liberal Anchorage Democrats." The gist is the Dems are holding otherwise good legislation hostage, disempowering Republicans to get little done than push through matters irrelevant to the state's future.
But even with the "blood bath" she's found herself in, McGuire has no intention of abandoning the coalition. Coalitions, she said, are a proud part of Alaska's history and always will be.
As cars passed the four-way stop where McGuire and her campaign had parked themselves for Tuesday morning, she translated what was happening: "A thumbs up in sign-waving world is a vote." So are honks, and pointing at an "I voted" sticker. All of these gestures are visible as drivers and passengers roll by.
But a wave? A wave is less decisive. With a wave, "you never know," McGuire said.