In a election that approaches the lowest turnout since the state started tracking voter participation 40 years ago, Alaskans on Tuesday dumped seven legislators, assuming the closest of the races holds, the five-vote defeat of Rep. Ben Nageak, D-Barrow.
All seven were part of the ruling Republican majority in the state House, including two with leadership positions. Some successful challengers focused on the Legislature's failure to fix the state's multibillion dollar budget crisis. Some also out-campaigned sitting legislators, according to their own descriptions and two Anchorage-based political consultants.
Three Republican Mat-Su incumbents were tossed out of office, counting Rep. Lynn Gattis, who lost her bid to move up to the state Senate. Two Republican incumbents in South Anchorage were turned out, including Rep. Craig Johnson, another who was trying for the Senate and part of House leadership as chairman of the Rules Committee.
Also out is Bethel Democrat Bob Herron, a four-term representative whose role as House Majority whip – the one moving legislation along — was an issue.
David Wilson, a Wasilla City Council member, posted so many yard signs in his run for state Senate against Gattis that he got sideways with city code compliance officers and then voted for the city sign ordinance that resulted.
The biggest surprise of the night was his upset of Gattis.
"How did that happen?" wondered political consultant Matt Larkin.
Gattis spent two terms in the House before deciding "at the 11th hour" to run for the Mat-Su seat being vacated by former Senate President Charlie Huggins. Wilson was little known at the start, no Democrat entered the race, and as late as 11 p.m. Tuesday night Anchorage Rep. Charisse Millett predicted fellow Republican Gattis would emerge a senator.
"I went underneath the radar," Wilson said. "Some of that was calculated. Some of it wasn't."
His primary night victory underscores the importance of energetic campaigns by challengers, combined with the fact that sitting legislators had to put their efforts on hold during an extended legislative session then two special sessions called by Gov. Bill Walker in a failed effort to fix the budget deficit.
"I don't think the throw-the-rascal-out phenomenon was critical in the sense that that's why the incumbents lost. I think it was a variable," said Anchorage political consultant Marc Hellenthal, who worked on several legislative races but none in which incumbents lost.
In key races, the challengers campaigned longer and harder – and often collected more contributions, which allowed more travel in the Bush or TV and radio time in urban areas, Hellenthal said.
Wilson, a self-described conservative, said he knocked on more than 1,000 doors with help from a former classmate at Alaska Pacific University, information technology guru Anand Dubey, known for his "supervoter" door-knocking techniques. Wilson will be Mat-Su's first African-American in the Legislature.
Gattis on Wednesday said she lost a crucial connection with constituents during her extended time in Juneau. It's also possible some voters reacted to comments she made suggesting seniors who can't afford to live in Alaska consider moving somewhere less expensive.
"This is a very unusual time" in Juneau, she said. "I think folks are ticked about the PFD. They're not sure exactly what happened, but it did happen, and 'you were down there when it happened.' "
In the race for the South Anchorage Senate Senate seat, which opened up when Lesil McGuire decided not to run, Republican Natasha von Imhof trounced Johnson and a third GOP candidate, Jeff Landfield, who vowed to be "Juneau's worst nightmare."
Von Imhof, a former Anchorage School Board member, said she has been running for Senate over nearly the past year.
"We had a very organized and very methodical campaign," she said. "We had a strategy."
She said she knocked on maybe 1,500 doors, and found the porch-side conversations with voters invaluable. Many talked of their concern for Alaska's economic future.
"I don't call it anti-incumbent," von Imhof said. "I call it pro-progress. Or 'please do something with the economy. We are worried.' "
Von Imhof's walking the district paid off, Hellenthal said.
"Craig Johnson is not known as a heavy walker. I am being polite," he said. Johnson said he knocked on doors, once the legislative sessions ended.
Von Imhof's campaign continues on to November against Democratic primary winner Forrest McDonald.
Both the Democratic and Republican parties backed challengers to sitting legislators, a first for Alaska primaries, and both succeeded in unseating targeted incumbents.
In Mat-Su, the Alaska Republican Party supported Sutton's George Rauscher after party officials branded first-term GOP Rep. Jim Colver a Democrat in disguise running to undermine the majority. Colver, a Hatcher Pass surveyor, lost in a conservative House district that sprawls from Delta and Valdez to Whittier, through Palmer.
New GOP Chairman Tuckerman Babcock shifted practice to influence the primary.
"That was a real gamble," Larkin said, one that would have hurt Tuckerman had it backfired.
But it worked, as did the Alaska Democratic Party's similar effort in two Bush races targeting Democrats who align with the GOP-led House Majority caucus.
The closest primary race was the states northernmost House District 40 covering the North Slope and Northwest Arctic boroughs.
Once the final three precincts were counted belatedly Wednesday, Kotzebue's Dean Westlake emerged with his five-vote lead over two-term Nageak, who was fuming earlier Wednesday over the ADP's unusual involvement.
"They want someone to control, and I am not controllable," Nageak said. "So all the big guns in the Democratic Party … they all gathered and they all targeted me as one of the people they need to get rid of. I'm not that easy to get rid of. Even if I do lose, I am going to give my all and they are going to rue the day they did that."
Westlake, village economic development director for NANA Regional Corp., had support and financial help from the party in a campaign in which he raised almost $40,000. During its last days, he chartered a plane to travel to a number of remote Arctic villages.
Nageak, who only raised about $14,000, said he held a fundraiser a few days ago but that didn't leave him time to travel to the villages.
Even with the Democratic Party against him, he said he won't drop his lifelong party affiliation.
They were wrong to state he was with the Republicans all the time, he said. He said he broke away in closed-door caucuses and sometimes on the floor. Asked for examples, Nageak took offense.
"Hey listen to me," he said. "I'm not going to put up with your crap about all this." He shouldn't have to prove himself to a reporter, he said.
The vote counting for his district stalled Tuesday night and into Wednesday due to a communications breakdown in Point Hope. The precinct chairman there didn't call in results Tuesday night for reasons not yet determined, said Josie Bahnke, director of the state Division of Elections.
"I don't know if he went to bingo or go berry picking or boating or what," she said Wednesday morning. "He might have gone home and gone to bed."
Under established protocol, voting ends at 8 p.m., the local election board counts ballots, and results are called into a regional office. Ballots are placed in sealed envelopes and mailed to the division in red bags.
"Last night, this did not happen," Bahnke said in an email.
Point Hope's mayor eventually tracked down the precinct chairman, and just before 11:30 a.m. Wednesday the election board was counting ballots, she said.
By midafternoon, the vote in Point Hope and two other late precincts was in.
An untold number of questioned ballots and a few absentees still must be counted for the district, a process that starts Thursday.
In the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, the voting precinct in Mekoryuk on Nunivak Island had technical problems. Election workers couldn't upload a memory card that recorded voter data, so it was being flown to a regional office in Nome, Bahnke said.
In that region, Bethel City Council member Zach Fansler was a clear winner over Herron, another Democrat aligned with Republicans and targeted by the party.
Fansler, who is well known as the former Kuskokwim 300 sled dog race manager, flew and boated to numerous villages, 22 as of Election Day, and spent evenings in Bethel knocking on voter doors.
The membership of the next Legislature won't be decided until the general election, but a number of races were decided in the primary. Based on the upsets, the House Democrats have a chance to create a ruling bipartisan coalition, Larkin said. Hellenthal said he figures the Republicans will keep control.
Just over 15 percent of Alaska's registered voters turned out for the primary, election statistics show. The number will creep up once all qualified absentee and questioned ballots are counted. Just once before was the primary election turnout in the teens, in 2000, when 17.2 percent of the voters cast ballots, according to state records that go back to 1976.
Here are breakdowns for the seven races in which a sitting legislator lost, or in the case of Nageak, is losing with some votes left to count:
Senate District D, Greater Wasilla/Big Lake/Point Mackenzie
Republicans: David Wilson, 52.4 percent; and Rep. Lynn Gattis, 47.6 (all precincts).
Senate District L — Taku/Oceanview
Republicans: Natasha von Imhof, 47.6 percent; Rep. Craig Johnson, 29.7 percent; and Jeff Landfield, 22.7 percent (all precincts).
House District 9 — Richardson Highway/East Mat-Su
Republicans: Rep. Jim Colver, 48 percent, and George Rauscher, 52 percent (all precincts).
House District 10 — Rural Mat-Su
Republicans: Rep. Wes Keller, 33.4 percent; David Eastman, 46.4 percent; Steve Menard, 15.7 percent; and Andrew Wright, 4.6 percent (all precincts).
House District 26 — Huffman
Republicans: Rep. Bob Lynn, 41.1 percent; and Chris Birch, 58.9 percent (all precincts).
House District 38 — Lower Kuskokwim
Democrats: Zach Fansler, 56.7 percent; and Rep. Bob Herron, 43.3 percent (30 of 31 precincts).
House District 40 — Arctic
Democrats: Rep. Ben Nageak, 49.84 percent; and Dean Westlake, 50.16 percent (all precincts).