In a post-Roe Alaska, Democrats and left-leaning legislative candidates are campaigning in key races on protecting abortion access, while Republicans are focusing on combating high inflation and high energy prices.
That partisan split in priorities have been reflected nationally in polling ahead of the Nov. 8 midterm elections. Inflation is the biggest issue overall and appears to be a winning issue for Republicans, but Democrats are more likely to be motivated to vote based on threats to abortion access.
Across urban Alaska districts, key issues have included the cost of living, education funding, the Permanent Fund dividend and public safety — and then for progressives, protecting abortion access.
“I think that it is the — and I would emphasize the — issue that we are hearing about from voters across the political spectrum in different neighborhoods across Alaska,” said Lindsay Kavanaugh, executive director of the Alaska Democratic Party.
While abortion may be a key issue, the Legislature’s ability to influence abortion laws is somewhat limited because of the Alaska Constitution’s strong privacy clause. State judges have long interpreted as extending to abortion access, meaning there was no immediate impact in Alaska when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.
Two-thirds of the Legislature would need to put a draft constitutional amendment before voters to change that. A constitutional convention, on the ballot in November, is seen as the most likely way that abortion access would change, which is part of the reason why it is supported by some hard-right conservatives and opposed by progressives and moderates.
There have been several legislative debates in recent years about defunding Medicaid abortion services, but Republicans have said that significant changes to abortion access in Alaska won’t happen without a constitutional change.
Some Democrats have stressed that state judges could change their interpretation of the privacy clause, as happened at the federal level, meaning abortion rights could be more fragile than they first appear.
Democrat Ted Eischeid, who works as a planner for the Mat-Su Borough, is running for an open House seat in northeast Anchorage. He estimates that he’s knocked on 3,000 doors since he started campaigning. Endorsed by Planned Parenthood, Eischeid has given the same message each time he has been asked about abortion: “I don’t believe government should intrude into your private life.”
The seat is expected to be one of a handful in Fairbanks and Anchorage that will determine whether the Republican Party or bipartisan coalitions form a majority in the state House and Senate.
Republican Stanley Wright, a Navy veteran who works for the Anchorage Health Department, is running against Eischeid. Wright described himself as “pro-life” but said he thinks abortion could be an option in cases of rape and incest.
In West Anchorage, Democratic Rep. Matt Claman, who is running to unseat Republican Sen. Mia Costello, said abortion has been the central issue he has heard about from voters. Protecting the state’s constitutional right to privacy is front and center on Claman’s campaign website and he wrote an opinion piece published by the Daily News defending it.
Costello has been a reliable anti-abortion vote in the state Senate, but her stance on the issue is not mentioned on her campaign website, which is common for leading GOP legislative candidates. She did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Appearing on the conservative Michael Dukes Show Thursday morning, Costello instead stressed declining Alaska oil production, blaming President Joe Biden’s resource policies, and concerns over the impacts of inflation.
“The cost of living is really on people’s minds,” she said. “The price of gas is really hurting families and families are making different choices.”
The vehemently anti-abortion Alaska Family Council, a Christian advocacy group, has endorsed Costello along with Wright and a slate of conservative legislative candidates. Jim Minnery, the group’s president, said to get an endorsement, candidates would need to be anti-abortion and support religious liberties, parental rights and school choice, among other conservative priorities.
Minnery is encouraging anti-abortion candidates to campaign boldly on the issue. He called abortion “the most pressing human rights issue of our time,” but said some candidates find it awkward to talk about when knocking on doors because it’s such a personal issue.
”Pro-life candidates have no need to ignore this issue or be defensive,” he said in a message to candidates. “We show by our actions that we care both for preborn children and women in unexpected pregnancies.”
Around 60% of Alaskans have consistently supported abortion access when polled. Alaska Democratic Party director Kavanaugh believes that has led anti-abortion Republicans to downplay their opposition to the procedure until they’re elected.
Minnery asserted that it is Democrats who are being evasive, using euphemisms like “reproductive choice” instead of abortion, because he said it could trigger thoughts of access to the procedure without limits. (Claman’s 650-word opinion piece on the state’s privacy clause used the word “abortion” once.)
Planned Parenthood endorsements in Fairbanks
Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates has identified Fairbanks Republican Rep. Bart LeBon as one of three legislative candidates most “threatening” to abortion rights in Alaska, along with Costello and Republican Fairbanks Mayor Jim Matherly, who the group also opposes for his 2019 veto of a Fairbanks anti-LGBTQ discrimination ordinance.
Political observers say all three candidates are in critical races for the balance of power in the state Capitol.
“We should be expanding health care access, not electing officials who want to remove it,” said Rose O’Hara-Jolley, Alaska state director of Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates.
LeBon, who has been endorsed by the Alaska Family Council, signed onto a Texas-style bill in 2020 that aimed to ban abortions in Alaska after a heartbeat is detected and said he would sign onto one again.
During a recent interview, LeBon said he has not focused on the abortion issue or included it in campaign material for a simple reason: “Nobody has asked me about my stance on abortion, you’re the first one.” Instead, voters in downtown Fairbanks have been concerned about high energy costs, inflation, and declining oil production, he said.
Republican Matherly is running for the state Senate against incumbent Democrat Scott Kawasaki and echoed that, saying he has not been asked during debates and forums about abortion. His campaign is focused on combating the opioid epidemic and homelessness.
Endorsed by the Alaska Family Council, Matherly said when asked about the issue in an interview, “of course, I wish everybody could never have an abortion ever. But is that realistic? You know what I mean? So I have to look at it from a realistic point of view,” he said.
But he added, “every life’s vastly important. Whether it’s a result of rape, or consensual sex or a planned family. I think every life is precious when it’s in the womb. I truly believe that.”
Kawasaki, a pro-abortion Democrat who has knocked on doors around Fairbanks and said abortion is “certainly a huge issue.”
In contrast to what Matherly and LeBon said of their experiences, he said he has heard despair and mistrust from Alaskans concerned about their autonomy to make health care decisions.
Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates, the political arm of Planned Parenthood, has endorsed a slate of legislative candidates, all of whom are Democrats, except for two left-leaning independents. It has endorsed Kawasaki, Claman and Democrat Maxine Dibert, who is running against LeBon.
IE groups and abortion
For progressive legislative candidates, abortion access may not be explicitly on the ballot in Alaska, but they are campaigning like it is.
Independent expenditure groups, Alaska’s version of Super PACs, have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars in Outside money into key races to boost left-leaning candidates and oppose conservative Republicans, but they are prohibited by law from coordinating with candidates.
The Alaska chapter of the American Leadership Committee reported spending $70,000 to oppose 13 conservatives one month out from the election, including LeBon, Nash and Wright. The group’s funding comes from the national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which has raised millions of dollars since Roe v. Wade was overturned.
“We cannot allow extremist anti-choice politicians to start chipping away at our fundamental freedoms,” the group said on its Alaska website. “We must vote like our freedoms depend on it.”