Preliminary election results posted Tuesday night show Forrest Dunbar with a very slight lead over opponent Dave Bronson in the runoff race for Anchorage mayor, in an election on track for a record number of ballots cast.
With 72,144 ballots counted, Dunbar, an Assembly member from East Anchorage, was leading with 36,075 votes, or 50.08% of the votes tallied so far.
Bronson, a retired military and commercial pilot, had 35,961 votes.
Still, the outcome of the race remains unclear. The candidates are currently separated by just 114 votes, with several thousand ballots yet to be counted.
“I think a lot of folks thought it would be close. I think everyone is surprised that it is this close,” Dunbar said Tuesday night. “It’s a little bit like flipping a coin and having it land on its edge.”
Bronson, speaking to a crowd of campaign staff and volunteers, told his supporters after initial results were posted that he believes he will win, acknowledging that he is “down a little bit now.”
“We knew it was going to be a tight race, but I think it’s going to break in our favor, because that’s just the way it does. Conservatives vote late,” Bronson said.
He also said he expects clearer results on Wednesday.
At least 6,600 ballots were not yet counted Tuesday. The elections center had received more than 78,759 ballot envelopes as of Tuesday morning.
More ballots were still arriving in unknown numbers at the elections center through the day Tuesday, as in-person voters cast their ballots at Anchorage’s three vote centers or left them in the 18 secure ballot drop boxes around the city.
Ballots will also continue to arrive by mail in the coming days. Ballots postmarked no later than election day will be counted if they arrive by May 21, or by May 25 for overseas ballots.
That means it is possible the runoff election could swing in Bronson’s favor as more votes are tallied. During the April 6 election, Dunbar was initially ahead of the 14 other candidates for mayor, but as more votes were counted, Bronson took the lead.
The number of ballots counted Tuesday night is significantly higher than on April 6, which saw only about 10,600 ballots — 14% of the total ballots cast — counted on election day.
This time, a much larger number of ballots were returned early in the runoff election, unlike in April, when tens of thousands of ballots arrived on or just before election day. Of the counted ballots, turnout is at 30.47% of registered voters.
“This seems like a much more representative sample,” Dunbar said. “We just don’t know. At this point, it certainly looks headed to a very tight finish.”
If the race remains neck-and-neck, there will be an automatic recount. Municipal code requires a recount be conducted when a candidate wins by less than 0.5%. The candidates are currently separated by just 0.16%.
It would take a large swing of votes in either direction to move the race out of recount territory, Dunbar said.
Out of the more than 72,000 ballots counted so far, 108 ballots were not counted in the vote tally. Those not counted were either blank or had been considered an “overvote” — in which both ovals have been marked.
As more ballots arrive, it’s likely that turnout will eclipse the city’s last record in the 2018 race for mayor, which saw 79,295 ballots cast, or a turnout of about 36.3% of registered voters.
Technically nonpartisan, the race for Anchorage mayor has been contentious, fomenting partisan divisions among residents who disagree over how the city should move forward.
Dunbar and Bronson have starkly contrasting approaches to issues the city faces, and each sees the other as a political extremist who would lead the city in the wrong direction.
Early in the race for mayor, other candidates said that they saw Dunbar and Bronson as the two furthest apart on the political spectrum. The two both said they expected to face each other in the runoff.
The two take contrasting approaches to how the city should handle the COVID-19 pandemic, a homelessness crisis and how the city should revive its economy.
Bronson is a 30-year Anchorage resident who served in the Air Force, Air Force Reserves and Air National Guard, retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
He has been an outspoken critic of the city’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, including requiring business closures. While campaigning, Bronson has said he will revoke the city’s remaining pandemic-related mandates if elected, including the mask mandate. Bronson in recent statements said that the pandemic was “over last summer” in Anchorage and that he will not necessarily follow the advice of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Bronson has also targeted Dunbar over the city’s handling of homelessness and its allocation of pandemic relief money toward purchasing buildings for homeless and treatment services.
Bronson is backed by a slew of conservatives and Republicans, including endorsements from Gov. Mike Dunleavy, U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan and former candidate for mayor Mike Robbins.
Dunbar has twice been elected to the Anchorage Assembly, first taking the seat in 2016. He is a captain in the Alaska Army National Guard and an attorney, and in 2014 he ran as a Democrat for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives against Republican Rep. Don Young and lost.
Since the pandemic began, Dunbar has largely supported the city’s COVID-19 policies and has said that without the restrictions, many more people likely would have died from the virus. Most recently, Dunbar and the rest of the Assembly voted to undo most pandemic-related restrictions except for the mask mandate.
Dunbar has endorsements from multiple Alaska labor unions, including the Alaska AFL-CIO; other groups, including Anchorage Democrats and The Alaska Center; and former Democratic Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles. He is also supported by some conservatives, including the former chair of Dunleavy for Alaska, Terre Gales.
Both campaigns ramped up their efforts to get out the vote on Tuesday with phone banking, sign waving and other events. At the intersection of Northern Lights Boulevard and Minnesota Drive, dueling groups of sign wavers gathered on separate corners, eliciting honks and cheers from passersby. Music blared from large speakers on Bronson’s corner.
Although the election has been tense, there was a brief moment of levity when a Dunbar supporter in a bear costume and a woman supporting Bronson had a friendly dance-off in a traffic median to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.”
At the Loussac Library late Tuesday morning, there was no line of voters stretching into the parking lot like there was on election day in April. Instead, in-person voters streamed into the building without much of a wait.
Travis Murphy was one of them. He said he was voting for Bronson because “he’s got a better outlook,” he said.
Murphy said he was tired of pandemic restrictions and hoped Bronson would roll them back.
“I hope he gets rid of these,” he said, holding a face mask in his hand.
Charles Ashcraft strolled up on his way into the library to vote.
“I think I’m pretty much mind made up, I’m going to vote for Forrest Dunbar,” he said. “I know people are upset over what he did. But he shut down the city for a reason. COVID is no joke.”
Other in-person voters cited homelessness and fears that Anchorage politics could move toward mirroring progressive cities such as Portland and San Francisco as motivations for voting.
Election workers will continue tabulating votes up until the certification of results. Updated unofficial results will be posted online each day when there is a substantial number of new ballots counted, election officials have said.
The Assembly is scheduled to certify the results of the runoff on May 25, and the new mayor will take office July 1.
With the strong possibility of a recount, neither campaign has reached the finish line.
Daily News reporters Michelle Theriault Boots, Bill Roth and Emily Mesner contributed.