Most incumbents are beating out a group of conservative challengers in the Anchorage city election, remaining ahead with comfortable margins, according to a second round of preliminary election results posted Wednesday.
Only South Anchorage Assembly incumbent John Weddleton was down in a tight race for his seat against challenger Randy Sulte. Weddleton continued to lose ground Wednesday to Sulte, who increased his lead to 347 votes.
The early results indicate that the Assembly majority will likely maintain enough moderate-to-liberal leaning members to override the mayor’s vetoes.
Also under the latest vote counts, two bond proposals are now failing by small margins, including a major proposition to upgrade school district buildings
Elections officials had counted 46,181 ballots by Wednesday night, representing about 19.6% of registered voters. Just 4,865 additional ballots were included in Wednesday’s results. Election officials say they are still processing ballots cast Monday and Tuesday, while more are still arriving by mail.
Assembly incumbents Kameron Perez-Verdia (West Anchorage) and Forrest Dunbar (East Anchorage) continued to hold wide leads over challengers Liz Vazquez and Stephanie Taylor, respectively, though the challengers made slight gains in Wednesday’s results.
The gap between Midtown Assembly incumbent Meg Zaletel and challenger Kathy Henslee also shrank slightly, though Zaletel maintained a comfortable lead with 53% of the vote.
Vazquez, Taylor, Henslee and Sulte have coordinated efforts to unseat the four Assembly incumbents with the backing of Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson, aiming to dislodge the Assembly majority’s veto power and help the mayor’s agenda move ahead. The stakes of the election, added to the fact that the state recently scrapped its previous limits on individual donations, led to campaigns raking in record-high campaign donations during the race.
Political observers and incumbents say the early results show many voters are rebuffing campaign rhetoric from the Bronson-friendly candidates and from the mayor who heavily criticized the Assembly.
School board incumbents Margo Bellamy and Kelly Lessens were also continuing to beat their challengers with ample leads over two Bronson-backed conservative candidates.
Eagle River/Chugiak Assembly candidate Kevin Cross is winning the race to replace outgoing Assembly member Crystal Kennedy, who did not run for reelection.
“I am humbled by the faith our community has put in me,” Cross said in a Facebook post after results were posted Tuesday. “When elected, I will serve with perseverance and dedication.”
Many candidates say it’s too soon to call races
As of Wednesday, the elections center had received 61,967 ballot envelopes — and that number does not include ballots cast in vote centers on election day or those collected from drop boxes at the 8 p.m. close, according to Jamie Heinz, acting deputy clerk of elections.
That means at least 15,800 ballots are not yet counted, with more on the way. But ballots continue to break in favor of most incumbents, and if that trend holds, it likely leaves little chance for their challengers to make up enough ground in the race.
The preliminary results have placed incumbents firmly ahead in the East Anchorage, West Anchorage and Midtown races, said Ira Slomski-Pritz, a partner at Ship Creek Group, which is managing campaigns for Dunbar, Perez-Verdia, Lessens and Weddleton.
“These are not close margins. It would take something truly, truly strange for the outcomes to change in those races at this point,” he said Tuesday.
The campaigns are expecting a new round of preliminary results Thursday to better solidify the outcomes in the Assembly and school board races, he said.
Still, many candidates, including those in the lead, say it’s too soon to call the races.
Taylor, who is trailing Dunbar in East Anchorage by 15%, said by text message, “We’re just waiting for more ballots to be counted. It’s still early.”
“Today’s results were only a small number more for Midtown,” Zaletel said. “And so we’re happy with the lead we have but, you know, it’s not over until it’s over. So we’re just waiting to see what comes in, hoping that most of the ballots are in by Friday.”
Zaletel noted that in Midtown, only 18% of registered voters have had their ballots counted so far. Henslee was not available for comment Wednesday evening.
Sulte on Wednesday said that the results in the South Anchorage race so far are “looking promising.”
“It’s not good news for John,” said Slomski-Pritz.
“I think at this point, it would take the next results to be pretty significantly different than the initial results looked for John to catch up,” he said. “But it’s still close.”
During the city’s last election cycle, which pitted Dunbar against Bronson in a race for mayor, votes cast later in the election broke conservative, propelling Bronson to a victory over Dunbar’s initial lead.
Sulte said he believes that same trend will likely give him further advantage as more votes are counted this election.
“I heard from a lot of people that were voting on Tuesday and waited till Tuesday, so I would assume that trend would continue,” he said.
Weddleton was not immediately available for comment Wednesday evening.
Perez-Verdia said he also heard from many progressive-leaning voters who were waiting to vote until election day.
He said he hopes the preliminary results send a message to the mayor and his administration.
“I really do think that the early results show that Anchorage doesn’t want misinformation, doesn’t want intolerance, doesn’t want anger,” Perez-Verdia said. “They want people to work on behalf of the city. They want people to collaborate. They want people to make good decisions that are in the best interest of our city.”
West Anchorage challenger Vazquez did not respond to a phone call and text message Wednesday.
School district bond failing by small margin
Two bond propositions remain too close to call.
Proposition 1 would borrow $111,090,000 to shore up a number of schools in Anchorage. The current returns show a small majority of voters disapproving of the bond, by 308 votes. A significantly smaller bond proposition to improve the municipality’s fleet maintenance shop is behind by a comparable number of votes.
School board president and incumbent candidate Margo Bellamy said while she’s optimistic about the results in her own race, she is holding her breath when it comes to the school district’s bond package, though she remains hopeful.
The close preliminary result “just reflects so many things — I mean, that’s just what it’s like in our community right now,” Bellamy said. “Nobody agrees on anything entirely and completely.”
“Doing a two-year bond, we just had to prioritize — really prioritize — the projects and bond for what is absolutely needed to keep our kids safe, and staff,” Bellamy said.
Bill Evans, who represented the South Anchorage seat on the Assembly for a term, said large school bonds tend to pass with relatively tight margins. He’s not surprised by the closeness given the broader economic context.
“The current global fiscal or economic situation has people more concerned about their pocketbooks,” Evans said.
Though the school bond was intended to cover two years, the nine-digit figure may have turned off some voters worried about personal and public debts.
And while property taxes in Anchorage are determined by the mill rate set by the Assembly, many homeowners were surprised earlier this year to find out the assessed value on their property had increased substantially, driven by a hot real estate market. A sense of economic pressure may have given some voters an aversion to a large bonding package.
Evans said an unprecedented two years of precarious pandemic schooling and longstanding criticisms of the school district’s outcomes also could have been factors that led to even more bond skeptics than in a regular election cycle.
Preliminary results - Assembly
District 2 - Seat A - Eagle River/Chugiak
Kevin Cross - 59%, 3,908 votes; Gretchen Wehmhoff - 36%, 2,338 votes; Vanessa Stephens - 5%, 328 votes
District 3 - Seat D - West Anchorage
Kameron Perez-Verdia (incumbent) - 54%, 4,521 votes; Liz Vazquez - 41%, 3,447 votes; Nial Sherwood Williams 5%, 417 votes
District 4 - Seat F - Midtown
Meg Zaletel (incumbent) 53%, 3,987 votes; Kathy Henslee 47%, 3,502 votes
District 5 - Seat H - East Anchorage
Forrest Dunbar (incumbent) - 56%, 4,595 votes; Stephanie Taylor - 41%, 3,365 votes; Christopher Hall - 3%, 219 votes
District 6 - Seat J - South Anchorage
Randy Sulte - 51%, 6,083 votes; John Weddleton (incumbent) - 48%, 5,736 votes; Darin Colbry - 2%, 192 votes
Preliminary results - School Board
Margo Bellamy (incumbent) - 50%, 21,463 votes; Mark Anthony Cox - 39%, 16,541 votes; Dan Loring - 3%, 1,375 votes
(Cliff Murray - 8%, 3,459 votes; Murray announced his withdrawal from the race but was included on the ballot.)
Kelly Lessens (incumbent) - 51%, 21,816 votes; Rachel Ries - 41%, 17,563 votes; Dustin Darden - 5%, 2,052 votes
(Benjamin Baldwin - 4%, 1,518 votes; Baldwin announced his withdrawal from the race but was included on the ballot.)