“There’s a lot of conservatives waking up this morning not happy about the preliminary election results,” Amy Demboski said during her morning talk radio show Wednesday.
The former Eagle River Assembly member and municipal manager spent the program going over early Anchorage election returns that disappointed many conservatives in the municipality, with progressive and moderate candidates pulling off a near sweep in six of seven races for the Assembly over right-leaning rivals. Bond packages and ballot proposals did similarly well, winning in all but one case, and typically by healthy margins.
“Not only are races being won by the liberal candidates … but in a much bigger percentage than most of us who do political analysis expected,” Demboski said in an interview Wednesday.
The one exception was in the conservative stronghold of Eagle River, where candidate Scott Myers, who ran with the endorsement of Mayor Dave Bronson, is poised to win by a double-digit margin.
“I was kinda hoping we’d pick up some more conservative seats, naturally,” said Assembly member Kevin Cross, who, along with Myers and South Anchorage’s Randy Sulte, is on track to be in a three-member conservative minority on the 12-person body.
“There’s probably a little bit of frustration (among) Republicans about the effectiveness of local politics,” said Craig Campbell, a former Assembly member, lieutenant governor and now in a leadership position within the Alaska Republican Party. He’s also the manager of the Ted Stevens International Airport for the state. “It was a tough year for conservatives in fundraising.”
The results leave the city’s overriding political dynamic where it was before the election, with a left-of-center majority on the Assembly big enough to handily pass legislation and keep a check on the city’s conservative mayor, including through vetoes.
“I was a little surprised by some of the margins, but in general I’m not surprised at all,” said outgoing Assembly member Austin Quinn-Davidson, a progressive who opted not to run for reelection and backed the liberal candidate, Anna Brawley, in what is on track to be a blowout, 20-point victory in the West Anchorage district.
“I’ve heard a lot about the dysfunction in City Hall,” Quinn-Davidson said of her conversations with constituents and community councils. “I think there have been enough either illegal, unethical or unsavory acts by this administration that people have a sense that they’re not doing good for the community. And I think that catches up with you.”
‘The party does not show up’
In the soul-search and finger-pointing postmortems accounting for conservative losses in the election, conservative commentators identified a common culprit: the Alaska GOP.
“The party does not show up,” Demboski said on her radio show.
Demboski has an intimate knowledge of both the Assembly and the Bronson administration, having worked with and for each of them until she was unceremoniously fired from her job as Bronson’s municipal manager in December. In a letter threatening legal action, Demboski alleges her firing was retaliation for pointing out malfeasance, unethical behavior and corruption within the administration.
All of which is to say: Demboski has some thoughts on what went wrong this election cycle for conservatives.
“The Republican Party has been absent, has literally lost their credibility, they do not help local candidates to any degree as the Democrats do, not even close,” Demboski said.
She faulted Alaska GOP leadership for overlooking local races in favor of a narrow focus on the Legislature and statewide offices, not putting resources behind ground-game tactics like phone-banking, door-knocking or boosting turnout.
“And if you don’t do that, you’re gonna continue to get your ass whooped every election,” Demboski said during her radio show.
She’s not the only conservative who attributed the lopsided election results to superior field organizing by moderate and progressive candidates.
“The other side is working it harder … and working smarter,” said Suzanne Downing, publisher of the conservative website Must Read Alaska, during a Wednesday interview on “I’m Glad You Said That,” a weekly program on Christian radio station KATB.
“I’m discouraged, to say the least,” said show host Jim Minnery, president of the Alaska Family Council, a conservative policy organization. “We got our butts whooped.”
Downing shared the analysis that the state Republican Party under-invests in municipal elections. She attributed some of the leftward political shift to the city’s demographic and economic changes in the last decade, as oil industry jobs declined amid the yearslong oil slump. To the extent those blue-collar workers have been replaced, it’s by more white-collar and health care workers who tend not to vote as reliably Republican and conservative.
“It’s a different town than you grew up in,” Downing told Minnery. “We have a less extractive economy here now.”
Many older residents, who tend to vote more conservatively, are retiring out of state, she added. And union members, from public school teachers to tradesmen, tend to vote in line with their leadership’s endorsements of more liberal candidates.
For its part, the party does not share that view.
“The Republican party did participate in this election, we did support the candidates when they asked us to,” said Campbell. “We are very interested in local politics.”
He noted that many of the conservative candidates did not file to run until just before the deadline. When Campbell first ran for the Assembly in the 1980s, he said, he spent nine months laying the groundwork for his campaign. Contrary to the allegations that the party was absent from the municipal election, Campbell said the party offered help but many of the relatively unknown candidates who jumped into the race tried to keep the party at arm’s length so as to maintain the appearance of independence in their pitch to voters.
“It was an incorrect criticism. And here’s why: We did hold fundraisers and we have an endorsement process and did, in fact, endorse some of those candidates,” Campbell said. But, he added, not everyone running reached out to the party or pursued support.
‘This is our home’
This year’s election was similar to last year’s: A lot of money poured in, much of it in support of a slate of conservative candidates who ran on the promise of “adding balance” to the Assembly by pulling the body to the right. But this year, unlike last, those candidates less explicitly campaigned as would-be allies to Bronson — several kept him at arm’s length publicly, even as they quietly accepted support in other ways.
Still, the mayor looms large in local politics.
“This was in many ways a referendum on our mayor and his administration,” Downing said on the radio show.
She blamed the negative returns less on policy and personnel decisions coming from City Hall — which has been wracked with scandal after scandal after scandal since the mayor entered office — than on misperceptions created by partisan politicians and members of the Anchorage media.
“I think that the left and the left media have been very effective at turning the city into a mess,” Downing said. “It’s worn down the public, and the public is not paying attention most of the time.”
Downing and others also singled out one particular entity for its efficacy in Anchorage municipal elections: the Ship Creek Group, a political communications and campaign management firm that has worked with a lot of successful Assembly candidates in the last eight years, in addition to taking on statewide and legislative races, along with ballot measures.
This year, Ship Creek managed the campaigns of Zac Johnson in South Anchorage, Karen Bronga in one of the two east-side races, Andy Holleman’s school board race, did messaging work for Chris Constant’s reelection effort in the North Anchorage district, and Anna Brawley’s bid in West Anchorage, as well as Proposition 14, a measure that will divert cannabis taxes to early education and child care. Barring any major upset in outstanding ballots, all of those campaigns appear certain to win.
“We don’t have a Ship Creek Group for conservatives. It is a hard thing to acknowledge,” Demboski said in an interview. “We’re getting outworked, outspent and frankly outplayed when it comes to these local elections.”
Instead, conservative candidates this cycle and last have spent heavily on management and messaging services from Axiom Strategies, a national firm headquartered in Missouri that handles Republican campaigns across the country.
“There were some issues with using Axiom,” Campbell said. “I think that was actually not the best choice that the candidates could have done.”
During his campaign for mayor in 2020 and 2021, Bronson spent mountains of cash on services from Axiom, ranging from direct mail buys worth $30,000 at a time, to consulting fees, to opposition research on rival candidates and a $4,000 “Dave Bronson vulnerability study.”
“If far-right Republicans feel like they have to go out of state for their campaign management support, that is a problem,” said John-Henry Heckendorn, Ship Creek’s founder and a former aide to independent Gov. Bill Walker.
“We’re not just placing media buys. I was out this weekend knocking doors,” Heckendorn said. “... This is our home and we care.”
Other campaigns that Ship Creek did not manage but is politically aligned with, he said, were also handled by Anchorage-based operatives, rather than out-of-state firms.
“The center-left can be proud of the bench of local campaign managers,” Heckendorn said.
Make local government boring again
Heckendorn added that voters are aware of the scandals, missteps and accusations of corruption at City Hall under Bronson, but believes there was a more salient distinction between the slate of candidates who are winning, and their rivals who are trailing. One set emphasized a positive view of the role local government can play on nuts-and-bolts issues. The others campaigned on loftier, more ideological opposition to the Assembly and function of government.
“My sense was voters bought the distinction between a group of candidates who wanted to get things back to the basics and stop the fighting, versus a group of candidates who came out of the Save Anchorage movement (with a) pretty hostile, openly pugnacious approach to politics,” Heckendorn said, referring to a Facebook group that emerged during the pandemic in 2020 and quickly morphed into a political force that helped propel Bronson’s mayoral campaign to victory in 2021.
Heckendorn pointed to the success not only of the left-of-center candidates but also the bond proposals and ballot measures that will add public resources to the civic sphere, not trim back government spending on services.
“I think Prop 14 passing by a strong margin, if that continues to hold, is an indication that people are willing to get to a problem-solving phase in local government,” he said.
That sentiment is shared by Quinn-Davidson.
“People want elected leaders who want to govern. And I think what we’re seeing nationally is conservatives do not want to govern, they want to stir up culture wars,” Quinn-Davidson said. “That is not what people want out of elected officials. They want their roads plowed, they want schools to function well.”
On the other side of the ideological spectrum, Cross, who represents Eagle River on the body, said what he heard from constituents heading into the election was that it had less to do with ideology than the day-to-day experiences people have of local government — things like permitting, schools and roads.
“Obviously, this winter was a lot about snow removal, which is a complex issue,” Cross said.
The Anchorage mayor does not control the weather, but still ends up catching most of the blame when snow isn’t plowed from roads fast enough — often from a public that isn’t privy to the complicated staffing and logistical factors at play, Cross said. A good share of the desires he said he hears from constituents is that they want local politics to get back to being boring and functional.
“They were concerned about the relationship between the Assembly and the mayor’s office,” he said. “More cooperation, and quit finger-pointing.”
Though election results are still preliminary and in the process of being tallied, it is extremely unlikely for any of the trailing candidates to overcome their wide vote deficits, even if the margins shrink slightly. Official results will be certified later this month.