Anchorage mayor’s race off to an early, expensive, competitive start

The campaign for Anchorage’s next mayor is off to an exceptionally aggressive and expensive start. Though Mayor Dave Bronson is an incumbent running for a second term, so far, this cycle more closely resembles a wide-open race, with candidates jockeying for endorsements and political donations much earlier than is typical in Anchorage’s mayoral elections.

The competition is all the fiercer because Alaska no longer has limits on individual campaign donations, flooding the race with new levels of political spending.

As the year came to a close, the major candidates were building their campaign strategies around the intense three-week window when ballots will be in the hands of voters. Much of the electorate, according to candidate and former Democratic House Majority Leader Chris Tuck, doesn’t yet know a ton about the individual candidates or their policy positions.

“It’s surprising to me how many people are unaware that the mayor’s race is coming up,” said Tuck, who is running for the job for the first time. “People are not in the mindset right now.”

Much of the fundraising, outreach and organizing up to this point is in preparation for a major push during the months ahead to capture votes through tactics like direct mail, door knocking, text messages, billboards, yard signs, broadcast and digital ads, and, inevitably, sign waving at the intersection of the Seward Highway and Northern Lights Boulevard.

“We raise all this money to reach voters,” said Anna Hutchinson, who is managing former Anchorage Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance’s campaign. “It’s essentially a two-month sprint to try and keep engagement up.”

The last day to vote is Tuesday, April 2, with mail-in ballots going out around three weeks before that in March.


Nobody working closely on any of the four major campaigns believes the election will end in April. Instead, they anticipate that the split in votes will result in a runoff a month later, and most say they’re budgeting resources accordingly.

“Nothing I’ve seen has indicated anyone will be able to reach 45% on the first ballot,” Hutchinson said. “It’s unrealistic, I think, to think it’ll be over and done with on April 2.”

If no candidate hits the 45% threshold, then the top two vote-getters go head to head against each other in May.

In addition to the three prominent candidates running to keep Bronson from a second term — Tuck, LaFrance and former Anchorage Economic Development Corp. president and CEO Bill Popp — two more residents, Darin Colbry and Dustin Darden, have filed paperwork for the office, though have not mounted significant or organized campaigns.

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Bronson, who had little political experience when he launched an insurgent campaign during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, ran on a platform against local lockdown measures and elected leaders then in office. This time around, the political environment is far different. Not only are most pandemic-era public health measures long since shed, but for 2 1/2 years, Bronson has been the one in charge, overseeing the city’s response to homelessness, road maintenance and challenges in the public-sector workforce. Much of Bronson’s political momentum in the last mayoral election took place on social media, especially a private Facebook page called Save Anchorage that has since fizzled out of prominence.

A manager for Bronson’s campaign declined an interview request. In response to specific questions about his current reelection strategy, Bronson provided a short written statement.

“It is an honor to serve the residents of Anchorage as Mayor,” he wrote. “As for your questions about the campaign trail, I don’t plan to spend much time on it! Serving as Anchorage Mayor is a full-time commitment. I’ve laid out my vision and expectations for my campaign team — we will run a positive campaign focused on the issues.”

All three of the mayor’s main challengers are framing their candidacies as alternatives to a second Bronson term. That dynamic has spawned a race within the race, as the candidates and their surrogates privately meet and discuss who ought to drop out in order to allow another challenger to consolidate support.

Asked if any of the campaigns had pushed for other candidates to drop out, Hutchinson responded, “I’m positive those conversations are happening ... but we’re not going to be the ones to demand anything.”

“We’ve all talked with one another, but I would say that it’s good to have open communication with opponents,” Tuck said.

But, he added, “it’s too early” for anyone to drop out, given that the filing deadline for more potential candidates does not close until Jan. 26.


So far, two candidates have received most of the big-name support.

Bronson has backing from a number of prominent conservative and Republican politicians. In August, his reelection campaign kicked off at a fundraiser in an airplane hangar. The announcement included the names of dozens of supporters, including Gov. Mike Dunleavy, U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, three current members of the Anchorage Assembly, two former mayors, several sitting legislators, political activists and local business owners.

Among Bronson’s main challengers, LaFrance has collected endorsements from powerful organized labor groups, including the unions representing teachers, public employees, and industrial trades. She’s also been endorsed by the Alaska Center and the local chapter of Planned Parenthood Action Alliance, as well as eight current Assembly members, many of whom served with her.

LaFrance and Popp shared the endorsement of the political action committee representing employees of the Anchorage Police Department.

What’s surprised many election watchers is how early endorsements are being made. As recently as 2021, which saw a crowded and contentious competition, many of the same unions waited until as late as February to issue endorsements or opted to sit out the runoff between Bronson and then-East Anchorage Assembly Member Forrest Dunbar, whom he narrowly beat.


When Tuck entered the race, many political observers assumed he would be organized labor’s preferred candidate, having been viewed as an ally to unions while working in the Legislature, and given his past work as an IBEW electrician. Instead, the Central Labor Council, a consortium of local union groups representing some 15,000 members, jumped into the fray unprecedentedly early on behalf of LaFrance. More individual unions quickly followed. While Tuck is endorsed by a handful of his Democratic former colleagues in the Legislature, no major organized labor groups have championed his candidacy so far.

“This is the earliest I’ve seen this kind of ratcheting up,” said Democratic former state Sen. Tom Begich, who comes from one of the state’s most prominent political families. “This election really kicked off about eight months ago.”

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Though Begich has supported both LaFrance and Popp in some of their previous election efforts, he is currently working with Tuck’s campaign.

In previous election cycles, it was relatively common for the mayoral field to not firm up until around the filing deadline, with potential candidates lurking in the wings to see who else jumped in the race before declaring. In 2015, former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz waited until mid-February to file paperwork for the race he ultimately ended up winning, announcing his intent at the end of a talk-radio show he hosted at the time with conservative activist Bernadette Wilson.

Begich believes this year is different because Bronson is an unpopular incumbent. After winning the 2021 runoff by just 1,193 votes, the mayor has presided over a succession of embarrassing political skirmishes and staff turnover, as well as back-to-back winters with heavy snow met with elongated plow-outs that left much of the public furious.

The negativity toward Bronson, according to Begich, has given the race the feel of a wide-open field, not the usual dynamic of trying to topple an incumbent, who typically enjoys a degree of advantage.

“The mayor was perceived as being a target, and it created an opportunity for people to jump into the race,” Begich said. “I can’t imagine this city will support a mayor who can’t plow the roads.”


Begich thinks it’s a mistake to presume that union leaders endorsing LaFrance means that card-carrying members will back her in the election. He believes Tuck’s previous career as a union tradesman will carry more weight when it comes to earning individual votes.

“When rank and file look at the candidates, they often do disagree with leadership, and in this case I think they will disagree with leadership,” Begich said.

Still, he thinks that in spite of potentially splitting their support in the regular election, thousands of union members are likely to coalesce behind any challenger who ends up in a runoff against Bronson.

“There’s a clear understanding in organized labor that the key is to remove Dave Bronson,” Begich said.


Campaigns and election watchers alike are waiting on tenterhooks for February, when fundraising reports are due to the Alaska Public Offices Commission. Until then, the only information about how much money candidates are bringing in comes from the campaigns themselves.

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More money has been pouring into Anchorage’s local elections since a 2021 ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Alaska’s limits on individual campaign donations. The 2022 Anchorage race broke local records for political spending in municipal races, and 2023 was not much different, with a raft of well-funded conservative candidates allied with Bronson vying to knock off progressive and moderate alternatives.

2024 will bring the first mayoral election without caps on how much Alaskans can give directly to a candidate, and many observers anticipate an expensive race.

In December, the LaFrance campaign announced it had doubled its initial fundraising goal. As the end of the year approached, Hutchinson said they had taken in around $250,000 from some 800 individual donors.

“That’s about twice what I had at this stage,” Dunbar wrote on X, formerly Twitter, of LaFrance’s announcement earlier in December. “Not to mention all the endorsements, which I got significantly later.”

Hutchinson spoke in general terms about how those funds will be deployed as the election approaches: traditional outreach like door-knocking, text banking, and phone calls. Signs have already started sprouting from snow piles in some neighborhoods. And plenty of resources will be funneled into people’s mailboxes.

“This is a vote-by-mail election, so the best way to reach voters is through direct mail,” Hutchinson said.


Other candidates were more cagey about what they’ve raised.

“Unfortunately it takes money to win an election, but money alone doesn’t get you elected. So we’re focused right now on voter contact. We still got a long way,” said Tuck.

Through his previous campaigns for state House, Tuck is familiar with fundraising. But running for a district seat is different from an area-wide race for mayor. So far, he said he’s focused on getting in front of voters wherever he can, be it at fundraising dinners, speaking to church and community groups, and working the phones. He’s not started door-knocking yet because of “the snow situation and the holidays.” Likewise, he has not started putting up any signs.

“It’s too hard to maintain signs with this weather. You can put it in a snowbank, but then it disappears,” Tuck said.

Bronson began the year with more than $53,000 in leftover contributions, according to an APOC report filed at the start of 2023. He has been consistently hosting local fundraising events, many of which have been cosponsored by individuals who wrote large checks in the past to Bronson and his political allies. But the degree of financial support flowing into the mayor’s reelection campaign will not be clear until APOC filings are released.

Money alone does not win elections — Popp pointed out it is seldom the most liquid candidate who ends up winning the job. He noted that when Mark Begich was first elected to lead the city in 2003, he’d raised less than either incumbent George Wuerch or past Mayor Rick Mystrom. And when former Assembly member Dan Coffey ran for mayor, he’d been fundraising for well over a year heading into the 2015 election and raked in $221,769 by February, far more than anyone else in that year’s crowded field. That April, he came in fourth place, winning a little more than 14% of the vote.


“I don’t put as much stock in cash being raised as the sole metric for success,” Popp said.

In his long tenure with AEDC, Popp was a familiar face at luncheons and conferences attended by members of the Anchorage business community, though it remains an unanswered question if those relationships are being converted into campaign funds. Popp said so far he’d gotten contributions from “hundreds” of supporters, but declined to elaborate on exactly how much.

“I’m not gonna disclose numbers today,” he said. “We’ve got a good base of donors.”

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Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers Anchorage government, the military, dog mushing, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. He also helps produce the ADN's weekly politics podcast. Prior to joining the ADN, he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.