At Alaska Republican Party picnic, some would rather not talk about Donald Trump

At the Alaska Republican Party picnic Thursday night, quite a few of the state's tried-and-true party faithful weren't quite sure what to do with the party's presidential nominee.

This year's iteration of the annual event took place at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, more inside than out, given the intermittent drizzling rain. It's an event that draws the party faithful, local GOP politicians and candidates looking for a few more votes before Tuesday's primary.

It's the sort of gathering where everyone is on the same page, or at least the same chapter, politically speaking. But that proved not to be the case for the presidential election.

Asked about Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, several picnic-goers were reluctant to respond. Most supporters took digs at Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton but some said they still weren't sure how they would vote come Nov. 8.

"I'm too involved with my own campaign," said Anchorage Republican Rep. Liz Vazquez, sitting at her booth at the end of a hallway. Asked whether she would vote for Trump, Vazquez went with: "No comment. I'm just doing my own thing here."

"I'm not touching that one," said Matt Dean, a legislative aide to Rep. Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla.

"I think I'm going to focus on my campaign," said Eagle River Republican Rep. Dan Saddler.

And former Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan demurred, "I think the voters on both sides are having conflicts about their candidates."

Asked if he would vote for Trump, Sullivan said, "I support the Republican nominee in most situations."

It's hardly the ringing endorsement one might get in a normal presidential campaign year as party members gear up for the last 90 days of the campaign, riding the post-convention wave of public approval.

'I don't know what to say about him'

But this is hardly the usual year. Anger and resentment toward the government — federal and state, in Alaska's case — is the top line for many. And for those who have been part of the party system for a while, it's unclear what that might mean for them this year.

At the picnic Thursday, with the final days of voting in Tuesday's Alaska primary looming, anxieties about voter turnout were high, and strife over Trump wasn't helping.

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Tuckerman Babcock, chairman of the Alaska Republican Party, said he's concerned about how the presidential election might affect down-ballot races in November.

Recent reports say dozens of high-profile Republicans, including former national committee staff, have signed on to a letter to the national party chairman asking him to divert funds from the presidential race to congressional candidates who they fear will be harmed by Trump's negative ratings.

But some things are "beyond what each of us as individuals can do," Babcock said.

"I don't know what to say about him," Babcock, who counts himself in the "Never Hillary" camp, said of Trump. "His campaign is on its own trajectory."

At the picnic, GOP candidates milled about and slung burgers and hot dogs from the serving line.

Supporters and candidates staffed dozens of fold-out tables, piled with campaign pins, bumper stickers, popcorn and candy. Bob Lochner, who is running a long-shot primary campaign against Sen. Lisa Murkowski, handed out pocket-sized copies of the U.S. Constitution.

Two young children danced by the stage, wearing "TRUMP vs. EVERYBODY ELSE 2016" T-shirts as the musicians — GOP politico band Spank the Dog, headlined by lobbyists John Bitney and Paul Fuhs — slow-jammed "Melissa." Later, Murkowski's deputy campaign manager, Rachel Kallander, took the stage for a soulful rendition of the Beatles' "Oh! Darling."

The Young Republicans planned this year's gathering, organizing a beer garden and food trucks rather than the usual Kincaid Park affair, something some campaign and party staffers said signaled an effort to breathe new life into the party.

But some at the event weren't sure how this year would really go for the party, in Alaska or elsewhere.

"I honestly think that if Trump gets elected, I think a lot of Republicans will probably think how the Republican Party has gone astray," said Mike Hanley, the former state education commissioner, whose brother, Mark, was a GOP state representative.

Mike Hanley said he's not sure whom he'll vote for in November, but he's not happy with the way Trump has acted on the campaign trail.

"I wouldn't put up with that kind of behavior at my school," Hanley said.

But Trump "didn't come out of the blue," Hanley said. People are angry at the political establishment, he said.

"We have to own him," he said. "We've done something wrong — we've disowned our own constituents."

Babcock said it's clear that Trump's popularity is related to a deep-seated disdain for politics as usual — and politicians, including those in his own party.

Rex Shattuck, chief of staff to House Finance co-chair Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, said he didn't start out backing Trump but he's for him now.

"As a hardcore Republican, I'm OK. I think we're at a new point. I think we need to get some new blood in Washington," Shattuck said. And Alaska has its own major issues to focus on, he said.

The picnic had no official Trump table; the campaign did not buy a spot. But the Anchorage Republican Women's Club had a table front and center, offering all manner of Trump campaign paraphernalia. The campaign is sending 5,000 yard signs to the state soon, Babcock said. And Jim Dooley's Athletic Supply in Anchorage plans to print up shirts and hats.

"So there is a level of enthusiasm," Babcock said. But Trump's campaign isn't one to pursue party leader endorsements, he said.

Don Hadley, a Republican primary candidate for the Anchorage House seat held by Democrat Ivy Spohnholz, said he avoids presidential discussions when he's doing door-to-door campaigning.

"It's not something that there's any middle ground on — they're either Trump supporters or they're Trump haters," Hadley said.

"I'm probably just going to hold my nose and vote" for Trump, Hadley said. "I mean, we can't vote for Hillary." But he's not a Trump supporter, he said, pointing to the candidate's tendency toward "belittling" nicknames and behavior.

"I wasn't raised with a stolen silver spoon like Trump was. Apparently he thinks he can say or do whatever he wants to — I wasn't raised that way," Hadley said.

Peter Goldberg, former chair of the state party, flipped burgers on the grill, wearing the a blue baseball cap touting Trump's slogan, "Make America Great Again."

"I think Trump's the better candidate by far, because Hillary is a liar," Goldberg said. "Better people than Hillary Clinton have been in prison for far less."

Trump, as someone who "created jobs," is the better candidate for the economy, Goldberg said. And he argued that some of what Trump says gets taken out of context.

"He never suggested in any way, shape or form anything related to an assassination," Goldberg said, referring to Trump's recent comments about Second Amendment supporters handling potential Clinton judicial picks.

'Can you record my rolling of the eyes?'

Ross Bieling, a Republican primary candidate for the South Anchorage House seat currently held by retiring Republican Mike Hawker, said this year's presidential election is a "blood sport" and that everyone needs to get past the "buffoonery" on both sides of the aisle.

Trump is "a business guy who gets stuff done" and Clinton is a "lifelong bureaucrat," Bieling said.

Former Lt. Gov. Loren Leman echoed that, calling Clinton a "nonstarter." But he suggested that Trump should be a bit more scripted.

"He needs to understand the difference between running for president and running his own businesses," Leman said.

That unscripted nature has given Murkowski pause. But she's more than done answering reporters' questions about Trump at every turn on the campaign trail.

"Can you record my rolling of the eyes?" Murkowski responded, when asked whether she's still supporting the Republican nominee.

Murkowski said she hasn't decided whether she'll vote for Trump in November, though she's positive she won't vote for Hillary Clinton.

"To me, that's easy," she said.

As to what she'll do at the ballot box?

"The election is not tomorrow," she said.

Murkowski has heard some pressure to pick a side before the primary but she's not ready to make a decision now, she said.

"Honest to God, what if I don't know?" she said, insisting that she's not holding out but is focusing on her primary, not on the daily drama that seems to follow Trump on the campaign trail.

She responded to a question about Trump's "Second Amendment people" remarks by saying that she's been too busy to read the newspaper.

Murkowski took the stage toward the end of the event and urged those in the room to "make sure everyone we know is out there voting on and before Tuesday" in the primary election.

"It's kind of slow out there," she said.


Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Washington, D.C.

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at ADN and Alaska Public Media. He’s reported around the state and loves cross-country skiing.