PALMER — Jim Colver is fighting to keep the Mat-Su House seat he's held for just two years in a primary election battle that pits him against his own Republican Party leaders.
The race to represent the GOP in sprawling House District 9 is the only primary in the state where the Alaska Republican Party is supporting a challenger over the incumbent.
Party officials contend Colver is a union-backed Democrat posing as a Republican, working to undermine the GOP's hold in the House. The race is one that will help decide whether the Republican House majority survives to run the chamber or is replaced by a bipartisan coalition.
Colver, a 58-year-old surveyor from Hatcher Pass, is branding himself as an anti-establishment crusader at odds with his own party on pivotal issues like tapping Permanent Fund earnings and reforming oil-tax credits. But he declares himself to be a Republican.
"Do you want someone to represent you or the establishment? I will take a beating to look out after the best interests of my constituents and Alaska," Colver said during an interview Thursday. "This is a business where you have to … be tough. And push back. I'm Alaska's little Trump."
Opponent George Rauscher, a political neophyte who's run unsuccessfully for the House seat twice already, portrays himself as a longtime community activist with years of business experience and conservative credentials. He's also the Republican Party's choice for the seat.
But Rauscher, a 59-year-old Sutton contractor, said he wasn't approached by the party and is "a bit taken aback" by the attention the GOP's backing is attracting. He takes exception to the notion Republican officials are backing him because he'll do the party's bidding.
"It's something I take offense to pretty hard," he said. "When Joe Miller won the Republican nomination (for U.S. Senate) many years ago, I voted for Joe Miller. I'm not sure the party did."
Colver served on the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly and school board. Rauscher has no political experience but has spent about the last decade on the Sutton Community Council.
Voters go to the polls Tuesday. There is no Democrat in the District 9 race. Pamela Goode, running as an Alaska Constitution Party candidate, will be the only opponent of the Republican primary winner in the general election in November.
Colver and Rauscher are vying to represent a district that includes parts of Palmer, Sutton and Hatcher Pass and stretches to Delta Junction, Valdez and Whittier. The historically conservative district elected Colver two years ago over incumbent Eric Feige from Chickaloon, a legislative chairman.
Colver drew his party's ire almost from that day forward. Critics in the GOP immediately criticized him as a recent Republican who switched to the party to get elected. According to the Alaska Division of Elections, Colver's voter registration was "undeclared" until he switched to Republican in February 2012. He ran unsuccessfully for the House as an independent in 2002, worked as an aide to a Democrat in 2010 and donated to Democratic candidates through 2010.
Colver belongs to a moderate Republican faction in the House calling itself the Musk Ox Coalition, which has occasionally joined Democratic minority members in votes on high-profile legislation.
Party leaders in District 9 in April issued a letter of reprimand against Colver, claiming he was working with Democrats to build a bipartisan majority, an assertion Colver denied.
At a June meeting, the Republican Party's state central committee backed district-level and regional Republicans endorsing Rauscher over Colver.
"For the Republican Party to weigh in against a Republican incumbent is a major step to take," party chairman Tuckerman Babcock said during a speech as reported by political blogger Casey Reynolds.
Colver is more than a RINO, a "Republican in Name Only," a term Babcock says he usually avoids.
"We have done our part to make sure that everyone in the district knows he's really at heart a Democrat," he said in an interview. "After that, you go to trusting the voters."
Rauscher's party backing comes with big dollars.
A business-backed group calling itself The Accountability Project is supporting efforts to unseat Colver as well as Rep. Paul Seaton, a Republican from Homer, who is also a member of the Musk Ox Coalition.
A related independent expenditure group has thrown about $40,000 toward Rauscher, according to filings with the Alaska Public Offices Commission. Like an Alaska version of PACs, the groups can raise and spend unlimited money from corporations, unions, or individuals provided they don't coordinate with the campaigns they're supporting.
Rauscher personally raised more than $37,000, including contributions from the ConocoPhillips PAC and the Republican Party, according to APOC filings.
The bulk of Colver's large campaign contributions in his roughly $80,000 war chest came from labor, including the Alaska AFL-CIO, public safety, police and firefighter PACs, according to his campaign filings.
Colver said he takes pride in his status as a troublemaker fighting the party's powerful factions.
He said he got sideways with GOP leaders last year after balking at directives including whether legislators should sit on a state natural gas pipeline board and a battle over using Permanent Fund earnings to balance the budget.
"I got screamed at for over an hour — 'Jim, you gotta do this!' " he recalled, of the 2015 bid to tap Permanent Fund earnings to close the state's budget gap.
Colver wouldn't say who was involved. "Legislators," he said. "We were pressured in caucus. I was individually pressured."
Colver and Rauscher have different plans to remedy the biggest problem facing legislators this coming session: Alaska's gaping $3.2 billion fiscal hole spawned by a drop in oil prices.
Colver favors spending cuts toward a $3.8 billion budget based on a new kind of budget process. Rather than waiting for the governor to develop a budget, he said, Colver wants legislative staff to develop three budgets based on different levels of cuts for every department.
He said he also heard support for a sales tax from constituents.
Rauscher favors revenue generation through resource development — mining, fishing, tourism — and a $4.3 billion budget. He said he'd "start with zero" on the budget and add spending items from there starting with public safety, emergency services and schools, making cuts at the end of the process.
Colver said he's proud of his accomplishments in Juneau, including district-level boat launch and erosion projects. He said he also supported bills to allow concealed weapons on University of Alaska campuses and requiring sex-ed instructors in schools get school board approval. He opposed a contentious new crime bill.
Rauscher said he hopes voters will look at his history and see him as more than "just the guy opposing Jim or the guy the Republican Party wants to oppose Jim."
He cited his business experience — he does maintenance on log houses — and community projects including Sutton's playground, bike path, Eska Falls trails and a cleanup plan for the Jonesville Mine Road area.
"What I see wrong in Juneau is special interest money," he said. "I see that and I think our district saw that with Jim."
Colver's campaign is airing video clips of Rauscher incapable of answering basic questions on marijuana legalization and tax cuts at candidate functions.
"George Rauscher might be a nice guy," text on the screen says as the clips fade. "But there's NO WAY Rauscher's ready to represent District 9 on these issues."
Rauscher admitted he's not an adept public speaker, doesn't hear well and tends to freeze up in the spotlight.
"No, I'm not polished," he said. "My answer may sound very unpolished, but I don't think people hear that when I go door to door."