Politics

With eye on 2018, Alaska Democrats hire operatives to work municipal elections in Mat-Su, Kenai

The Alaska Democratic Party is getting an early start on its ground game for next year's state election, hiring three field organizers to work with local volunteers on upcoming municipal elections in Fairbanks, the Mat-Su and the Kenai Peninsula.

The party hired the staffers over the summer and they're now working with Democrats to support favored candidates in the Oct. 3 election, when Alaskans will be choosing school board, borough assembly and city council members as well as deciding whether to ban marijuana in parts of the Kenai and Fairbanks.

The party plans to keep the staffers on the payroll through the state-level elections in 2018 — recruiting candidates, identifying voters and coordinating volunteers, said Jay Parmley, the Alaska Democrats’ executive director.

The effort represents a renewed party focus on local elections around the state, which Parmley said can ultimately help groom qualified candidates for the state Legislature, in areas where Democrats have had little success.

The party has long supported municipal candidates in Anchorage, but not in other parts of Alaska, Parmley said. There are no Democrats representing the Mat-Su or Kenai, and just three among the nine Fairbanks-area legislators.

"What we're finally doing is saying to the rest of the state that we believe local races matter just as much," Parmley said in a phone interview. "Because we know that borough assembly members or city council members in Palmer or Homer might be our next great candidates" for the Legislature, he added.

Two of the organizers are based in Anchorage but focus on the Mat-Su and Kenai, while the third is focused on Fairbanks, Parmley said.

They're paid a salary that equates to roughly $30,000 a year, according to party campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. Parmley said the investment amounts to a "good chunk" of the party's budget for 2017.

Tuesday's municipal races are technically nonpartisan, with candidates appearing on the ballot without a listed party affiliation. But the parties, and political interest groups, often still offer their favored candidates endorsements and support, like social media ads and access to voter lists.

The Alaska Democratic Party earlier this year put more than $3,000 in digital ads, direct mail and robocalls into Suzanne LaFrance's campaign for the Anchorage Assembly, in which she scored a surprise win. Her conservative opponent, Al Fogle, got $1,350 in direct donations from a pair of Republican groups, and he also benefited from an absentee ballot mailer sent by the GOP, according to campaign finance reports filed with the state.

But Democrats outside of Anchorage have been frustrated by the party's refusal to spend money outside of the city, particularly in areas seen as more conservative like the Kenai or Mat-Su, said Michelle Vasquez, a party volunteer in Soldotna.

"We were not resourced with either money or people like we should have been," she said.

But that's changed under new party leadership, Vasquez added. Since the Democrats hired their field organizers this summer, the one assigned to the Kenai, Jeffrey Eide, has been taking two or three trips from Anchorage each month, she said.

The new Democratic staffers come as the Alaska Republican Party has scaled back its own payroll, recently laying off its office manager and making its executive director a volunteer position instead of paid.

[State GOP runs out of money, removes two staffers from payroll]

Nonetheless, the state GOP chairman, Tuckerman Babcock, sounded unconcerned about the new Democratic staffers assigned to Fairbanks, Kenai and particularly the Mat-Su — where, he pointed out, Democrats have never recovered from a wave of defeats in the early 1990s.

"I would encourage the Democrats to hire lots of people to work in the Mat-Su Borough," Babcock said.

Other Mat-Su Republicans sounded less confident, noting that recent municipal elections have swung in a more centrist election. Larry DeVilbiss, a Republican who in 2015 was the incumbent Mat-Su Borough mayor, lost his seat that year to Vern Halter, a moderate who was running with support from organized labor.

The borough Assembly, meanwhile, includes a former Green Party candidate for governor, Jim Sykes, and it's considered new taxes on sales and plastic bags this year.

"It's a myth if anybody thinks these municipal elections are nonpartisan. We've seen the influence for many years now," said DeVilbiss, who's now the Republicans' regional representative for the Mat-Su. "There's a lot going on in this election. I just hope people don't go to sleep."

Parmley, the Democrats' executive director, said he sees his party's efforts in the October elections as an "early investment" in its 2018 ground game, and in local candidates who could end up running for state House or Senate in the future.

But the Democrats will have to make up a lot of ground next year to take back GOP seats. In last year's election, no Mat-Su or Kenai Democrats got more than 26 percent of the vote, and many districts didn't even field Democratic candidates.

On the Kenai, at least, the Democratic party label can be a liability, Vasquez said.

"The 'D' sort of adds a little extra, 'Oh my gosh, a liberal type.' And then the words start slinging," she said.

Another Democratic volunteer in the Mat-Su, Pat Chesbro, downplayed the idea that candidates in her area could be hurt by affiliating themselves with her party. But she also wouldn't identify the Mat-Su municipal candidates that Democrats are supporting in the October election.

"I don't know if I should tell you," she said.

The Democrats did, however, send a mailer on behalf of one Mat-Su Assembly candidate, Dan Mayfield, and Republicans quickly seized on it, posting it on the party's Facebook page as "a good reason he should lose."

Chesbro, a two-time candidate for the state Legislature, nonetheless argued that the new Democratic support in the Mat-Su could help generate new enthusiasm for the party there.

Before, she said, "people would say, 'Why would I give to the party? Because they don't do anything for us.' "

"This localized effort, I think, is going to be very helpful to us," she said.

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