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Alaska Republicans move to block primary ballot access for legislators who joined with Democrats

Alaska Republican Party leaders have moved to stop three GOP lawmakers from appearing on their primary ballot, saying a recent court ruling allows them to disassociate from the Republican legislators who joined with Democrats to take control of the state House.

If the party succeeds in denying the lawmakers the GOP nomination, it could make it more difficult for them to be re-elected — a task already complicated by the Republican Party's commitment to unseating the three legislators that chairman Tuckerman Babcock calls "turncoats."

But Saturday's vote by a committee of Alaska GOP leaders is only a first step in an untested process: The state elections division administers the primary and will ultimately determine which candidates appear on the ballot. And at least one of the three Republicans targeted by his own party, Homer Rep. Paul Seaton, said he was skeptical the GOP's plan would work.

"I don't think they can do that," he said. "I don't think it comports with state law."

Homer Republican Rep. Paul Seaton stands with Alaska Public Radio Network reporter Andrew Kitchenman on the second floor of the Alaska Capitol in Juneau on Friday, March 31, 2017. (Nathaniel Herz / Alaska Dispatch News)

The Alaska GOP's state central committee voted unanimously Saturday to ask state elections officials to block Seaton, Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux of Anchorage and Rep. Louise Stutes of Kodiak from running in the Republican primary in August.

Those three lawmakers last year joined with two independents and 17 Democrats to take control of the 40-member House, wresting it from the Republicans who had held the majority for years.

Tuckerman Babcock, the Republican Party chairman, wrote Monday to Josie Bahnke, the state elections director, to ask her to bar Stutes, Seaton and LeDoux from the GOP primary.

Bahnke, in an email Monday afternoon, said she'd just learned of Republicans' request and was still reviewing it.

Babcock announced the party's move in a colorfully-worded statement Sunday that accused Seaton, LeDoux and Stutes of "rotten and foul" behavior. In it, he said the GOP's unusual request to bar candidates from its primary was authorized by an October decision by Juneau Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg.

That 33-page ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by the Alaska Democratic Party, in which the Democrats wanted to invalidate a state law barring independents from participating in partisan primaries. Pallenberg agreed with the Democrats and overturned the law, though the state has appealed the case to the Alaska Supreme Court.

Pallenberg, in his decision, said parties have an "essential associational right" to run their chosen nominees, regardless of their party affiliation. The Republicans now argue that the decision should also allow the parties to bar candidates from their primaries.

"There is a significant constitutional right of association, and absent some overriding state interest, the state must defer to the procedures of the political party," Babcock wrote in an email Monday.

Seaton, in a phone interview, said he thinks the Republicans' request shows that they don't trust their own voters.

"The model I think they're using is Iran. You can have elections, but there is going to be some kind of overriding political entity — whether it's the ayatollah or the central committee — that is going to choose who will be the only candidate to choose from in that 'election,'" Seaton said.

Babcock, in a phone interview, said voters in Seaton's Kenai Peninsula district can still pick him as their representative — just "not as a Republican."

Babcock said Seaton's own GOP district chair, Jon Faulkner, made the motion to block Seaton from the primary ballot. But he also added that it can be hard for voters to sort through when candidates are "selling a product" — running as a Republican when they're willing to form a coalition mostly made up of Democrats.

"We consider him someone who is willing to completely misstate and mislead," Babcock said. "I think an obligation of the party is to say, 'This man has not told you the truth.'"

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