Alaska voters outraged by increased crime and reduced Permanent Fund dividend checks rocked powerful Republican incumbents on Tuesday, backing rookie challengers and sending a message sure to reverberate to the general election in November.
Concern about state spending was also a significant concern on Anchorage's lower Hillside, said Josh Revak, an Iraq war veteran who handily beat Republican House minority leader Charisse Millett in a district there.
"(The dividend) is huge, crime is huge. And folks want to know that the state government is spending their money wisely and lot of people wonder if that's case," said Revak.
Hanging on for their political lives are Senate Majority leader Pete Micciche, R-Soldotna, down by 9 votes to an oilfield crane operator, and House Rules chair Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, down by three votes to a self-described "silent candidate" who spent no money.
"There's always a certain amount of angst against the incumbent candidate, and this election there may have been even more," said LeDoux, representing an east Anchorage district where crime was a big issue.
She said counting of absentee and questioned ballots, set for Tuesday and Friday, will put her ahead. But she never expected the race to be so tight.
Voters are angry over passage of the controversial crime-reform bill, Senate Bill 91, in 2016, and the reduction of the annual dividend checks to Alaskans to close the budget deficit, said Mike Chenault, the longtime ex-House Speaker from Nikiski.
"I don't know if people are upset by certain individuals or they're just upset at the whole show," said Chenault, who didn't run for re-election this year.
"You may see some of that negativity come out in the general," he said.
Incumbents, from the governor's race down, "better take some caution in what they have seen in this race. They better circle back and be talking to their constituents," Chenault said.
LeDoux's shaky position has some people buzzing about a change to the 22-member House Majority coalition dominated by Democrats but including LeDoux, Chenault said. He said it's too early to know what will happen.
Tuckerman Babcock, Alaska Republican Party chairman, said unique factors in each race affected outcomes, though crime and the reduced checks were forefront in people's minds.
In LeDoux's case, Republican voters were furious she joined the coalition, helping put Democrats in power in 2016, he said. They were so eager to oust her, they supported an opponent who "literally did nothing," said Babcock.
Aaron Weaver didn't really campaign, Babcock said. He had no yard signs, no mailers, no phone calls, and voters didn't know who he was. Yet he's leading.
"I'm not surprised voters would want to reject her, but I am surprised they would do that when they never met her opponent," Babcock said.
She said the race is tight, for now, partly because of the two-year "pounding" she got from the Republican Party after she joined the coalition.
Weaver, a former KTUU cameraman, said he was a "silent candidate" who didn't try hard enough. He said he's "shocked" to be leading.
Weaver figured he'd get just a third of the vote against LeDoux. She raised more than $100,000; he raised about $2,800.
"It was definitely a David and Goliath scenario," said Weaver, 47.
"This was was much more of a protest against her than a vote for me," he said.
Soldotna challenger Ron Gillham, leading Micciche, said Republican voters in his Kenai Peninsula district don't trust Micciche, who voted for Senate Bill 91 and the reduced dividend.
"It was about distrust of government," said Gillham, a grandfather and crane operator whose North Slope oil field job pulled him away from his district half the campaign.
Gillham, 61, ran because dividend checks were slashed. He spent around $10,000 on his campaign, about half from his own pocket. He had no money for radio ads, while Micciche bought lots of radio time, he said. Micciche raised more than $60,000.
Cathy Sturman, Gillham's campaign manager, said she knew Micciche was in trouble, judging by motorist's feedback during election-day sign-waving in Soldotna.
"People were screaming at him, 'Quit taking the people's Permanent Fund (dividend)! Get a real job! " Sturman said. "People want their dividends and Senate Bill 91 — those were the two things that killed Peter Micciche."
Micciche could still win, with absentee and questioned ballots awaiting counts.
"Has there been a change I don't know about?" he asked in a short email.
Micciche and Millett did not return calls seeking an interview.
As for Revak, he won 57 percent of the vote to Millett's 43.
Crime was a major issue in Millett's Anchorage's lower Hillside district, Babcock said. She introduced the House's companion version of Senate Bill 91, but ultimately voted against it on the floor.
Meantime, Revak emphasized conservative values and his powerful personal story after being wounded in battle in Iraq, Babcock said.
This was two good candidates running good campaigns, he said. But the electorate chose "new energy" over Millett's 10-year experience.
"It's always humbling trying to be a political prognosticator," Babcock said. "You can think what you want, but it's always up to the voter."