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As 2020 begins, 4 Alaska statehouse incumbents haven’t yet signed up to run again

  • Author: James Brooks
  • Updated: January 2
  • Published January 1

Editor’s note: After the initial publication of this article, the Alaska Public Offices Commission published a letter of intent for one of five incumbents who had not signed up to run in 2020. In addition, Ely Cyrus clarified his intent in House District 40. This article has been updated to reflect those changes and to correct the description of Republican Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux’s Anchorage district.

Voters will decide 51 legislative seats in 2020, and as of Tuesday, four of those 51 had no official candidate. More than half of those 51 seats had only one contender, according to filings with the Alaska Public Offices Commission and the Alaska Division of Elections.

The formal deadline to enter Alaska’s 2020 legislative elections is June 1, but Alaska’s campaign finance laws make the start of the year just as important when determining the scope of the state’s political year. Alaska limits donations to $500 per candidate per calendar year, so any candidate who registers before Jan. 1 can ask for donations twice — once in 2019 and again in 2020.

“Each year, the clock starts over at midnight,” said Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, one of the candidates who filed early.

Many candidates have advertised for donations in the days before the Jan. 1 deadline. Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, issued a special New Year’s Eve message saying “you have just two things to do today” — donate to Hughes’ Senate campaign, and ring in 2020.

Wilson said she thinks early fundraising helps.

“Unfortunately, elections have become more and more expensive,” she said. “There were some races that were way over $100,000 apiece last election, and I’m talking about House and Senate, not governor."

Candidates are required to file a letter of intent with the Public Offices Commission before they begin fundraising, or they can directly register with the Division of Elections and begin fundraising later. For incumbents, registering early is particularly important, since sitting legislators are prohibited from raising money during the legislative session.

Early registration gives advantages to challengers as well.

Two-time Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assemblyman Dan Mayfield is running as an independent against Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla.

“When you’re up against an incumbent, fundraising is an advantage,” Mayfield said of his decision to register early. “It gets the word out also, certainly.”

Candidates can file a fundraising letter even if they don’t know what office they’ll be running for.

Tammie Wilson is in that position. Though she’s an incumbent member of the House, she’s considering whether to challenge incumbent Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, in the Republican primary.

“I have not made my mind up until I see what happens this session,” she said.

A letter of intent isn’t a contract. Someone who submits one can organize a campaign, then drop out if conditions change.

Anchorage schoolteacher Chris Backstrum did just that. After filing a letter of intent to run for House District 25 in South Anchorage, he decided to withdraw his candidacy.

With a full-time job and other candidates already in the race, he said he knew he couldn’t devote the time a campaign would need.

“Even after teaching 32 years, I’ve never been able to do anything less than a 10-hour day,” he said of the time his teaching career requires.

Uncertain incumbents

Four members of the Alaska House of Representatives have registered with neither the Division of Elections nor the Public Offices Commission: Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage; Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage; Rep. Dave Talerico, R-Healy; and Rep. John Lincoln, I-Kotzebue.

Spohnholz and Lincoln were either unable or unwilling to talk about their situation on the last day of 2019, while Talerico and Pruitt said by text message that they are still considering their options.

“Right now I am focused on best representing my district and leading my caucus through a successful session and will make a decision about how I can best serve Alaskans at a later date,” said Pruitt, the House minority leader.

Lincoln has a registered opponent, Ely Cyrus of Kiana. Though a copy of the state’s voter database listed him as a Republican, Cyrus said he intends to run as a nonpartisan. Democratic candidate Liz Snyder has signed up to run for Pruitt’s seat, and Democratic candidate Julia Hnilicka has signed up to run for Talerico’s seat.

Some crowded races

Most statehouse races are either uncontested or have only one challenger, according to the filings so far. The race for Senate District D, in the Mat-Su, is the only race to have four candidates, including incumbent Sen. David Wilson. In addition to Mayfield, who is running as an independent, there are two Republican challengers.

Three House races have three candidates apiece. Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, is being challenged by Republican Kevin McCabe and Democratic candidate Jim Chesbro. In Anchorage, Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, has two Democratic opponents, Lyn Franks and Patrick McCormack. On the Kenai, Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai, is being challenged by former state Rep. Kelly Wolf and Ron Gillham, who nearly defeated Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, in a 2018 Republican primary election for Senate.

Coastal seats uncontested

In Southeast Alaska’s House races, there are no contested races so far, according to campaign filings. The only coastal seat with two candidates so far is House District 31, which covers Homer and the southern Kenai Peninsula. There, independent Kelly Cooper has registered a letter of intent to challenge Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer. Among coastal senators, only Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, has a challenger.

Except for one, all of the Anchorage statehouse seats held by Democratic Party members are uncontested to date. The lone exception is in House District 23, where Rep. Chris Tuck has again been challenged by Connie Dougherty, who lost to Tuck in 2018.