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Politics

In legislative primaries, Alaska’s Republican incumbents face challenges from the right

  • Author: James Brooks
  • Updated: August 18
  • Published August 17

The Alaska Capitol on May 18, 2020, in Juneau. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

In Tuesday’s statewide primary election, many of the Alaska Legislature’s incumbent Republicans are being challenged by party members who call them insufficiently conservative. If enough voters agree, they could shake up the Legislature and make it more difficult for Democrats and independents to continue the coalition majority that has controlled the Alaska House of Representatives for four years.

With few significant contests among Democrats, here’s what to watch for with the Republicans, keeping in mind that election-night results may be misleading because of a surge in absentee voting:

Reps. Jennifer Johnston, R-Anchorage, and Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, talk with Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, on the House floor before the start of a session on January 20, 2017, (Marc Lester / ADN)

Moderate Republicans challenged in Anchorage

In Anchorage, two Republican members of the House’s 23-member multipartisan coalition majority are being challenged by Republicans opposed to compromise with Democrats. Rep. Jennifer Johnston, R-Anchorage, is defending her Hillside seat against James Kaufman, and Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, is defending his seat against Tom McKay.

Both incumbents are receiving support from the state’s unions, which are encouraging nonpartisan and undeclared voters to vote in the Republican primary. Their Republican challengers are getting financial aid from national Republican groups and in-state groups supporting larger Permanent Fund dividends.

While the winners of each race will face a Democrat in the November election, both districts are Republican-leaning and are particularly important to the House’s coalition because a third Republican member, Kenai Rep. Gary Knopp, died in a plane crash in late July and is likely to be replaced by an anti-coalition Republican.

Rise of the Right in the Mat-Su

Incumbent Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, has been targeted by mainline Republicans in the state’s most expensive primary race. According to campaign finance documents, more than $160,000 has been spent by Eastman, his challenger, and third-party groups.

Alaska Rep. David Eastman speaks on the floor of the Alaska House on Thursday, March 5, 2020, in Juneau, Alaska. The House voted Thursday to remove Eastman, a Wasilla Republican, from committee positions after House Minority Leader Lance Pruitt indicated frustrations with Eastman within the GOP caucus. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

Eastman faces Mat-Su Borough Assemblyman Jesse Sumner, who has spent almost $70,000 of his own money to unseat the incumbent, whose uncompromising anti-abortion position contributed to the creation of the House’s coalition last year. Sumner has gotten support from several current Republican members of the House, who see him as a potential ally.

Eastman himself has been active in other races, using a third-party group to support Christopher Kurka over Lynn Gattis in Wasilla’s House District 7 and Lucas “LD” Howard over Rep. George Rauscher, R-Sutton. If Eastman, Kurka and Howard win this week and in November, political strategist Jim Lottsfeldt said the resulting political bloc could split House Republicans “like a cantaloupe” next year.

Senate leaders opposed

While most contentious races are in the the state House, two of the Alaska Senate’s most senior Republicans are facing strong challenges in Tuesday’s races. Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, is being opposed by Roger Holland, who has been endorsed by several Republican incumbents. In Fairbanks, longtime Sen. John Coghill is defending his seat against Robert Myers.

The Alaska Senate is closely divided between lawmakers who support a traditional Permanent Fund dividend and those who support a lesser amount. If one of the two incumbents lose this week, the Senate’s 11-9 split on the dividend will look much different next year.

LeDoux court hearing delayed again

Incumbent Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, is on this week’s primary ballot, but even if she defeats challenger David Nelson, she’ll still have to confront the Alaska Court System. LeDoux is facing several charges of election misconduct for alleged actions in the 2014 and 2018 Republican primaries. A pre-indictment hearing had been scheduled for Thursday but has now been delayed until October.

LeDoux is not a member of the House’s Republican minority or the majority coalition, and there are three Democrats contending in this week’s Democratic primary for the right to face her or Nelson in November.

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