Politics

Redistricting has shifted Alaska’s political landscape, with control of the state House and Senate at stake

Alaska’s politicians are beginning to adjust to a new political map defined by the state’s redistricting board, even as dissatisfied governments and groups file lawsuits and seek to change the board’s work.

If the new redistricting map survives legal challenge, observers say it will not radically change the number of seats controlled by Republicans and Democrats. But because the Alaska House is so closely divided, even a small change may determine whether the House is controlled by Republicans or a predominantly Democratic coalition. A district changing from a moderate Republican to one further right could have a similar impact.

In the state Senate, Republicans are poised to represent liberal-leaning portions of northeast Anchorage after a contentious redistricting process marred by accusations of political gerrymandering. The Senate’s 13-member Republican majority has been split between center-right and solid-right Republicans, and the change could send more moderate Republicans to the Senate, altering that balance.

And if court rulings or successful campaigns allow Democrats to flip control of just one Senate seat, it could open the door for the creation of a bipartisan coalition majority, said Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage.

That’s far from a sure thing, and the redrawn map is only one of three big changes hitting Alaska politics next year. Voters will pick candidates in a new way that includes a top-four primary election and a ranked-choice general election. Limits on political donations will be looser and may disappear entirely.

The result will be significant: Control of the House and Senate determines the course of the state over the next four years just as much as next year’s governor’s race.

Since 2018, many of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s policy goals, including changes to the Permanent Fund dividend formula, have been blocked by resistance in the House and Senate. In the first two years of former Gov. Bill Walker’s term, many of his goals met opposition from a Republican-controlled House and Senate. Both men are among the candidates for the governor’s office this time around.

“If Bill Walker is going to win, then he’s going to need people to negotiate policy with,” said Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage and a Walker supporter.

Eagle River’s new boundaries force change

Even before the redistricting board finished its work, Kelly Merrick was likely to have a difficult 2022.

The Eagle River state representative broke Republican ranks early this year, ending a monthslong deadlock in the state House when she joined the House’s predominantly Democratic coalition, giving that coalition enough votes to control the House.

Local Republicans censured her and some called for her recall. Though a recall never emerged, they vowed to campaign against her, and Anchorage Assembly member Jamie Allard prepared to run against her.

Then came redistricting, Alaska’s once-per-decade task of redrawing political boundaries to account for changes in population. The new political map, finished in November, put Merrick’s house into the district of a neighboring legislator, Republican Rep. Ken McCarty.

[The map below shows new Senate districts, showing incumbents and candidates who have filed intentions to run in 2022:]

Rather than challenge McCarty, Merrick decided to run for Senate in a redrawn district that stretches south from Eagle River across Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to include Government Hill and parts of northeast Anchorage.

“It seems like the cordial thing to do, that if the majority of a district belongs to somebody, that the incumbent gets to run,” she said.

McCarty had different thoughts — he’s now running for Senate against Merrick. Former Reps. Sharon Jackson and Dan Saddler are running for the House seat.

Each of Alaska’s 20 Senate districts is made up of two House districts. In the Legislature today, Eagle River’s two House districts are paired together in a solidly Republican Senate district represented by far-right Republican Lora Reinbold.

Under the new political map, each of the Eagle River seats is instead paired with a Democratic-leaning Anchorage district, resulting in two Republican-leaning Senate districts instead of a single firmly Republican one.

Though there hasn’t been an election with the new districts yet, it’s possible to estimate their political leanings by looking at precinct-level results from 2016, 2018 and 2020.

Alaska has a reputation as an idiosyncratic state politically, with voters willing to back independents and cross party lines, but that reputation is overstated. In 2020, 35 of the state’s 40 districts picked the same party in the presidential race and the local race for state House.

“There’s certainly parts of Alaska where it’s a forgone conclusion who’s going to win,” said Joelle Hall, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO and its former political director.

In the House this year, Merrick was willing to cross the aisle and work with Democrats and independents in a coalition. McCarty wasn’t.

That is important to Democratic politicians, who generally believe coalitions built with moderate Republicans are the best way to influence the House and Senate in a state where Republican-leaning voters outnumber Democratic-leaning ones.

Late last month, Begich introduced Merrick at a meeting of the Government Hill Community Council.

“She got a really warm reception,” said Anchorage Assembly member Christopher Constant, who lives in Government Hill and attended the meeting.

“Should the pairings stay the way they are, it’s going to be a very diverse Senate district, and they’re going to need someone who’s willing to work with them,” Merrick said.

Lawsuit could change Senate boundaries

The Eagle River Senate districts were approved by the three Republican-appointed members of the redistricting board over the objections of the two board members appointed by non-Republicans.

Eagle River is predominantly white, while the newly linked Anchorage districts are some of the most diverse places in America, as judged by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Members of the public had three months to examine and comment on proposals for House district boundaries. The Senate plan, from Dunleavy appointee Bethany Marcum, was proposed on a Monday and approved on a Tuesday.

Nicole Borromeo, who was appointed to the redistricting board by former Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, said before the final vote that the decision to join Eagle River districts with Anchorage ones “is not only an example of partisan gerrymandering, it is a direct path for future litigants to take us on in suing us.”

Contacted Friday, she said she maintains that belief.

Among those voting in favor of the plan was John Binkley, a former Republican state legislator appointed to the board by then-Senate President Cathy Giessel of Anchorage, also a Republican. (Binkley’s sons and daughter own the Daily News. Binkley himself does not have a role in the organization’s operations, and the Binkleys are not involved in news coverage.)

In a mid-November interview, Binkley said he feels the Senate pairings are the fair result of a close call. There’s any number of ways to draw the maps, he said.

On Friday, he said he still feels that way. Asked if the Eagle River pairings are gerrymandering, he said, “No.”

Giessel herself said she thinks Binkley got it wrong.

“We’ll see what the courts decide. That’s quite a reach to take East Anchorage sections and connect them with Eagle River,” she said.

Shortly before the final redistricting plan was approved in November, Binkley and Borromeo had an intense argument about whether Borromeo and fellow board member Melanie Bahnke could refuse to sign it as a matter of protest.

Binkley said that if they refused to sign, he could remove their names from the plan entirely. At one point, he suggested the two women — the only nonwhite members of the board — could put together “some kind of minority report,” voicing their concerns.

“That’s funny, a minority report?” Borromeo responded, alluding to the debate’s racial overtones.

In legal contexts, a minority report is commonly used to show a dissenting perspective. Binkley said he didn’t intend it to have racial connotations.

She and Bahnke ultimately signed under protest.

“I will not support a racial + partisan gerrymander of Muldoon,” Borromeo wrote on the signature line.

The 2011 version of Alaska’s redistricting board proposed a similar pairing, and the result saw Republican Eagle River Sen. Anna MacKinnon — then known as Anna Fairclough — defeat longtime Sen. Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage.

After Davis lost her 2012 matchup with MacKinnon, the Alaska Supreme Court ordered the redistricting board to redraw its map. The revised map removed the Anchorage pairing. MacKinnon stayed in office until 2018. She’s now the head of the Permanent Fund Dividend Division under Dunleavy.

Randy Ruedrich, a former chairman of the Alaska Republican Party, runs Alaskans for Fair and Equitable Redistricting and believes the new Senate districts are legal because the Alaska Constitution only states that Senate districts be constructed of two adjacent House districts. There’s no requirement that the district be socially or economically integrated.

Asked whether the pairing is constitutional, Binkley offered identical reasoning.

Anchorage Sen. Begich disagrees. He said the minutes of Alaska’s constitutional convention make it clear that the constitution’s authors intended to avoid any hint that districts were drawn for political gain.

Asked about that differing interpretation, Binkley said, “Well, that’s really why we have a legal system, to determine those things.”

The state courts are almost certain to take up the issue.

Celeste Hodge Growden, president and CEO of the Alaska Black Caucus, said her group will “absolutely” file suit over the Senate pairings.

Joelle Hall, who also heads Alaskans For Fair Redistricting, said that group will participate in a lawsuit, and there likely will be additional plaintiffs.

[Earlier coverage: Board members allege unscrupulous boundaries in state Senate redistricting for Anchorage, Eagle River]

Moderate Senate Republicans face additional elections

Elsewhere in the state, a side effect of the redistricting process is forcing moderate Republican senators into extra elections and may encourage Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, to retire from the Legislature. Normally talkative, Stevens declined to discuss his thinking.

A former Senate president and center-right Republican, Stevens is the oldest sitting member of the Legislature, but under the new redistricting plan he would be required to run for office in 2022 and 2024.

When Senate districts are redrawn, the redistricting board is required to decide whether the changes in the Senate map are large enough to require senators to run for reelection in 2022, even if their terms wouldn’t normally expire then. For 19 of 20 senators, all except Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, the answer was yes.

Board members also must decide whether senators’ first terms under the new map are two years or four years. They agreed to simply go down the list of senators, alternating two and four, but they disagreed about whether they should go in reverse order — starting at the end of the list — or in regular order.

Rather than flip a coin, the three Republican-appointed commissioners voted to start with the beginning of the list. As a consequence, the most moderate Republicans in the Senate will face an extra election in 2024. The Republicans farther to the right wouldn’t have to run again until 2026.

Some observers allege that decision was intended to punish moderate Republicans for working with Democrats.

Ruedrich said it’s worth noting that the schedule doesn’t change the districts or the electorate. In 2020, Stevens was nearly defeated in the Republican primary by a far-right opponent, but under the new boundaries, his district is more moderate, though still Republican-leaning.

In West Anchorage, the new Senate boundaries have put center-right Republican Sen. Natasha von Imhof in the same district as Republican Sen. Mia Costello, who has governed farther to the right.

Costello is running for reelection, but von Imhof said she’s still making up her mind.

Control of Alaska House at stake, but lawsuits bring uncertainty

Control of the Alaska House requires 21 of the House’s 40 seats. Josephson, the Democrat from Anchorage, believes independents and Democratic candidates are favored in 18 districts, one less than they control today.

Since 2016, a predominantly Democratic coalition has controlled the House with the help of independents and some Republicans. The new map means Democrats and independents will either have to overperform against Josephson’s estimate or again seek a coalition with willing Republicans in order to maintain control. Otherwise, Republicans alone may control the House.

Regardless of the outcome, “it’s going to be another chamber that’s very narrowly controlled,” he said.

[The map below shows new House districts, showing incumbents and candidates who have filed intentions to run in 2022:]

With the margin so close, Republicans see redistricting as an opportunity to take control by replacing coalition-minded incumbents with candidates farther to the right.

On Thursday, they took a step in that direction when Anchorage Assembly member Jamie Allard said she will run for office in a seat opened by redistricting. The new district, currently represented by coalition member Merrick, is strongly Republican.

In an interview this week, Ruedrich said “there’s a slight chance that the Republicans would improve their numbers in the House just due to the change in the demographics of the state.”

The best example of that is in the Fairbanks borough, where the population declined, and more of the borough has been put into a broad rural district.

Right now, Rep. Grier Hopkins, D-Fairbanks, represents a district that includes liberal-leaning neighborhoods north of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Under the new map, those neighborhoods go into the rural district, and Hopkins’ house is put into a district that stretches north of downtown Fairbanks to include Eielson Air Force Base and rural communities southeast of the city proper.

“I go from a pro-Biden to a pro-Trump district. So yeah, that changes my odds of winning,” he said.

Frank Thomaszewski, a borough assemblyman, has already registered as a Republican candidate for the district. He did not return calls for comment.

In Anchorage, many incumbent House legislators say they are waiting to see the result of the lawsuits filed against the redistricting board before deciding whether to run for reelection.

[Matanuska-Susitna Borough challenging new Alaska redistricting maps]

Democratic Reps. Josephson and Chris Tuck now live in the same Taku/Campbell House district. Fellow Democratic Reps. Harriet Drummond and Zack Fields are in the same downtown House district.

Three of the four either declined comment or said it is too soon to tell whether they will run for House, Senate or at all. Josephson has filed to run for state House. Both districts are reliably Democratic.

“I don’t think anybody’s locked into any decisions,” Tuck said.

Republican Rep. Sara Rasmussen and Democratic Rep. Matt Claman now share the Democratic-leaning district that encompasses Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. Claman said he may run for House or Senate, and Rasmussen said she is keeping her options open.

“There’s a lot left to unfold,” she said.

With six sitting legislators packed into three districts, there are three open districts without incumbents. One of those, which includes parts of northeast Anchorage bordered by Pine Street, the Glenn Highway and DeBarr Road, has no registered candidates.

A new Bayshore/Klatt-Oceanview district in South Anchorage has two Democrats registered to run. And in a new Midtown/Tudor/Spenard district, only one nonpartisan candidate has filed to run.

In other places, the changes are more subtle.

Two years ago, Rep. Liz Snyder, D-Anchorage, beat incumbent Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, by 11 votes. Snyder’s new district, now including Nunaka Valley, leans slightly more Democratic.

The Campbell Lake district of Rep. Tom McKay, R-Anchorage, now leans less Republican, as does the Girdwood/Whittier/Rabbit Creek district of Rep. Laddie Shaw, R-Anchorage.

Conversely, Republican Rep. James Kaufman’s Hillside district has a stronger Republican lean.

The end of the year typically brings a flurry of fundraising because campaign contribution limits are set by calendar year, but there have been fewer money-raising events this year.

Rasmussen said that’s in part due to the uncertainty over whether or not districts will change amid litigation. In addition, legislators may simply be exhausted after spending 217 days in session this year.

“I think there’s a lot of fatigue. People are trying to catch their breath,” she said.

Josephson said he’s interested in the results of the lawsuits, but he also has memories of what happened in the 2010 redistricting process. That time, state courts didn’t rule before the 2012 election, so politicians ran under the map created by the redistricting board, even though that map was later revised.

“There is a belief that the court may not be able to resolve this and there will be an interim map, and that’s the map you see before you now,” he said.

Correction: The initial version of this article incorrectly stated that Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, would run for House. He will run for either House or Senate.

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