Politics

A Mat-Su Democrat is running for US Senate in Alaska, potentially scrambling the campaign

Pat Chesbro

A former educator from the Mat-Su announced Wednesday that she’s making a late run for Alaska’s U.S. Senate seat, complicating a race that so far featured incumbent Republican Lisa Murkowski and Trump-endorsed challenger Kelly Tshibaka.

Pat Chesbro, a former teacher, principal, superintendent and college instructor, said she made up her mind to run Sunday, influenced in part by last week’s draft opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court that would strip the rights to abortion granted by the Roe v. Wade decision.

“I’m terrified that I’m going to let people down,” Chesbro said. But, she added: “I think people need a choice. And I think Democrat values need to be on the ticket.”

Chesbro is the second Democrat to file for the U.S. Senate seat; Anchorage state Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson entered the race in February but withdrew in March, citing challenges raising money.

Political observers said it’s hard to predict exactly how Chesbro’s candidacy changes the race. But their initial reactions focused on its likely effects on the dynamics between Tshibaka and Murkowski, who both have been running for months.

The Senate campaign is the first being held under a new voting system that Alaskans approved in a 2020 citizens initiative, which established a single, nonpartisan primary, followed by a general election in which voters rank candidates in order of preference.

It’s possible that Chesbro’s candidacy could draw out more progressives Democrats who might otherwise have skipped voting in the election, said Mark Begich, a Democrat who represented Alaska in the U.S. Senate between 2009 and 2014. If those voters rank Chesbro first in the general election, they’d be most likely to rank Murkowski second, he added.

“You’re going to get more Democrats and moderates voting, and that’s not helping Tshibaka,” Begich said.

Both the Tshibaka and Murkowski campaigns declined to comment on the new candidate’s entrance into the race.

A second dynamic is that some progressives and Democrats who might have chosen Murkowski over Tshibaka may now vote for Chesbro instead — then could forget to rank Murkowski second or choose not to vote for her altogether.

“The big question is: What does the party, and what does Pat Chesbro’s campaign, tell their voters to do?” John-Henry Heckendorn, a progressive political consultant, said in a message. “Obviously, they’re going to tell people to vote for Pat Chesbro first. But do either of those organizations encourage people to vote for Lisa Murkowski second? I’d imagine that’s what Kelly Tshibaka’s wondering right now.”

Chesbro, in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon, said she’s not taking a position on whether her supporters should rank Murkowski over Tshibaka in the general election.

“That’s up to them,” she said.

Chesbro, 73, grew up in upstate New York; she first moved to Alaska with her husband, “for a year,” in 1974. She taught English and reading at Palmer High School, then became principal and ultimately superintendent of the Mat-Su Borough School District, and she also worked at University of Alaska Anchorage.

Chesbro said she got involved in Democratic politics through her work with the local teachers union; she’s long served in party positions in the Mat-Su and lost a bid for state Senate in 2014. She said Wednesday that she initially discussed a low-key run — she called it a “walk” — for the state Legislature this year with Democratic Party officials, and one of them misunderstood her interest in the state Senate for U.S. Senate.

“We started talking about that, and they convinced me that I should do it,” she said.

Chesbro’s formal announcement Wednesday singled out abortion rights as a key issue for her campaign. She said in the interview that she supports abortion rights, and would have voted for a measure whose advancement was rejected Wednesday by the U.S. Senate. The legislation would have put the legal protections granted by the Roe decision into federal law.

Murkowski voted against proceeding with the measure, the Women’s Health Protection Act, saying that it went “much further” than Roe by “nullifying state and religious freedom laws across the country in the process.”

The act, Murkowski said in a prepared statement, allows “late-term abortions without any notable restrictions,” does not block federal money from being spent on abortions and does not protect health care providers who refuse to perform abortions based on religious beliefs.

Murkowski, with U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has sponsored a separate bill, the Reproductive Choice Act, that would enact more limited abortion protections aligned more closely with the Roe decision.

Chesbro said she thinks any problems with the bill can be fixed later.

“I’m not so worried about giving people rights,” she said.

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at ADN and Alaska Public Media. He’s reported around the state and loves cross-country skiing.

Sponsored