With 98% of precincts reporting Wednesday, Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy was headed to the ranked-choice November general election along with independent former Gov. Bill Walker and Democrat former state Rep. Les Gara. Two conservative Republicans running to the right of Dunleavy, Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce and state Rep. Christopher Kurka of Wasilla, were vying for fourth place and the chance to advance to November.
Dunleavy is running for a second four-year term with lieutenant governor candidate Nancy Dahlstrom, former commissioner of the Department of Corrections.
With 323 of 401 precincts reporting, Dunleavy had 42% of the vote compared with around 22% for both Walker and Gara. “We’re feeling pretty good,” Dunleavy said about his strong preliminary returns.
“We’re going to have to take a look at what happens when all the votes come in and take those apart and look at the different precincts and districts,” he said. “But you know, it’s better to be having these discussions from a position of being ahead than it would be from a position of being behind.”
Alaska’s new ranked-choice voting system means that the top four vote getters, regardless of party affiliation, will advance from the primary election in each race to the general election.
Walker is running with Heidi Drygas, former commissioner of the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, and is neck and neck with Gara, who is running with Jessica Cook, a former teacher and education advocate.
“Heidi and I are going to win the general election because we are running to represent every single person in our state — whether we are their first choice or not,” Walker said through a prepared statement. “As a unity ticket that is setting aside our respective partisan roots, we are the only team with the ability to win support from voters who want common sense solutions and leadership.”
Gara, echoing several Alaska political consultants, noted that historically, a greater proportion of conservative voters have turned out for primary elections than for general elections, meaning the order candidates finish in the pick-one primary may not necessarily translate to ranked-choice voting success in November. Gara said his campaign has viewed the August primary as something like a “pit stop.”
“In Alaska, a lot of people are fishing and hunting and having fun, and it’s the November election we’re most focused on,” he added.
In fourth place, with around 7% of the vote, were Republicans Pierce and lieutenant governor candidate Edie Grunwald. Kurka and running mate Paul Hueper were in fifth place with just under 4%.
Behind the five leading governor-lieutenant governor tickets are Republicans Bruce Walden and Tanya Lange, Libertarians Billy Toien and Shirley Rainbolt, Republicans David Haeg and Waynette Coleman, independents William Nemec and Ronnie Ostrem, and Alaskan Independence Party candidates John Wayne Howe and Shellie Wyatt. All have each garnered less than 1% of the votes counted.
But the shape of the race could change with thousands of outstanding absentee ballots. As long as they are postmarked on or before Election Day, those ballots can continue arriving into the Division of Elections to be counted by the end of August.
Political consultant Sarah Erkmann-Ward is helping inform Republican voters about ranked choice voting. She said the primary election results would be a signal to some campaigns about their viability and that the election in general will act as “a statewide public opinion survey.”
John-Henry Heckendorn, a political consultant for progressive candidates, was skeptical. He also noted that historically, turnouts for primary elections have been smaller than general elections with more conservative, and more partisan, voters coming out to the ballot box.
“People are gonna want to draw a lot of conclusions coming out of this,” he said. “And I think it’s just really important that people understand the basis for being careful about those conclusions.”
Legislative races to watch
Fifty-nine of 60 state legislators are up for reelection this year due to redistricting. Only one Alaska House of Representatives race in Fairbanks had more than four candidates for the primary election, meaning with the top-four primary system, that all of the remaining state candidates are set to advance to the general election.
Despite the lower stakes for most candidates, there are some high-profile state legislative races. Anchorage Democratic Rep. Matt Claman is challenging Republican Sen. Mia Costello and was narrowly leading in early returns.
Democratic Anchorage Assembly member Forrest Dunbar is running for an open Alaska Senate seat against fellow Democrat Rep. Geran Tarr. Dunbar was leading with 49% of the vote, ahead of Republican Andrew Satterfield at 33% and Tarr in third at 14.5%.
Democratic Reps. Harriet Drummond and Zack Fields were almost deadlocked Tuesday evening after being paired together in the same Anchorage House district after the 2022 redistricting cycle. With all seven seven precincts reporting results by 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Fields was ahead of Drummond by 34 votes.
Fifteen House seats and five Senate seats had no incumbents with redistricting and sitting legislators either not seeking reelection or running for other offices, but several incumbents are currently trailing against their challengers: Republican former Senate President Cathy Giessel is ahead of fellow Republican Sen. Roger Holland and Democrat Roselynn Cacy. Doug Massie, former head of the Alaska Wildlife Troopers, is leading against fellow Republican Sen. Mike Shower of Wasilla. Republican Justin Ruffridge is ahead of Rep. Ron Gillham, R-Soldotna, and Anchorage Democratic Rep. Andy Josephson is falling behind Republican Kathy Henslee.
Echoing candidates who said they were focused more on November’s general election, political consultant Jim Lottsfeldt, who is working on independent expenditure groups for Republicans Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Tara Sweeney, compared the primary election to a “midterm.”
“And the final is coming in November, and the final is 100% of the grade,” he said. “So the midterm is interesting, but it doesn’t really predict if you’re going to win or not.”
Correction: A previous version of this story contained an incorrect spelling of lieutenant governor candidate Paul Hueper’s last name.