For Fairbanks Democrat Sen. Scott Kawasaki, primary election night was a novel experience. This is his eighth election, but he’s never outperformed the leading Republican at a primary election and has always had to come from behind in November.
“To be neck and neck, or even just a little bit ahead of the next Republican, yeah, it felt really great,” Kawasaki said.
As long as absentee ballots are postmarked on or before Election Day, they can keep arriving into the Division of Elections until the end of August and be counted, but for now, Kawasaki is leading by 100 votes over his nearest challenger, conservative Republican Fairbanks Mayor Jim Matherly.
“I didn’t really think I’d be ahead necessarily because he is an incumbent,” Matherly said. “And that’s always a tall order to take on an incumbent.”
Matherly said he was very pleased and humbled by the preliminary primary election results. And he noted that Republican Alex Jafre, who is running in third place with 316 votes, may have split conservative voters.
Under Alaska’s new election system, the top four vote getters from each primary race advance to November’s ranked-choice general election, regardless of party affiliation. All but one legislative contest had fewer than five candidates, erasing some of the drama of a traditional primary. But some candidates said the primary amounted to a revealing opinion poll in their races.
Two years ago, six incumbent Republican state legislators lost their primary races against largely more conservative opponents, and some moderates, like Kodiak Sen. Gary Stevens, narrowly made it through to the general. This time around, Stevens is up by 30 points against his nearest challenger in a three-way race of Republican candidates.
Stevens puts that success down to campaigning hard, but he said it “probably was an advantage” to compete in Alaska’s new primary system, which is open to candidates and voters of any party. Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, is not running for reelection, but he’s tracking the primary results closely, and he agrees with proponents of the open-primary system that it could benefit moderates in the long term.
Last year, Eagle River Republicans censured Rep. Kelly Merrick for joining the bipartisan majority coalition in the House of Representatives. Now, she’s more than 20 points ahead of fellow Republican Rep. Ken McCarty in a four-way all-Republican race for an open Senate seat.
“This is indicative of where Alaskans really are,” Begich argued about the primary results. “So this myth that Alaska is somehow a red state is just that, it’s a myth, Alaska is an Alaska state.”
For Alaska Democrats, the strong showing by Kawasaki in the primary election has them eyeing the possibility of forming a bipartisan coalition in the Senate. There are currently six Democrats in the 20-seat Alaska Senate, but the party is hoping that could increase to nine, which Kawasaki said would be “a huge coup.”
Democratic Anchorage Assembly member Forrest Dunbar is well ahead of two Democrats and a Republican in an open East Anchorage Senate race, and Democratic Rep. Matt Claman is narrowly leading against Republican Sen. Mia Costello.
Lindsay Kavanaugh, executive director of the Alaska Democratic Party, said that these results were not unanticipated, but that she was “really pleased” with Democrat support, particularly in the Interior where Rep. Grier Hopkins, D-Fairbanks, is narrowly ahead in a red-leaning district. Kavanaugh thinks that the Claman-Costello race will be the one to watch this year.
Claman, who currently has a significant fundraising advantage over Costello, said on Wednesday afternoon that he was pleased to be 176 votes ahead. Echoing other candidates across the aisle, he said abortion has consistently been the central issue for voters he has spoken to after Roe v. Wade was overturned in June.
Fifteen Alaska House seats and five Senate seats have no incumbents due to redistricting or sitting legislators either not seeking reelection or running for other offices. There will be new faces in the state Capitol, but if they’re elected, some will be familiar, like Tuckerman Babcock, former head of the Alaska GOP.
Babcock, who is firmly against ranked choice voting and wants to repeal it if he’s elected, is ahead in an open Kenai Peninsula Senate seat after Republican Senate President Peter Micciche chose not to run for reelection. Babcock thinks Republicans will be able to form their own Senate majority caucus, but he agrees that it will be a very different Senate if there are eight or nine Democratic senators.
In the 40-seat House of Representatives, there has been a bipartisan majority coalition for the past four years. Wasilla Republican Rep. Cathy Tilton, the House minority leader, has been “encouraged” by the primary election results, which she says lean toward the GOP forming a slim majority in its own right with 22 or 23 legislators.
Begich isn’t convinced. Progressive political consultants and candidates note that a greater proportion of liberals have historically voted in Alaska’s general elections than in the primaries, and he thinks at least two trailing House Democrat candidates will catch up.
All sides agree, though, with less than three months until the general election, the real race for control of the state Capitol is just getting started.