In Alaska’s Aug. 16 statewide primary, no contest was closer than the race between Democratic incumbent Andy Josephson and Republican challenger Kathy Henslee for a seat in the Alaska House of Representatives.
In the final tally, Henslee beat Josephson by a single vote out of more than 3,800 cast.
With Republicans seeking control of the state House after the Nov. 8 general election, the race between Josephson and Henslee is one of the most closely watched in the state, and the candidates are presenting voters with a sharp contrast as an experienced progressive Democrat faces a never-elected conservative Republican.
“It’s one of those classic races, Republican vs. Democrat, and it’s a purple district,” said Tom Anderson, a consultant working for Henslee’s campaign.
“It’s going to be a very close race,” he said.
Both candidates and their supporters see the race as a proxy for control of the House as a whole. A Henslee victory would increase the odds that Republicans will control the chamber outright. If Josephson wins, it would increase the chances of survival for the existing coalition majority. With control of the House goes control of the legislative agenda for the next two years.
“This election is going to determine whether we continue with a coalition or go to a Republican-only-led House,” said Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, who is backing Josephson.
Rep. George Rauscher, R-Sutton, is an incumbent Republican who has donated to Henslee.
“If Hensley wins,” he said, “that’s going to give us the advantage in the race for being in the majority this year.”
Redistricting shakes up the race
Henslee is a California-born, Alaska-raised real estate agent and business owner with five children. Two years ago, she ran against Tuck but lost to the longtime incumbent by 341 votes out of 7,246 cast.
In the once-per-decade legislative redistricting process, Tuck and fellow incumbent Josephson were put into the same House district. Both men filed to run, but Tuck withdrew, leaving Josephson to face Henslee and Alaskan Independence Party candidate Tim Huit.
Huit withdrew after the primary and endorsed Henslee. That leaves a head-to-head race.
Incumbents typically have an advantage in elections, in part because they’re already known to voters in the area. But Josephson’s advantage in that department is limited because of redistricting.
Of five precincts in House District 13, only one was inherited from Josephson’s old House district. The other four precincts were from Tuck’s old district.
Though Henslee has never held public office, she ran in Tuck’s district in 2020 and this spring ran in an Anchorage Assembly race that covers the area.
“One of the positive things for me is that I have been campaigning in this district for quite a while,” she said in an Aug. 19 podcast interview, adding, “A lot of my voters know me in this district, and they don’t know him that well.”
Josephson said the boundary change also resulted in a more conservative district, which helps Henslee as well.
“It feels more conservative than my current district,” he said. “There are occasional Trump flags waving in the wind.”
In the 2020 presidential election, about 57% of voters in his old House district preferred Democratic candidate Joe Biden. Under the new boundaries, “this is like a 50.5% Biden district,” Josephson said.
In addition, Henslee said in the podcast interview that she believes Huit’s withdrawal will allow her to pick up the votes of conservative AIP voters, improving her result from the primary.
“You can’t count on all those people switching over, but I think that a good chunk of them will,” she said.
Josephson gets major financial backing
Though she may have an advantage on the ground, Henslee said she isn’t taking Josephson lightly.
“He has had a very organized and well-run campaign, probably better than anybody I’ve run against before,” she said on the Must Read Alaska podcast.
Josephson said he expects to raise $130,000 in total for his campaign, a significant increase from his prior elections.
“I’ve worked very, very hard. I’ve received hundreds of donations, I have 25-some endorsements from various PACs and institutions, some of them labor, some of them not. I’ve never had 25 or 20 endorsements like that,” he said.
The national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee is spending in his race, as is the pro-union Putting Alaskans First Committee and Alaskans for Public Safety, which is funded by a group of police and firefighter unions.
Josephson was the leading legislator behind an effort to restore a state pension program for police and firefighters. That proposal passed the House but failed to pass the Senate before the end of this year’s legislative session.
Josephson said he thinks the support is a recognition of the work he’s done in the Legislature.
“They’ve seen the hard work I’ve done for 10 years. And, you know, if I win, I would be third in seniority in the House,” he said.
Split on the issues
Henslee did not respond to multiple requests for an interview for this article but in conversations on conservative radio, podcast interviews and in her prior runs for office, she has explained her positions on a variety of issues.
When she goes door to door, Henslee said, the top issue she hears about is the Permanent Fund dividend.
On that issue, she said she supports using the traditional, 1980s-era Permanent Fund dividend formula to dictate payouts.
Had that formula been used this year, it would have paid between $4,000 and $4,200 per recipient but would have created a deficit of about $600 million using the budget passed by lawmakers in the spring.
Speaking Sept. 22, Henslee said the “PFD will never be sustainable” at present levels of spending, and she advocates cuts to services in order to pay for the larger dividend. She has not specified her preferred cuts but has spoken generally about finding greater efficiencies in government.
The Legislature has not succeeded in finding significant savings from efficiencies in the eight years since oil prices fell.
Josephson said he opposes the traditional formula.
“I think that would be unfortunate to have an experiment where we show what would happen if you pay to the 1982 formula,” he said. “We would invariably cut K-12 and the university, and then we would get sued and have to restore them. Or we’d cut public health and we’d be sued and have to restore it. And in the end, you’d have an income tax.”
In office, Josephson has regularly voted for the largest dividend that can be paid after services are funded and said he continues to support that policy.
Josephson and Henslee are on the opposite sides of many other issues: Henslee supports restrictions on abortion, while Josephson believes in abortion rights; Henslee said she was inspired to enter politics by her anger at and opposition to public health restrictions intended to fight COVID-19; Josephson has supported anti-COVID efforts and voted in favor of additional measures as a member of the House.
Tuck, based on his 2020 experience running against Henslee, said he sees her as akin to Jamie Allard, the member of the Anchorage Assembly from Eagle River who is now the favorite for a state House seat there.
Anderson, consulting for Henslee, said he thinks a better comparison is Rep. Cathy Tilton, the longtime Wasilla Republican legislator who has a reputation for calm conservatism.
“I think she’s a strong conservative,” Anderson said of Henslee.
Originally published by the Alaska Beacon, an independent, nonpartisan news organization that covers Alaska state government.