As Alaskans wait for more election results, presumptive legislators are busy trying to organize the state House of Representatives and Senate.
Republicans are set to hold a majority of seats in the Senate, and most likely in the House, but with ideological divides and personality differences, the GOP may not form a majority in its own right in either legislative chamber.
Since Tuesday’s election, there have been a flurry of text messages, calls and getting-to-know-you meetings. But organization is a secretive process, and normally talkative legislators become cagey about revealing the details of closed-door discussions.
Senate Democrats held an in-person meeting Wednesday in Anchorage, which attendees described as productive among a cohesive group. No one would disclose where the meeting was held.
Members of a potential bipartisan House coalition also met in Anchorage on Wednesday in another secretive meeting at another undisclosed location. House Republicans met online for team building.
In the 20-seat Alaska Senate, Democrats were crunching the numbers and increasingly optimistic about picking up two seats to hold a total of nine. Conversations started after August’s primary election with Republicans about forming a bipartisan majority coalition.
Plans for a potential leadership team are being discussed. Kodiak Republican Sen. Gary Stevens has been the leading candidate for Senate president, a position he held from 2009 to 2012, when he led another bipartisan coalition. Other leadership positions are being sketched out but are less concrete.
Stevens said Thursday that it’s “a little too premature” to make an organization announcement, but that one could be made in the next few days.
Eleven is the minimum number for a majority, but that has been described as inherently unstable for a functioning caucus.
“Everybody’s looking for a big coalition,” said Juneau Democratic Sen. Jesse Kiehl.
Divergent policy goals could pose a challenge when setting out principles to rally around. Some prospective caucus members are focused on delivering large Permanent Fund dividends, others on not overdrawing the Permanent Fund.
Republicans relied on minority Democrats in recent years to pass key legislation, including the operating budget. Preliminary first-choice returns had several moderate Republicans on track to take conservatives’ seats, which increases the chances of a formal Senate coalition.
Moderate Republican Rep. Kelly Merrick was well ahead of conservative Republican Rep. Ken McCarty for an open Eagle River Senate seat. She is currently part of the bipartisan House majority coalition, and said her plan is to be “an active member of the majority” in the Senate.
Republican Jesse Bjorkman, a Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member, was solidly leading against conservative Tuckerman Babcock, former chair of the Alaska Republican Party and chief of staff to Gov. Dunleavy, for a Soldotna-area Senate seat.
Bjorkman described himself as a “common-sense Republican” with a focus on fiscal stability. He didn’t rule out joining a bipartisan coalition on Thursday, but said he would caucus with the majority of Republicans.
The handful of remaining right-wing Senate Republicans could find themselves on the outside, partly to do with their policy priorities and partly because some members having strained relationships with key moderates.
“I haven’t been very involved in discussions,” said North Pole Republican Robert Myers, a member of the Senate’s conservative wing. He said that it’s possible that a majority coalition doesn’t come to fruition, but he thinks that’s unlikely.
Concrete plans for a bipartisan Senate coalition have broke down in recent years on multiple occasions, including on the eve of the Legislature convening last year. There is a common refrain among those now meeting behind closed doors, trying to organize the Senate: “A deal is not done until it’s done.”
Twenty-one Republicans were leading for the 40-seat House after preliminary first-choice results. The GOP’s margin could increase through a handful of unresolved races, but that is not certain.
Whichever caucus controls the House controls which bills come to the floor and who gets key leadership positions. With Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy likely headed toward reelection, that could be decisive for how much of his agenda is realized.
After the past three elections, Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans have banded together in a majority coalition. Republicans are hopeful of forming their own majority this time around, but the wait is on for definitive results.
“With the races as tight as they are, it’s going to be extremely difficult for either side to actually organize,” said Rep. Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, on Thursday.
The challenge for the GOP could be holding a slim majority together. There have been sharp divides between moderates and the right wing of the party over social issues, the budget and the size of the Permanent Fund dividend.
And cautionary tales abound of seemingly solid plans falling apart. After the 2018 election, Republicans quickly announced at a press conference that they had the numbers to form a House majority, but it didn’t hold.
Republican Rep. David Eastman and Democratic candidate Jennie Armstrong have added uncertainty for caucus numbers. Both are on track to win in Wasilla and West Anchorage, respectively, but there are ongoing lawsuits challenging their eligibility to hold office.
If Eastman is allowed to serve, he could also be a factor in whether the GOP forms a slim majority. Some fellow Republicans have refused to caucus with him in the past due to his far-right positions and no-compromise approach to legislating.
Another factor complicating plans is the number of new faces coming to the House. Before the election, 15 incumbents were not returning due to redistricting or legislators not running for reelection.
Two more incumbents are on track to lose their seats, and the House could ultimately be half filled with freshmen once final results are known. Closed-door meetings have been a chance for prospective legislators to get to know each other and their priorities.
Anchorage Democratic Rep. Andy Josephson, who is in a tight race with Republican Kathy Henslee and waiting to see how by-mail ballots shake out, said Wednesday’s coalition meeting was a good first step in establishing collegiality.
Although early numbers are trending toward a one- or two-seat GOP majority, it’s feasible that 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats and independents are elected after final results are known, which would increase the likelihood for a bipartisan majority.
Kodiak Republican Louise Stutes, the current House speaker, is highly sought after by both sides. She was present at Wednesday’s secretive coalition meeting, but she isn’t necessarily staying on that side of the aisle.
“I haven’t made any determination yet,” she said Thursday.
Another set of ballots is scheduled to be counted Tuesday, which could provide more clarity in close races. It may take until the ranked choice voting tabulation on Nov. 23, and more closed-door discussions, before the House organizes.