With just days left before the June 1 filing deadline, a growing number of Alaska state legislators are announcing they will not seek reelection, setting the stage for significant turnover in a legislature already facing a scramble because of the redistricting process.
The departure of sitting legislators can have far reaching impacts, lawmakers said. Newly elected members and shifting alliances threaten the stability of the majority caucuses that control the House and Senate. And the turnover also raises questions about the sustainability of working at the Capitol amid years of drawn-out, bitter political fights over budgeting and the Permanent Fund dividend.
As of Thursday, at least 10 of the 60 sitting lawmakers were not running for reelection. Among them: Soldotna Republican Senate President Peter Micciche, Eagle River Republican Sen. Lora Reinbold, Anchorage Republican Sen. Natasha Von Imhof, Anchorage Republican Sen. Josh Revak, Sitka Democrat Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, Anchorage Democrat Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, Bethel Democrat Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, Anchorage Republican Rep. Sara Rasmussen, Fairbanks Democrat Rep. Adam Wool and Wasilla Republican Rep. Christopher Kurka.
With more campaign announcements expected before the Wednesday deadline, the candidate lists for each individual race are far from finalized. But the list of incumbents pulling out so far provides a glimpse of the shifts to come.
Several of the incumbents who aren’t seeking reelection described the difficulty of balancing family life with responsibilities as a legislator in their decision not to run. Others are departing because they are running for other offices.
“There’s several legislators that decided not to run again this year. And I just think that highlights the discord and frustration felt by a lot of people down in Juneau,” said Rasmussen. “I feel like at this point, we need to really evaluate if the political setup that we have is working as best as it could for Alaskans, because I think when you lose diversity of views in the Legislature … we’re not producing the best results that we could for what’s in Alaska’s best interest.”
Rasmussen’s new House district was one of several that as of Thursday had no registered candidates, according to the Alaska Division of Elections. Rasmussen said the Republican Party is “actively searching” for a candidate. On the Democrats’ side, Rep. Matt Claman, who is assigned to the same newly created district, is still contemplating a run for Senate against incumbent Sen. Mia Costello.
In the case of Micciche, two Republicans have already announced bids for his seat: Tuckerman Babcock, Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s former chief of staff and prior chair of the Alaska Republican Party, and Jesse Bjorkman, a Kenai Peninsula Borough assembly member. Both had filed for the race before Micciche’s announcement, but the senator said the other candidates in the race were not part of his decision to depart.
“I have had many challengers over the past six elections and my community has always stood behind me. My decision has literally nothing to do with anyone that may be expressing interest in running for that seat,” Micciche said in a phone interview. “I’m simply not willing to not put my family first.”
Regular legislative sessions in Juneau typically last four months each year, but in recent years special sessions lasting several weeks or months have become the norm. Both Micciche and Rasmussen said their families had previously moved with them to Juneau, but that was no longer practical.
Spohnholz, who has served in the Legislature for more than six years, announced soon after the legislative session concluded this month that she would not run for reelection.
“There are some family issues I need to make sure I take care of so I’m going to step out for a little bit while I do that,” she said. “It doesn’t preclude a run in the future, but that’s what I have to do this year.”
With so many of the newly formed districts up for grabs, some wondered about the impact it would have on the coming legislative session.
“It may be a couple of years before the Legislature can be as effective as it would be if there were a few more experienced or seasoned legislators,” said Rasmussen. “I think it could certainly cause the process to be extended. You may see special sessions, or you may see less legislation passing.”
‘Waiting for some finality’
Alaska’s redistricting process, which has drawn out for months with one legal challenge following another, finally concluded earlier this week with a state Supreme Court decision that finalized the Senate districts in Anchorage. The court said the previous maps constituted “unconstitutional political gerrymandering.”
Two Democrats entered the race on Thursday for the newly formed Senate District J. There is no incumbent for the new district that covers the Mountain View, Airport Heights, and U-Med neighborhoods of Anchorage. Rep. Geran Tarr, who currently serves in the state House, said the court ruling opened up a possibility for her she had not previously considered. She will be running against Anchorage Assembly member Forrest Dunbar.
“In my wildest dreams, I would have never imagined that I would be filing paperwork to become a state senator,” Tarr said in a phone interview from Juneau, where she was still working after the legislative session wrapped up last week.
“I like to say that being a legislator is like having 18,000 family members and if I’m successful in a Senate race, then it’ll be more like 36,000 family members,” Tarr said.
Dunbar, who was not available for an interview Thursday, said he had not spoken with Tarr before their individual decisions to run for the seat.
“I was contacted by and had conversations with a number of people in the state House who asked me to run for that Senate seat,” Dunbar said in a text message.
Tarr is not the only sitting House member to file for Senate. Eagle River Republican Kelly Merrick is running for a newly created Senate district. Anchorage Republican James Kaufman also announced Thursday that he would run for the Senate seat currently held by Revak, who is running for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Kaufman, too, said he waited until the new district maps were finalized to make his decision.
“The process has always been overshadowed by redistricting,” he said. “I didn’t want to somehow block anybody out or cause any kind of a difficulty should redistricting change the shape of the terrain.”
Lindsay Kavanaugh, director of the Alaska Democratic Party, said the party has been working for a year to recruit legislative candidates, but the delay in redistricting has complicated their efforts.
“A lot of people that we talked to have been waiting for some finality,” she said. “The outstanding redistricting litigation has made things pretty challenging, when you’re trying to recruit someone and you’re like, ‘You’re filing for a district that looks different, it’s been redone, and it has a totally different number, but it’s all tied up in court right now.’”
‘Working in the center’
Spohnholz said the new legislative maps that emerged from a fraught redistricting process could make it easier to form bipartisan coalitions ahead of the 2023 legislative session.
“The best kind of governing comes from when you’re working in the center and are working to find those areas of consensus,” she said. “The demographic shifts that are taking place in Alaska certainly mean that districts that didn’t used to be competitive now are for progressives.”
For Democrats, the new House and Senate districts present an opportunity to possibly gain seats, particularly in Anchorage, where the new Senate seats are expected to flip at least one district from red to blue. And that change could increase the likelihood of forming a bipartisan coalition that brings together Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans in the Senate.
[View Alaska’s new legislative districts below:]
Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, an Anchorage Democrat, said the Senate has “effectively operated that way” in the most recent legislative session, when votes on key legislation including the state budget saw lawmakers crossing caucus lines.
“When legislators organize they put themselves into two categories,” said Micciche, the Senate president. “One of folks that have the potential to be successful, and the other of folks that see their service as being an obstacle to progress.”
“I don’t know that the party makeup is going to change. What I do hope is that no matter who shows up and whatever letter they have next to their name, they recognize the fact that politics is a team sport, and that nothing can happen if you’re sitting on an island,” Micciche added.
In the House, some new candidates hope to keep alive or even expand the existing bipartisan coalition. That includes Louie Flora, an independent running against Republican Rep. Sarah Vance of Homer, a member of the House minority.
“My intention would be to create a coalition that can pass a reasonable budget and not get caught up in shenanigans and not spend a whole lot of time on wedge issues,” Flora said. “I’d like to see a bigger majority built with more Republicans caucusing with Democrats and independents.”
“I would love to build a majority that was able to have the strength to override a governor’s veto and work with the governor from a position of power,” Flora added. It takes a three-quarters vote to override a governor’s veto on bills or budget line items.
Rebecca Himschoot is an independent candidate from Sitka running for a seat currently held by Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, who decided not to run for reelection this year after a decade in the Legislature.
“A really important part of my decision to run has to do with preserving the bipartisan coalition and that voice that rural Alaska has had,” said Himschoot. “We all recognize that there’s a lot of change going on between redistricting and the number of people who are not running again. I think that also opens room for some really strong candidates to come into the race.”
But some Republican candidates are more hesitant about the prospect of a bipartisan coalition.
“There’s all these prognostications of what’s going to happen and sometimes they turn out to be much different than what people are anticipating, depending on what happens during the long election process,” Kaufman said.
And Bjorkman, who is running for Micciche’s seat, said he has “absolutely zero interest in joining a coalition that puts Democrats in power.”
‘A whole lot of new characters’
Flora said the new election laws, which eliminate party primaries, have made it easier for candidates to enter the race without a party affiliation, and he thinks the next election will bring more nonpartisan candidates to the Legislature.
“That creates a lot of opportunity to have broader discussion,” he said. “Candidates not having to run in specific party primaries is really liberating.”
That is a view shared by Begich, who said ranked choice voting “will likely lead to a whole lot of new characters” in the Legislature.
Under the state’s new election laws, all candidates will appear on a single primary ballot in August. The top four vote getters in the primary will then advance to a ranked choice general election in November. In most legislative races, the number of candidates will likely be four or less -- none had more than three certified candidates as of Thursday.
Previously, if a Democrat or Republican dropped out of a race after the primary, their party could replace them with an alternate candidate. Under the new system, that won’t happen, said Division of Elections spokesperson Tiffany Montemayor. If there are more than four candidates in a specific race, a fifth place candidate can replace a candidate that drops out. But if there is only one candidate who then drops out, there’s not a straightforward way to fill the seat.
“We have not looked into that,” Montemayor said in an email.
With days to go until the filing deadline — 5 p.m. June 1 — candidates predicted a flurry of activity before the cutoff.
Among those waiting until the last minute might be Doug Massie, head of the Alaska Wildlife Troopers, who announced this week he would retire on May 31.
“I can’t say that I’m running for office, but that is definitely a strong possibility,” said Massie, who lives in Sen. Mike Shower’s Wasilla district.
There are some advantages to waiting until just before the deadline to preserve an element of surprise, some said.
“All of us always wait with these decisions up until the last minute. All of us, myself included,” Begich said. “There are a lot of reasons not to do this job.”
Reporter Nathaniel Herz contributed to this report.