The Alaska Senate’s minority leader is likely to retire and incumbents will face other incumbents after a flurry of developments on the last day for Alaskans to file for legislative and statewide office.
Wednesday was the deadline for candidates to register to appear on the ballot for the regular election. The filing cutoff brought several last-minute shakeups to legislative races that were already poised to bring significant turnover to the state Capitol in Juneau, opening up opportunities for political newcomers and those hoping to flip seats.
Sen. Tom Begich, the Anchorage Democrat who’s led his chamber’s minority caucus for the past four years, said Wednesday that he’s decided to “move on to the next stage of my life” — making him the latest in a string of incumbent legislators, including Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, who are not seeking reelection.
Begich’s name is still on the ballot for now. But a key aide, Löki Gale Tobin, filed to run for Begich’s seat just before the 5 p.m. deadline, and Begich said he will almost certainly withdraw from the race once he returns to Alaska from a road trip Outside and can meet with Tobin.
“I want to be absolutely sure she’s there, and I want to be absolutely sure I’m there. But I’ll withdraw after that, I’m pretty sure,” Begich said. “Löki has worked with me side by side, on every one of my policy initiatives, for three years. She understands the importance of policy over politics, she understands the importance of civility and she understands that if you really want to get something done, you have to work across the aisle.”
Tobin, who was born and raised in Nome, said she had spoken with Begich before about the possibility of running for office, but she did not anticipate this would be the year the opportunity would come up. Once it did, though, she said she didn’t hesitate.
“It’s not often that an older white man is going to step aside aside and say, ‘I think it’s time to make space for a younger woman of color who is as connected and deeply engaged with the community as I am but may not be given this opportunity because of whatever factors come down society-wise,’” Tobin said.
Privately, some Alaska progressives said they were frustrated that Begich did not announce his decision before the filing deadline, which could have made room in the race for other Democrats.
When the state redistricting board redrew legislative boundaries this year, it placed two Democratic incumbent House members — Zack Fields and Harriet Drummond — in the same House district within Begich’s Senate district, forcing them to run against each other.
Begich said he didn’t make his decision until the deadline. Just one other candidate, independent Heather Herndon, filed to run for his seat.
Begich, a brother of former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and a son of the late U.S. Rep. Nick Begich, was first elected to the state Senate in 2016.
He wasn’t the only incumbent to make a last-minute retirement announcement. Democratic Rep. Liz Snyder, who’s finishing her first term representing an East Anchorage district, arrived at the Division of Elections office late Wednesday to endorse Donna Mears, the Democrat she hopes will replace her.
“If the pandemic the past two years has taught anything, time moves fast, and if you have some extended family things you need to attend to, you better jump on it,” Snyder said.
Mears is one of four candidates seeking to replace Snyder. The others are independents Peter Knox and Ian Sharrock, along with Forrest Wolfe, a longtime Republican legislative aide.
Incumbent vs. incumbent
Other developments before Wednesday’s deadline left several incumbent legislators running against each other for House and Senate seats.
The redistricting board placed Anchorage Democratic Reps. Chris Tuck and Andy Josephson in the same House district, and both have registered their candidacies. But in interviews Wednesday, they said one would ultimately withdraw.
“Andy’s one of my best friends, so we’re just trying to work things out and seeing what the options are,” Tuck said. “We’ll wait to see who’s all in, and who’s out.”
Josephson said they’ll make the decision based on “who is in the best situation.”
“And it’s not just politically best-situated,” said Josephson, after the two met for a lengthy discussion Wednesday morning, just hours before the filing deadline. “We have to determine who can commit the most time to it over the next five months.”
Tuck said he considered running for Senate, but when a final court ruling on the redistricting process reshuffled districts, he was left in one held by Democratic Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson. Tuck didn’t want to run against her.
Other candidates for the seat include Republican Kathy Henslee and Alaska Independence Party member Timothy Huit.
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In downtown Anchorage, Fields and Drummond are expected to compete for votes even as they hold similar positions and voting records.
“I guess you could say it’s inconvenient for me and Harriet that we ended up in the same district,” said Fields. “In a lot of ways it’s a win-win for the district, no matter how it shakes out.”
Fields said “the only reason” he filed was because of the role he played in keeping the House’s bipartisan majority in power, which he said was key to avoiding a mega-dividend payout at the expense of government services.
Drummond said constituents asked her to run for reelection. Among her priorities are improved retirement benefits for public employees. And, she says, “there’s always work to be done on education.”
Anchorage Democratic Rep. Matt Claman was one of the last candidates to file Wednesday, submitting paperwork to run against Republican incumbent Sen. Mia Costello in a newly drawn West Anchorage Senate district.
Claman said he heard from constituents asking him to run for Senate. Voters in the newly drawn district narrowly favored President Joe Biden, a Democrat, in the 2020 election, and Claman said he thinks “it’s going to be a close race.”
Costello said she respects Claman and works well with him, even as they differ on policy. And she said she welcomes his candidacy. “Despite what you see on Twitter and social media in regards to the district getting more liberal, I actually believe that the district is gaining conservative voters,” she said.
Room for new candidates
Across the state, the planned departure of sitting legislators and redistricting left several races with no incumbents — including 15 of the 40 House races — making room for political newcomers.
Among them is Jennie Armstrong, a Democrat who filed for a West Anchorage House seat. She arrived at the Division of Elections office Wednesday afternoon to finish her paperwork with her two young children.
“I really want to see an Alaska where everyone can thrive,” Armstrong said. “I think that happens when you start taking care of your kids, your families, those that are marginalized and our workers.”
Other candidates for the seat include Republicans Liz Vazquez and Joel McKinney, along with Alaska Constitution Party member Rick Beckes.
In some districts, incumbents will face challengers who hope to flip the district from the control of one party to the other.
Denny Wells, an Anchorage Democrat, filed to run for a House seat in southwest Anchorage against Republican incumbent Tom McKay. Another Republican, David Eibeck, has also entered that race.
Wells arrived at the Division of Elections office Wednesday accompanied by his three children. He said his decision to run came as he grew increasingly frustrated over what he described as the state “squandering resources that are not going to be here for my kids.”
The lifelong Alaskan said he considered leaving the state after watching cuts to services like education.
“This is my lifelong home, but if the state’s going to cut the budget to the point where it affects my kids’ education, I’m not sure that we can stay,” he said.
In Fairbanks, Democratic Sen. Scott Kawasaki will face a challenge from Republican Jim Matherly, the city mayor. Another Republican, Alex Jafre, has also filed for the seat.
Matherly, who was born and raised in Fairbanks, entered the Senate race after 12 years in city office, including six as mayor. “It’s been on my radar for years to eventually go to Juneau,” he said in a phone interview Thursday.
“I think there’s a pretty good chance it could flip to Republican, mainly because of redistricting,” Matherly said.
The newly drawn district favored former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election, but Kawasaki is a well-known name in Fairbanks after serving in the Legislature for well over a decade.
“With a Democrat national leadership, it always helps the other team,” Matherly said. “I look at that as a benefit.”
Other races promise tight campaigning between candidates from the same party.
Doug Massie, who retired from his job as head of the Alaska Wildlife Troopers this week, filed to run as a Republican against Wasilla GOP Sen. Mike Shower.
In a newly drawn Senate District J, covering Anchorage’s University-Medical District, there’s no incumbent and Democratic Rep. Ivy Spohnholz decided to leave the Legislature. That spurred three Democrats to file: Rep. Geran Tarr, Anchorage Assembly member Forrest Dunbar and former legislative staffer-turned-consultant Drew Cason. Republican Andrew Satterfield has also filed for the seat.
“We don’t have to just try and focus on who is going to be able to beat the Republican. Because I think that beating a Republican is a little bit beside the point,” Cason said in a phone interview Thursday. “The question is: Who is going to do the best job of representing Senate District J? Hopefully, this ranked-choice voting system lets that be the focus.”
A different dynamic in the primary
Under new voting laws, all candidates in legislative races will appear in an open, nonpartisan primary Aug. 16. The top four vote getters in the primary advance to a ranked-choice general election in November.
But among the legislative races, all except one — a Fairbanks House seat — have four or fewer candidates. That means that at most, just one of the dozens of candidates who filed for House and Senate races will not advance to the November ballot.
Candidates across the board said that dynamic changes how they think of the primary race, which in previous years gave Republican and Democratic primary voters outsized influence in determining who would appear on the general election ballot.
This year, the primary will function as “a free poll,” which will “help to indicate where the most committed voters stand with respect to the candidates,” Cason said.
“I don’t think it’s going to settle any particular questions,” he added.
Even after a flurry of filings late Wednesday, a number of candidates are running unopposed.
Just one is not an incumbent: C.J. McCormick, who will succeed Democratic Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, a Democrat who decided not to seek reelection to her seat representing Southwest Alaska’s hub city of Bethel and surrounding villages.
Two veteran politicians from the area — Bethel Mayor Mark Springer and former state Rep. Bob Herron — both filed preliminary paperwork indicating they would run for the seat. But neither did, and McCormick, in a phone interview Thursday, said he was still in “disbelief” that he has no opponent.
“I’m very humbled by this whole situation,” he said. “It’s still kind of registering that this is actually happening.”
McCormick, who was born and raised in Bethel, is a week shy of his 25th birthday. But he’s in his second term on Bethel’s city council and, he said, “not completely out of the loop with politics here.”
McCormick works as a communications specialist at the local tribal health organization, Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp. And he said that even without anyone running against him, he’ll still be campaigning, including in his district’s villages.
“I still think I need to earn this position,” he said. “I owe it to this region to talk to everybody.”