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After costly campaigns, much hangs in balance as Alaskans go to polls

  • Author: Alaska News
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 3, 2014

Alaskans go to the polls Tuesday to settle the costliest election in the state's history -- one in which voters will select the next governor, a U.S. senator and its lone representative in the U.S. House.

Alaskans will also approve or reject measures to legalize marijuana and raise the minimum wage, pick state representatives and senators, and decide whether to leave in place an Anchorage law that limits the power of the city's public sector unions.

Polling places open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. Votes cast Tuesday are typically tallied by late that evening or early Wednesday morning, though state elections officials cautioned that tens of thousands of ballots -- including those cast by absentee voters -- will likely not be counted until next week.

U.S. Senate

More than $50 million has been spent on the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, and his Republican opponent, Dan Sullivan.

Following a key Supreme Court decision in 2010 that allowed greater spending on elections by unions and corporations, third-party political groups like super PACs have funneled an unprecedented amount of money into the campaign in Alaska, which is one of several battleground states this year in a fight to see which party will control the Senate.

Alaskans elected Begich by a 4,000-vote margin in 2008 over Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, who had held the seat since 1968 but was convicted of federal corruption charges just one week before Election Day. Those charges were later tossed.

Republicans outnumber Democrats in Alaska by a 2-1 margin, but Begich has played down his party ties and played up the positions he shares with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski in an attempt to appeal to independent and unaffiliated voters, who make up the majority of the state's electorate.

Sullivan's campaign, meanwhile, has linked Begich to Democratic President Barack Obama and the party's leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, hammering Begich for the positions he shares with those politicians and for his support of the president's signature health care law, the Affordable Care Act.

Governor

Republican Gov. Sean Parnell, vying for his second full term in office, faces Anchorage attorney Bill Walker, an independent candidate who has spent much of his life trying to develop natural gas reserves that remain trapped on the state's North Slope.

Parnell, beset by the Alaska National Guard scandal that has unfolded in recent weeks, became governor in 2009 after then-governor Sarah Palin left office early. Elected to his first full term in 2010, Parnell's signature effort has been the revamped oil-production tax known as Senate Bill 21.

Parnell has also created a gas line project called Alaska LNG that has the state partnering with ExxonMobil, BP, ConocoPhillips and pipeline builder TransCanada to produce natural gas, with project approval not expected for four years or longer.

Walker has blasted Parnell's economic performance, pointing out that the state faced a massive deficit under budgets Parnell approved even when oil prices were high. With oil prices plunging, the deficit might soon exceed $2 billion.

Walker has said he'd expand Medicaid and stop the Alaska Stand Alone Pipeline, reversing Parnell policies in those areas. He has said as governor he would support SB 21, approved by voters Aug. 19, but closely watch it to make sure oil companies stabilize declining oil production over the long haul. Walker has also said he would complete the Alaska LNG project but said the state needs to more than double its proposed equity to 51 percent, a plan Parnell has said would kill the project.

Parnell's lieutenant governor would be Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan. Meanwhile, Walker has joined forces on his "nonparty" ticket with Byron Mallott, a prominent Alaska Native leader.

U.S. House

Longtime Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young, 81, is seeking his 22nd term in the U.S. House of Representatives, facing a challenge from Forrest Dunbar, the 19th Democrat to challenge him since 1973.

Dunbar, 30, is a lieutenant in the Army National Guard. He has argued that Young is no longer effective in Congress and that he lost his ability to chair committees because of his ethics violations.

Young has countered that he remains effective and that everyone in Congress knows who he is. He also says party rules regarding term limits for committee leadership are the reason he does not chair a full committee.

State Legislature races

After redistricting in 2012 and 2013, most of the state's Senate and House seats are up for grabs Tuesday. Going into the election, Republicans held a 12-8 majority in the Alaska Senate and a 26-14 advantage in the House. Here are some Anchorage races to watch:

In a West Anchorage Senate race, Republican Rep. Mia Costello is facing off against Democrat Clare Ross in a battle for the seat vacated by Democratic Sen. Hollis French.

Also in West Anchorage, Matt Claman, a former Anchorage interim mayor and Assembly member, is in a heated race with technology and business consultant Anand Dubey for state House.

In the House district encompassing Anchorage's Sand Lake area, a three-way race for Costello's former seat includes a former Anchorage municipal assessor, Democrat Marty McGee, former state prosecutor and Chugach Electric Association board member Liz Vazquez, a Republican, and Republican write-in candidate David Nees.

In a South Anchorage Senate race, former state Rep. Harry Crawford, a Democrat, is running against incumbent Republican Sen. Cathy Giessel.

Ballot Measure 2 -- Marijuana legalization

If approved, Ballot Measure 2 would legalize recreational marijuana in Alaska for those 21 years and older. The measure would create a system of taxation and regulation in a manner similar to that of alcohol, though opponents have argued the wording of the initiative would prevent such regulation.

Backers of legalization argue it would reduce the size of the black market, stop unnecessary arrests and provide tax revenue on an underground market that is already thriving.

Opponents have argued that the measure amounts to an endorsement of marijuana use. They fear legalization would create a large marijuana industry in the state that would put an undue burden on public health, safety and communities as a whole.

Ballot Measure 3 -- Alaska minimum wage increase

If approved, this measure would increase Alaska's $7.75-per-hour minimum wage by $1 in 2015 and by another dollar in 2016, to $9.75.

Future annual increases would be pegged to inflation or set to $1 above the federal minimum wage, whichever is higher.

Ballot Measure 4 -- Bristol Bay mining ban

This measure is aimed at creating another stumbling block to the Pebble mine, a large copper and gold prospect proposed in Southwest Alaska.

If approved, the measure will give the Alaska Legislature veto power over large-scale mining projects in the Bristol Bay region of Southwest Alaska, if they're found to endanger the area's huge wild salmon stocks. Currently, state and federal agencies have control over the permitting process for mines.

Anchorage Proposition 1 -- Labor law repeal

This city-level referendum asks voters if they want to keep Anchorage's controversial labor ordinance, the Responsible Labor Act, also known as AO-37. It was moved from the April municipal election to the statewide general election ballot by the Anchorage Assembly.

If kept in place, the law would change the way Anchorage government negotiates with its nine municipal unions. The measure is currently suspended, awaiting the outcome of the repeal effort.

If the measure passes, the law would remain in place, limiting raises for city unions to 1 percent above the rate of inflation. It would also eliminate some performance and seniority bonuses for city employees, and set the city Assembly as the final arbiter in contract disputes.

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