At Fairbanks convention, Alaska GOP wrestles with likely Trump nomination

FAIRBANKS — On the first full day of their convention in Fairbanks, Alaska Republicans grappled with the increasing inevitability that Donald Trump would be their party's presidential nominee, leading to reactions from enthusiasm to resignation to disdain.

"The one thing I will say about Trump is he has accomplished a lot in his life. And I'm really, really, really hoping — because it's looking like he'll be the nominee — that the persona he's portraying is his reality TV persona, not the one that made him a multi-billionaire," said Rosanne Bailey, a Ted Cruz supporter and retired Air Force brigadier general. She spoke in an interview Friday at the Westmark Hotel, site of the biennial Republican convention.

"Because you can't be like he's been and be a multi-billionaire," Bailey said. "You don't get there by being a buffoon. So I'm really crossing my fingers."

As Trump's national campaign gathers more support, it's also recruiting more followers in Alaska.

Heading into the Alaska convention, Trump hadn't announced a state leadership team or collected any high-profile Alaskans' endorsements — with the exception of former Gov. Sarah Palin.

But on Wednesday, a senior advisor to Trump's campaign, Alan Cobb, arrived in Fairbanks, and Friday morning he emailed convention delegates with three local contacts.

One is David Morgan, a healthcare professional and former city manager of Whittier.

Another is former state senator Jerry Ward. Ward was investigated, though never charged, by the U.S. Department of Justice in connection with his relationship with a private prison advocate, William Weimar, who pleaded guilty in 2007 to making illegal payments to help Ward's Senate campaign in 2004.

The third is Jim Crawford, the Trump campaign's chair in Alaska.

Crawford is a longtime Republican activist from Anchorage who's one of several party members challenging the state's campaign contribution limits in a federal lawsuit. He's also the former owner of a bank, City Mortgage, that was closed by a federal bankruptcy court in 2001.

In an interview Friday, Crawford pitched Trump's candidacy to Alaskans by touting the mogul's refusal to play by conventional political rules.

"In Alaska, we don't care how they do it Outside, right?" Crawford.

Cobb put it differently. "I don't think Alaskans are any different from the rest of the country," he said.

"They're screaming for something different," said Cobb, a political consultant based in Kansas.

Trump's campaign is gaining steam after six consecutive primary wins in Northeast states. There's still a "Stop Trump" movement of Republicans that has attacked the frontrunner's divisive rhetoric and flexible political principles, but high-profile Republicans have been climbing aboard his campaign.

GOP U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is not among them, however. She hasn't endorsed a presidential candidate and said she would wait until after the party's national convention, in July, "to see where we are with our nominee."

"There is clearly a process that is still playing out," Murkowski said in an interview at the convention Friday, citing upcoming Republican primaries in Indiana and California.

Once the national convention is over, Murkowski added: "I have always supported the Republican nominee for president, and I would imagine that this time would be no different."

Sen. Cruz, who's currently second to Trump in the GOP delegate count, cannot clinch the party's presidential nomination even if he wins all the remaining primaries. But he's stayed in the race and hopes to beat Trump at the national Republican convention, where delegates can begin changing their votes if no candidate collects the 1,237 needed to win the nomination on the first ballot.

Cruz's campaign has dispatched its own staffer to Fairbanks. The campaign is trying to ensure his 12 national convention delegates from Alaska are loyal supporters.

"It's not over until the fat lady sings," said Judy Eledge, co-chair of Alaskans for Cruz and the past president of the Anchorage Republican Women's Club.

Others were growing increasingly excited about the prospect of a Trump nomination.

Anand Dubey, who narrowly lost his 2014 campaign for a West Anchorage House seat, was initially a Cruz backer. But he said he's been moving to Trump after seeing him repeatedly attacked. Dubey said it's time for Republicans to embrace a candidate who's won over a huge swath of the party.

"We're dealing with a wave that we don't understand. The Trump tsunami is already here," Dubey said. "If he's a racist, if he's a yahoo, whatever — he has connected to the base."

Dubey, who immigrated to the U.S. from India 18 years ago, said he opposes some of Trump's ideas, like his plan to build a wall across the Mexican border. But he compared the candidate to a "raw diamond" that could be polished by the Republican Party.

Mead Treadwell, a former lieutenant governor, had a similar Trump improvement plan.

"We've got to do a lot of education" of Trump if he becomes the nominee, Treadwell said.

Several of Trump's ideas would hurt Alaska, Treadwell said.

Alaska Republicans support the turnover of federal lands to state control — an idea that Trump opposed in an interview published in January in a hunting and fishing magazine, Field and Stream.

And Alaska also benefits from robust foreign trade of fish and minerals, Treadwell said, which butts up against Trump's protectionist trade ideas.

Trump has "said a million things I wouldn't say," Treadwell said. And he added that some of Trump's pronouncements about women and Muslims were "not great."

But he said he felt similarly "not great" about the Democrats' expected nominee, Hillary Clinton, and her policies as secretary of state, as well as her opposition to Arctic drilling.

"Ultimately, I'll support the party nominee," Treadwell said. "But let's use this period to educate them."

Nearly all Republicans interviewed Friday said they'd vote for Trump if he ends up being the nominee — some more energetically than others.

"Everyone in this group disagrees with everyone else in this group to some extent," said Tuckerman Babcock, one of the candidates in Saturday's selection of state Republican Party chairman. "But the people in this group agree with each other a lot more than (with) someone waving a Hillary Clinton or a Bernie Sanders sign."

The acceptance of Trump, however, wasn't unanimous. Bill Keller, who co-chairs Alaskans for Cruz with Eledge, said he'd "probably write in Ted" if Trump is the Republican nominee.

Keller, who's retired from the U.S. Army and lives in Soldotna, said he thinks a Trump administration would participate in "crony capitalism," making deals and handing out government contracts to "people he likes."

He acknowledged that writing in Cruz, rather than voting for Trump would boost Clinton's chances in the general election.

"But at least we know what we're getting with her. She is a Democrat," Keller said. "So therefore when capitalism fails, it's not going to go down because somebody supposedly conservative was involved in it."

If Trump and Clinton are the two candidates on the general election ballot, he added, "It will go down either way."

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at ADN and Alaska Public Media. He’s reported around the state and loves cross-country skiing.