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Incumbents feel sting of voters in Alaska primary election

A small number of voters in Tuesday's primary election dispatched as many as six incumbents from the Alaska Legislature, instead choosing an ideologically and geographically diverse set of challengers to tackle the state's massive budget deficit.

A seventh close race involving an incumbent, in the Arctic, had not been decided Wednesday morning.

"I think we pretty clearly saw an anti-incumbent wave across the state," Taylor Bickford, a political consultant, said in a phone interview. "It was a pretty bad night for incumbents across the board, and a number of races were closer than they should have been."

With all precincts reporting in their districts, two Republican House members seeking to move up to the Senate, Lynn Gattis of Wasilla and Craig Johnson of Anchorage, lost to opponents with municipal political experience. Turnout was reported at a little over 15 percent, though that figure could creep upward as the last votes were counted.

With all but a few questioned and absentee ballots still out, Wasilla City Councilman David Wilson beat Gattis by 148 votes, 52 percent to 48 percent, while former Anchorage School Board member Natasha von Imhof had 48 percent to Johnson's 30 percent, and a third GOP candidate, Jeff Landfield, had 23 percent.

"A lot of Republican old guard discounted me and wrote me off — 'Lynn's going to blow David out of the water, doesn't have snowball's chance in hell' — things like that," Wilson said in a phone interview late Tuesday. "I think a lot of folks just wanted more from their legislators."

Several other House members appeared likely to lose their re-election bids, toppled by challengers supported by both the state Republican and Democratic parties, as well as unions and business groups.

In the sprawling House District 9, which stretches across 400 miles of highway from Sutton to Delta Junction to Valdez, a Republican incumbent opposed by his own party went down to defeat in one of the most closely watched races of the primary season.

George Rauscher, a 59-year-old Sutton contractor with no political experience but the support of the Alaska Republican Party, beat Hatcher Pass surveyor and House freshman Jim Colver by 95 votes in the hotly contested race to represent District 9, with all 11 precincts reporting.

Rauscher said he wasn't surprised with the results, based on the recognition he got going door-to-door.

"The people this year, they had a big voice," he said in a phone interview.

In District 38 in Southwest Alaska, centered in the hub community of Bethel, Democratic Rep. Bob Herron appeared to have lost to challenger Zach Fansler, who had the support of the state Democratic party, 43.8 percent to 56.2 percent. That spread equated to 234 votes, with two of 31 precincts still to report.

In a campaign heavy on boat and plane travel — and many bowls of akutaq, or "Eskimo ice cream," during door-knocking — Fansler, 37, said he would work to form a bipartisan coalition that would address Alaska's state budget crisis.

Herron, 65, pointed to his experience as a veteran lawmaker, but he was targeted for his leadership role in the Republican-led caucus that rules the House. Fansler raised about $40,000 compared to $30,000 for Herron, half of which was his own money put into the campaign.

Maria Gutleben, a teacher in the Lower Kuskokwim School District, said she found Fansler more trustworthy and objected to Herron's position in a Republican-led caucus that failed to come up with a budget fix.

"Maybe some new blood will help," Gutleben said.

Other voters interviewed Tuesday also said their choices were fueled by frustration with the Legislature's inability earlier this year to agree how to fix Alaska's multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

Scott Curry, a 64-year-old dietary manager from South Anchorage, said he wanted to give von Imhof a chance at disrupting what he described as the Legislature's dysfunction.

"I'm sick and tired of the crap," Curry said. Von Imhof, he added, "hasn't been there — I'd like to see somebody else get in there and try."

Other incumbents who lost their re-election bids included Wasilla's Wes Keller, a conservative fixture in the House. He lost to a relative Valley political newcomer in House District 10, 33 percent to 46 percent in his four-way Republican primary. Wasilla firefighter David Eastman, a former military police officer, capitalized on Keller's lengthy time in the Legislature amid rising public frustration with a lack of action to close the budget gap.

Eastman, 35, accused Keller, who's been in the Legislature since 2007, of voting for a series of "unsustainable budgets" and framed him as part of the problem in Juneau.

"The message was that we weren't getting enough done," a surprised Keller said late Tuesday night. "He wants to get more done. Evidently that resonated with the voters."

Eastman will face another firefighter in the general election: Houston's Christian Hartley, the only Democrat in the House race.

In Anchorage, former Assembly member Chris Birch beat seven-term incumbent Republican Rep. Bob Lynn of South Anchorage, 59 percent to 41 percent, with all precincts counted.

In the Democratic primary for the Arctic's House District 40, Rep. Ben Nageak held a nine-vote lead over challenger Dean Westlake from Kotzebue, with three villages still to be counted.

The anti-incumbent wave only splashed so far, however: Other incumbents who faced energetic, well-funded challengers appeared headed for re-election.

On the Kenai Peninsula, Homer Republican Rep. Paul Seaton, with 48 percent of the vote, succeeded with a big lead over opponents John Cox and Beth Wythe.

Wythe, the mayor of Homer, benefited from a $35,000 independent spending campaign on her behalf by a business-backed group, but she drew just 24 percent — four points fewer than Cox.

In Eagle River, Republican Rep. Lora Reinbold won by 246 votes over challenger Crystal Kennedy, a former Anchorage School Board member who picked up support from several GOP elected officials in the final days of her campaign.

Rep. Shelley Hughes beat business owner Adam Crum in the contest to represent Palmer and Chugiak in the State Senate, 48 percent to 42 percent.

Hughes served two terms in the House before she shifted her attention to the Senate seat vacated by conservative stalwart Bill Stoltze, who stepped down for health reasons.

Steve St. Clair, a Tea Party activist and retired military police officer, won about 10 percent. Analysts had predicted he and Crum could split votes, giving Hughes the win.

And in another South Anchorage House race, Jennifer Johnston, who served nine years on the Anchorage Assembly, took 57 percent of the vote compared to 43 percent for Ross Bieling, a medical entrepreneur who put $95,000 of his own money into his campaign.

Here are the returns with most the vote counted in contested districts:

Senate District D — Greater Wasilla/Big Lake/Point Mackenzie

Republicans: David Wilson, 52.4 percent; and Lynn Gattis, 47.6 (all precincts).

Senate District F — Chugiak/Gateway

Republicans: Shelley Hughes, 48.1 percent; Adam Crum, 41.5 percent; Steve St. Clair, 10.4 percent (all precincts).

Senate District J — Mountain View/Downtown Anchorage

Democrats: Tom Begich, 62.6 percent; Ed Wesley, 37.6 percent (all precincts).

Senate District L — Taku/Oceanview

Republicans: Natasha von Imhof, 47.6 percent; Craig Johnson, 29.7 percent; and Jeff Landfield, 22.7 percent (all precincts).

Democrats: Forrest McDonald, 64 percent, and Roselynn Cacy 36 percent (all precincts).

House District 6 — Eielson/Denali/Upper Yukon/Border

Republicans: Dave Talerico, 60.2 percent, and Ryan Smith, 39.8 percent (all precincts).

House District 7 — Greater Wasilla

Republicans: Colleen Sullivan-Leonard, 58.1 percent, and Brandon Montano, 41.9 percent (all precincts).

House District 8 — Big Lake/Point Mackenzie

Republicans: Mark Neuman, 63.5 percent, and Mike Alexander, 36.6 percent (all precincts).

House District 9 — Richardson Highway/East Mat-Su

Republicans: Jim Colver, 48 percent, and George Rauscher, 52 percent (all precincts).

House District 10 — Rural Mat-Su

Republicans: Wes Keller, 33.4 percent; David Eastman, 46.4 percent; Steve Menard, 15.7 percent; and Andrew Wright, 4.6 percent (all precincts).

House District 11 — Greater Palmer

Republicans: Delena Johnson, 55.4 percent; and Richard Best, 44.6 percent (all precincts).

House District 13 — Fort Richardson/North Eagle River

Republicans: Dan Saddler, 72.7 percent; and Myranda Walso, 27.3 percent (all precincts).

House District 14 — Eagle River/Chugach State Park

Republicans: Lora Reinbold, 55 percent; and Crystal Kennedy, 45 percent (all precincts).

House District 16 — College Gate

Republicans: Don Hadley, 65.8 percent, and Lisa Vaught 34.2 percent (all precincts).

House District 22 — Sand Lake

Republicans: Liz Vazquez, 62.4 percent, and David Nees, 37.6 percent (all precincts).

House District 26 — Huffman

Republicans: Bob Lynn, 41.1 percent; and Chris Birch, 58.9 percent (all precincts).

House District 27 — Basher

Republicans: Lance Pruitt, 72.8 percent; and John Zebutis, 27.1 percent (all precincts).

House District 28 — South Anchorage

Republicans: Jennifer Johnston, 57.3 percent, and Ross Bieling, 42.7 percent (all precincts).

House District 30 — Kenai/Soldotna

Republicans: Gary Knopp, 42.6 percent; Rick Koch, 28.6 percent; Keith Baxter, 15.6 percent; and Kelly Wolf, 13.2 percent (all precincts).

House District 31 — Homer/South Kenai

Republicans: Paul Seaton, 46.7 percent; John "Bear" Cox, 28.7 percent; and Beth Wythe, 24.8 percent (all precincts).

House District 38 — Lower Kuskokwim

Democrats: Zach Fansler, 56.2 percent; and Bob Herron, 43.8 percent.

House District 40 — Arctic

Democrats: Ben Nageak, 50.3 percent; and Dean Westlake, 49.7 percent

Alaska Dispatch News reporters Lisa Demer and Zaz Hollander contributed to this report. 

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