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News / Politics

Alaska’s candidate lists for legislative and congressional races are set after Saturday’s deadline

By Iris Samuels, , Anchorage Daily News, Alaska (TNS),
Published: June 2, 2024, 2:15pm

The field of candidates for Alaska’s U.S House and state legislative elections later this year is finalized, with several open races that could prove consequential for the future of state policy.

Twelve candidates have filed for Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat, headlined by incumbent Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola, and Republican challengers Nick Begich and Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom.

All 40 of Alaska’s House seats and half of Alaska’s 20 Senate seats are up for election in November. Last-minute shuffling paved the way for several open races, including one Senate seat and six House seats where the incumbents are not seeking reelection.

The deadline for candidates to file was 5 p.m. Saturday.

Candidates have until the end of the month to drop out of the races before ballots are finalized and printed. Alaska’s Aug. 20 primary election will be held under a voting method adopted in 2020 and first used in 2022. The candidates will face each other in open, nonpartisan primary elections, and the top four vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, will advance to the November general election.

Until 2022, closed primary races often determined the outcomes of legislative races. But the new system has allowed for many races in which multiple candidates from the same party are likely to face off in the general election.

It also means that very few candidates will be eliminated in the August election, since only two Senate races and one House race have more than four candidates. Still, the primary races could prove pivotal — signaling both to voters and to the candidates themselves which contenders have the lead heading into the November election.

Unopposed and departing members

Eight incumbents in Alaska’s legislative races are set to run for reelection unopposed. They include Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau; Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin; Rep. Rebecca Himschoot, I-Sitka; Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau; Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage; Rep. Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River; Rep. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer, and Rep. Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla.

Other incumbents are not seeking reelection, including Rep. Jennie Armstrong, D-Anchorage; Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan; Rep. Laddie Shaw, R-Anchorage; and Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, who bowed out of the race earlier this week, hinting at a possible run for governor in 2026.

GOP Reps. Ben Carpenter of Nikiski, Mike Cronk of Tok, and Tom McKay of Anchorage are all vacating their House seats to run for Senate.

Several of those open seats will be ones to watch in November. In the House, control of the chamber is on the line. Republicans currently hold 22 of 40 House seats. One Republican, Rep. David Eastman of Wasilla, has been booted from the predominantly Republican caucus due to his divisive tactics. Another Republican, Rep. Louise Stutes of Kodiak, in recent years has joined in caucuses composed primarily of Democrats and independents.

To gain control of the House, Republicans were joined last year by three non-GOP members of the Bush Caucus, which represents rural Alaska. But several key races could give the GOP the possibility of forming a majority outright.

One of those is Eastman’s race, where he will face a challenge from fellow Republican Jubilee Underwood, a school board member who has promised to work collaboratively with conservative GOP legislators.

The coalition of Democrats and independents in the House — which is currently in the minority — is hoping to grow its ranks by two or more seats, which would increase the possibility of establishing a bipartisan majority when the Legislature reconvenes in 2025.

They are eyEing a seat currently held by Rep. Thomas Baker of Kotzebue, who was appointed to the seat by Gov. Mike Dunleavy last year after his predecessor was elected borough mayor. Two Democrats are challenging Baker, who switched his party affiliation from Republican to undeclared the day after the recent legislative session ended.

Independents are also eyeing seats currently held by Homer Republican Rep. Sarah Vance and Anchorage Republican Rep. Craig Johnson. Both are longtime lawmakers who are seen as vulnerable in moderate districts due to their track record on education funding and other key issues.

Ketchikan House seat

Ortiz’s departure from the House set the stage for a race between two current members of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly. Republican Jeremy Bynum announced his run earlier this year after running against Ortiz in 2022. Nonpartisan candidate Grant EchoHawk jumped into the race after Ortiz’s departure.

Ortiz repeatedly fended off Republican challenges during his tenure, but with his absence, the seat could be a possible pick-up for the Republican caucus.

“I have true belief in our Republican principles,” Bynum said in an interview on Friday. “I’m going to do what’s in the best interests of District 1, and I’m hoping that involves Republicans getting around a bigger group of people to get things done.”

EchoHawk, who was raised in Metlakatla, said he was more aligned with Ortiz’s bipartisan approach.

“I’m going to basically pick up the torch where Ortiz left it and continue to run that down,” said EchoHawk, pointing specifically to education funding as an area where they aligned.

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“The folks that are voting no, the folks that are vetoing it, the folks are focusing on other priorities and initiatives — they’re coming from a very specific end of the political spectrum,” said EchoHawk. “That’s going to be a big difference. We all say that school funding is important, but at the end of the day, it’s how you vote.”

Agnes Moran also entered the race on Saturday as an independent candidate. Moran, a former borough assembly member, previously ran for the Legislature as a Republican.

South and West Anchorage House seats

Democrats had widely seen the House seat held by McKay as a possible pickup after Democrat Denny Wells came within a handful of votes of beating McKay in 2022.

But McKay’s decision to run for Senate made room for Republican former lawmaker Mia Costello to jump in the race. She will face Wells, who has been campaigning for months. The race also includes serial candidate Dustin Darden, who is running as a Democrat after previously joining the Alaska Independence Party.

Shaw’s departure from a South Anchorage seat that also covers Girdwood and Whittier led four candidates to enter the open race. They include Republican Lucy Bauer, owner of several assisted living facilities in Anchorage; Republican Lee Ellis, a craft beer maker and business owner; Republican Brandy Pennington, a real estate broker; and nonpartisan Ky Holland, an entrepreneur.

Bauer is a major GOP donor who has given more than $100,000 to various Republican candidates and causes since 2022, including nearly $60,000 to Dunleavy’s 2022 campaign for governor. Bauer, who is running for elected office for the first time, owns multiple assisted living facilities in Anchorage and said her professional experiences “could be very pertinent” in the Legislature.

Both Ellis and Pennington registered as Republicans shortly before filing for office and touted their experience as business owners and operators.

“I think it’s important to at least give people an idea of where you’re coming from prior to running for office,” Ellis said.

“It’s not about a party for me. It’s about the people that I’m serving,” said Pennington, describing herself as “a centrist.”

Interior House seat

Cronk’s Senate run has made way for what could be a hotly contested six-candidate House run, including Libertarian candidate James Fields; Democrat Brandon Kowalski, a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks; and Republican candidates Rebecca Schwanke, Pamela Goode, Cole Snodgrass and Dana Mock.

Fields said he had already built contacts with legislators and the governor during his time on the state board of education. Fields was reconfirmed to his board seat by the Legislature last year in a 36-21 vote. The Democrats and independents who opposed his confirmation cited his support for a resolution banning transgender girls from competing on girls’ sports teams.

“They may have voted against me, but I know a lot of those people, and we can still work together,” Fields said Saturday.

Fields, who has been closely aligned with Dunleavy’s agenda on education policy, said he considers himself “a conservative libertarian.”

“I probably would side more toward a conservative Republican or a liberal Republican,” said Fields.

Mock, of Fort Greely, is president-elect of the Association of Alaska School Boards. He said that after Cronk bowed out of the race, he received a call from someone urging him to enter the race.

The timing was fortuitous. Days earlier, Mock said he had cracked open a fortune cookie that read something along the lines of, “You will get more involved in politics.”

Earlier this year, Mock had traveled to Juneau to advocate for increasing the Base Student Allocation. When Dunleavy vetoed a bill that would have permanently increased the per-student education funding formula — and Cronk joined many House Republicans in voting against overriding that veto — Mock said he was “disappointed” by lawmakers’ inability to bring the funding boost to the finish line.

“What we really need — and I thought we had it this year — (is) a group that would come together and really work to get the BSA increase implemented and pushed across. I was very disappointed that we didn’t get to where we were hoping to get. But I’m still very optimistic that we can eventually get there and get what we need in education funding,” Mock said.

The role of education funding

That veto of Senate Bill 140, which would have permanently increased state spending on education by $175 million per year, is set to play a key role in the coming election season. It was cited by numerous candidates, including some of those challenging sitting lawmakers, in their decision to enter the race.

Rep. Craig Johnson, an Anchorage Republican who was key in backing Dunleavy’s education policy, picked up two challengers before the filing deadline, including Republican former Rep. Chuck Kopp.

Nonpartisan candidate Greg Magee said in a text message that he decided to enter the “mainly because the incumbent, Craig Johnson, voted no to override the governor’s veto of SB 140 and he didn’t support moving SB 88 from Committee,” referring to a bill that would have overhauled the state’s public pension system.

Shortly before the 5 p.m. filing deadline on Saturday, nonpartisan candidate Nick Moe walked into the Anchorage Division of Elections office to file his candidacy for House District 16. Until that point, only Democrat Carolyn Hall had filed to run. Hall had also cited education funding as one of her top priorities.

“I’ve never been so disappointed in Juneau as I was the moment the Legislature didn’t overturn the education funding (veto),” said Moe, a nonpartisan candidate who has previously worked as a legislative staffer. “There’s a point where we can advocate, but if it’s to a wall, then it’s really not helping.”

U.S. House candidates

Alaska’s lone U.S. House race is expected to draw massive spending from outside groups. Democrats see Peltola as key to wresting back control of the chamber in 2024 — and Republicans see a path to bring the seat back into the red column as part of their quest to expand their razor-thin majority.

Peltola first won the seat in a special election held in August 2022, following the sudden death earlier that year of longtime Rep. Don Young, a Republican who held the seat for nearly 50 years.

Both Begich and Dahlstrom are campaigning to return the seat to Republican control by highlighting issues popular among GOP voters, including border security. Begich lost to Peltola twice in 2022 — both in the special election and in the regular November election. Dahlstrom has the backing of many mainstream Republicans, including House Speaker Mike Johnson and Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy. But Begich is supported by many in Alaska’s Republican establishment.

Under Alaska’s open primary and ranked choice general election system, four of the top vote-getters in the August primary are set to advance to the November general election.

That means that Peltola, Begich and Dahlstrom are all likely to advance to the general election, but it remains unclear who might join them as the fourth candidate on the November ballot.

A total of 12 candidates have registered to run for the seat. Four of them reported living outside Alaska. A candidate must be an inhabitant of the state from which elected, but candidates can satisfy the requirement by moving to Alaska before taking office.

Candidates include David Ambrose, a resident of Fairbanks who in March filed a federal lawsuit against former President Donald Trump, among others, alleging that Ambrose had been deprived of “the right not to be attacked with spacetime winds in accordance with the treason provisions in the Constitution.” Ambrose requested to be compensated with $750 billion “in gold,” among other things. The complaint was promptly dismissed. Ambrose is running as a nonpartisan candidate.

Gerald Heikes, a Republican from Palmer, has registered to run for the U.S. House seat. Heikes previously ran against Young in the 2020 GOP primary, garnering nearly 6% of the vote, and in 2016, garnering 5% of the vote. He also ran against Gov. Mike Dunleavy in the 2018 GOP gubernatorial primary, garnering less than 1% of the vote, and against Gov. Sean Parnell in the 2014 Republican primary, garnering over 3% of the vote.

Lady Donna Dutchess, an Anchorage resident who ran for Alaska’s House seat in 2022, has declared her intent to run again as a nonpartisan candidate. Dutchess received 270 votes — for less than 0.15% of the total — in the August 2022 primary.

John Howe Wayne, a member of the Alaska Independence Party from Fairbanks, has also registered to run. He previously ran in 2022 for governor and U.S. House, telling the Daily News that he opposed taxation and did not believe that climate change was the result of human actions.

Matthew Salisbury, a Palmer Republican, has also declared his intention to run.

Eric Hafner, a Democrat who is serving a 20-year sentence for making false bomb threats to local and state government offices, has registered to run for Alaska’s U.S. House seat after previously running unsuccessfully for seats in Hawaii and Oregon in 2016 and 2018.

Richard Grayson, who resides in Arizona, has declared he plans to run as a member of the No Labels Party. He previously ran unsuccessfully for congressional seats in Arizona.

Samuel Claesson, who resides in Iowa, is running as a nonpartisan candidate.

Richard “Von” Mayers, who reported a Chicago address, also registered to run as a nonpartisan candidate.