State Watch

Republicans spend big in Alaska — against Republicans

Republicans spend big in Alaska — against Republicans

Alaska voters ousted five members of the state House of Representatives in Republican primaries last month after national groups dropped about $200,000 in spending against several incumbents from their own party.

The outside spending from established Republican groups against their own incumbents would be unusual in most states. But nothing is unusual in Alaska’s unique brand of politics, in a state where coalitions have controlled either the House or Senate for the majority of the past decade and where voters elected an independent governor in 2014.

The 2018 midterm elections handed Republicans a clear majority in both the state Senate, where they control 13 of 20 seats, and the state House, where they won 23 of 40 seats.

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But an internecine feud, spurred in part by deep budget cuts proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R), caused a leadership logjam that dragged on for more than a month, grinding the legislature to a halt as backroom negotiations stalled. Democrats eventually peeled off enough votes to elect state Rep. Bryce Edgmon, a Democrat-turned-independent, as Speaker, with the support of eight Republicans.

Enter the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) and GOPAC, a group that recruits, trains and supports state legislative candidates. Together, the two national committees used Alaska-based groups with innocuous-sounding names to spend heavily against several Republican members of the coalition government.

“We stand with the majority of the House Republicans who want to elect a Republican speaker,” David Avella, who runs GOPAC, told The Hill. “We don’t play very often in primaries. We tend to stay out of those. But Alaska presented a situation where we were part of building a Republican majority only to have Republicans team up with Democrats.”

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The RSLC spent more than $175,000 against the wayward Republicans, campaign finance filings show.

After the final votes from the Aug. 18 primary were tallied on Monday, three Republicans who were initially a part of the coalition that elected Edgmon — state Reps. Gabrielle LeDoux, Chuck Kopp and Jennifer Johnston — had lost their primaries. A fourth, Tammie Wilson, resigned in January. A fifth, Gary Knopp, was killed in a plane crash in July.

Two other Republicans who had not been a part of the minority, Mark Neuman and Sharon Jackson, also lost their bids for renomination. Two Republican state senators, John Coghill and Cathy Giessel, the Senate president, also lost to challengers.

But one target of national Republicans, state Rep. David Eastman, survived. Eastman had drawn ire for insisting on a purity test for membership in the Republican conference, a bridge too far for some members who ended up joining the coalition.

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Spending $170,000 may not be much in the grand scheme of ever-more-expensive American politics. But Republican primaries in a tiny electorate like Alaska can hinge on a few hundred votes; fewer than 1,000 Republicans voted in LeDoux’s primary, in which she won just 305 votes. Eastman won his bid for renomination by just 169 votes, according to the latest tally.

The results almost certainly mean the end of the coalition, a Republican Speaker next year and a smoother path for Dunleavy’s agenda in 2021 — assuming Democrats do not ride a massive wave back to the majority in November.

“We want to finish the job,” Avella said.