LEGISLATURE: Incumbents losing several races in Alaska primary election

Published: Aug. 16, 2016 at 6:35 PM AKDT
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Reporting by Austin Baird, Caslon Hatch, Travis Khachatoorian, Dan Carpenter, Kyle Hopkins

Another incumbent Alaska lawmaker appears in danger of losing his job in the state Legislature. Rep. Ben Nageak, D-Barrow, began the day leading primary challenger Dean Westlake by a scant nine votes.

By 2 p.m., Westlake had leaped ahead of the incumbent with a 30 vote lead and all precincts in the district reporting.


With 98 percent of precincts counted in the Tuesday primary election, voters appear to have already ousted incumbents in some legislative races.

Several legislators were losing re-election or election to higher office, including Jim Colver (R-Palmer), Rep. Craig Johnson (R-Anchorage), Rep. Bob Lynn (R-Anchorage), Rep. Lynn Gattis (R-Wasilla) and Rep. Wes Keller (R-Wasilla).

Another, Rep. Ben Nageak (D-Barrow), held a razor-thin lead of nine votes with three precincts left to be counted.

Despite major questions looming over state government, including the prospect of lower Permanent Fund dividends, a possible income tax and other measures proposed to remedy a multi-billion dollar spending gap, few Alaskans showed up at the polls. Turnout stood at about 15 percent of registered voters as of Wednesday morning.

In statewide races, Republicans Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young sailed past primary opponents ahead of the Nov. 8 general election. Murkowski will face Democrat Ray Metcalfe, Young will square off against Steve Lindbeck.

Among the races to watch:

-- When first results started to trickle in, cheers broke out at the GOP watch party at the Lakefront hotel in Anchorage after seeing current House District 9 Republican Rep. Colver trailing opponent George Rauscher. In that Mat-Su race, the party took an official position not to endorse Colver because party leaders say he voted too often with Democrats.

Rauscher was winning by 4 points with all precincts in the district reporting.

-- In the North Slope, Rep. Ben Nageak also faced opposition from his own party, which endorsed opponent Dean Westlake. Nageak's lead dwindled to nine votes with three precincts uncounted.

-- In Eagle River, Republican Rep. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, had a falling out with the GOP House majority caucus since she was first elected in 2012, particularly since she voted against the group-approved operating budget. That got her tossed out of the caucus, and now she faces former legislative staffer and Anchorage School District board member Crystal Kennedy, who has backing from some Republican leaders.

Reinbold led by more than 10 percentage points with all precincts in the district accounted for.

-- Democrat Tom Begich jumped to a sizable lead on opponent Ed Wesley in the race to replace longtime Democratic Sen. Johnny Ellis in Downtown/Mountain View.

Begich said, "The energy that I'll bring and the new approach that I'll bring will echo what's Johnny's done, but actually look at what the post-oil economy needs to look like, how we build a sustainable budget, and how we continue to build b-partisan collaboration out of those things."

-- In the Republican primary for the closely watched Midtown/South Anchorage Senate race, Natasha Von Imhof leaped to a double-digit advantage on IT professional Jeff Landfield and Rep. Craig Johnson. The vacant seat was previously held by Republican Lesil McGuire.

"We are very cautiously optimistic but then night is still young," said Von Imhof at her watch party downtown.

Von Imhof raised $150,000, spending more money during the primary than either of her two opponents.

"Incumbents generally win about 85 percent of the time so it takes a lot of time, a lot of name recognition, a lot of going door to door and mailers and TV and radio and a very comprehensive campaign to get the word and name out," she said.

-- The fight to replace outgoing Sen. Bill Stoltze in the Mat-Su was closer. Rep. Shelley Hughes (48% of the vote) led fellow Republican Adam Crum (42%). Steve St. Clair trailed with just 10 percent of the vote.


For all the talk about how much Alaskans are concerned about government spending reductions and the possibility of paying state taxes or seeing a smaller Permanent Fund dividend check, soon we will see how many took to the polls today to steer the future of the state.

Polls closed at 8 p.m.

In 2012, with little standing out on the primary ballot, just 25.3 percent of registered voters cast a ballot. The highest turnout in a summer primary in the past decade was 2008, when 40.6 percent of registered voters showed up. That year, Rep. Don Young faced the closest race of his career, narrowly defeating Sean Parnell, and a contentious ballot measure formed in protest of the Pebble Mine project was also up for a vote.

While the general election -- featuring the presidential race -- will draw a larger crowd, several contests that could change the power structure of the Legislature will be decided tonight:

- Six legislative races will be decided outright this evening, as there are only candidates from one party running. Among them are two contests that prompted the Alaska Democratic Party to take the unusual step of endorsing a candidate other than the Democratic incumbent. Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, is opposed by Zach Fansler, and Rep. Ben Nageak, D-Barrow, faces Dean Westlake. Both incumbents caucus with the 26-member GOP majority. If the challengers win in those races, it could determine who controls the House.

- Rep. Jim Colver, R-Palmer, also faces the rare distinction of his own party trying to remove him from power in a primary. The Alaska GOP turned against Colver and in favor of his opponent, George Rauscher, in part because the incumbent sided with Democrats on key budget legislation, in particular, oil and gas tax credit reform.

- There are a handful of heated races that will decide who replaces retiring lawmakers, maybe none more contentious than the seat vacated by Sen. Lesil McGuire, a Republican whose district spans Midtown and South Anchorage. Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, IT professional Jeff Landfield, and nonprofit leader Natasha Von Imhof are running for the seat. Longtime political consultant Tom Begich and Army veteran and retired tax professional Ed Wesley are vying to replace Sen. Johnny Ellis, a Democrat who has represented Downtown and Mountain View for decades. GOP Rep. Shelley Hughes, Adam Crum, and Steve St. Clair are trying for the seat vacated by Sen. Bill Stoltze, a district that stretches across the Mat-Su Valley.

- Rep. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, had a falling out with the GOP House majority caucus since she was first elected in 2012, particularly since she voted against the group approved operating budget. That got her tossed out of the caucus, and now she faces former legislative staffer and Anchorage School District board member Crystal Kennedy, who has backing from some Republican leaders.

Beyond legislative races, voters will formally nominate candidates for Congress.

U.S. Rep. Don Young, a Republican, faces no serious primary opposition. The 83-year-old's likely general election opponent, Democrat Steve Lindbeck, a former newspaper editor and media executive, also faces little in opposition on Tuesday.

While U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski's lost the GOP primary six years ago to tea party upstart Joe Miller, this time around she faces little serious primary opposition. Her real test is in November, when she will face either professor Edgar Blatchford or former lawmaker Ray Metcalfe, the Democratic candidates. Margaret Stock, an attorney and MacArthur Fellowship winner, is also running as an independent.