Taxes, Tea Party drive Republican races
The political storm that is gathering around the governor’s proposal to reduce oil industry taxes, and the refusal of the Senate coalition to do so, is on course to become a real tempest in the state’s primary and general elections.
Also, Tea Party Republicans are causing intra-party strife. The Alaska Republican party went through chaos this spring in two conventions, under assault by Tea Party conservatives and supporters of presidential candidate Ron Paul. Paul’s supporters wanted to take over and change party rules, elect a chair that could take control immediately, thereby cornering Alaska’s Republican delegate votes to the Republican National Convention for Paul.
The dissident group lacked the votes needed for immediate rules changes, but it did elect a new chair, the political unknown Russ Millett. Current Republican Party Chair Randy Ruedrich remains in charge until February.
In the brewing storm over Gov. Sea Parnell’s effort to reduce oil taxes, the governor now says he will openly campaign against members of the 16-member, Senate Bipartisan Working Group coalition who thwarted his changes. The coalition is made up of 10 Democrats and six Republicans.
Also, Republican House Speaker Mike Chenault of Nikiski was in Fairbanks recently, and in attack mode against the Senate coalition. Clearly, Republicans have a civil war under way in this election, both within the party and among its House and Senate members as Chenault’s Republican-led Majority in the House strongly backed Parnell’s proposals to reduce oil taxes.
Now, an old Alaska advocacy group, “Backbone,” a bipartisan group of politically influential older Alaskans, was reborn, opposing the governor’s tax reductions and supporting the Senate coalition. It is unclear whether Backbone can bring any money in to help the Senate coalition members. The backing is more important symbolically.
There is also question whether oil companies will take a direct role in this coming brawl. The die on this appears to be cast, however. The presidents of BP Exploration Alaska and ConocoPhillips Alaska have already personally hosted fund-raising events for candidates running against members of the Senate coalition. The personal involvement of the Alaska CEOS is seen as an important signal.
Overall, Republicans remain in fairly good shape politically, but the issue of the coalition’s survival is another question, as is the future of the oil tax issue.
An anchor of stability for Republicans is party Chair Randy Ruedrich. He is known as a tough guy who can ruffle people’s feathers, but who has brought Republicans through past times of crisis. The bottom line is he is good at what he does, being “in charge,” raising money, and electing Republicans.
We had opportunity to sit down and talk with Ruedrich and he was, as usual, “straight at you.” He showed no signs of wasting time on negative actions against the Tea-Party/Ron Paul “raiders,” nor did he express angst about the coalition.
“My goal is one thing, and always has been,” he said, “and that’s to elect more Republicans.
“Another misunderstanding is that the party has never given a lot of money to those already elected. We expect them to be able to take care of themselves. What we do is help new candidates.”
We gathered from this that Ruedrich has control of the party money. He can raise money; he can straight to candidates or direct Republican candidates to the “givers.” And, of course, he can also cooperate with the political action groups, or PACs.
Ruedrich is perhaps the strongest Alaska party chair ever, either Democrat or Republican.
He is a “cash asset” for the Republican Party. Election politics is about money, because money is the tool by which candidates reach their electorate. However, there exists the matter of trust between those who give and those for whom they raise money. Ruedrich has the trust of the givers.
Ruedrich is a petroleum engineer. He has worked on three continents and is part of the Alaska community of traditional givers. He’s a familiar face in business circles, the petroleum support industry, contractors, suppliers, but also the non-petroleum circle, people who build public facilities, roads, bridges, airfields, and ports.
The oil tax issue is headed for a major political brawl, perhaps becoming a vintage “Alaska v. Outside interests” fight. In these highly public fights money may not really make the difference, given that the lesser-funded side can usually muster some minimum threshold of financing and present itself to voters sympathetic to underdogs as a “David and Goliath” struggle.
The bottom line in the war against the Senate coalition is the count of coalition “safe seats.”
We see at least nine.
Two are easy calls: Senate Finance Co-Chair Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, is the lone unopposed Senate candidate. Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, is the only member of the legislature not up for reelection in 2012.
One member of the coalition will survive a Southeast Senate race between incumbents Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, and Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, who are both members of the coalition and were pitted against each other by redistricting.
From there, the other six safe seats we see include Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak; Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome; Sen. Donny Ellis, D-Anchorage; Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage; Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, and Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage.
The minority Senate seats outside the coalition are Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla; Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River/Palmer area; Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole; and Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage/North Kenai.
There are two open and new Senate districts with no incumbent. One is in Fairbanks, where former Sen. Ralph Seekins and past Commissioner of Labor Click Bishop face each other in the Republican primary.
The other is in Anchorage where House Rep. Berta Gardner, the Democrat, will face either School Board Member Don Smith or Clint Hess, both Republicans, in November.
Senate coalition seats that appear in contest are: Sen. Linda Menard, R-Mat-Su, who is challenged by School Board Member Mike Dunleavy in the primary; and in Fairbanks, where Democrat Sen. Joe Thomas, a coalition member, will face Republican Sen. John Coghill (who was “redistricted” into same district with Thomas), and who is one of the four senators who are not part of the coalition.
Also in Fairbanks, Sen. Joe Paskvan, D-Fairbanks, a coalition member, faces a general election challenge by former Sen. Pete Kelly, the Republican.
In Anchorage, Democrat Sen. Bill Wielechowski, is challenged by Republican former House member Bob Roses.
Democrat Sen. Hollis French, like Wielechowski a vocal critic of Parnell’s oil tax reform, will face either Bob Bell or Liz Vazquez in November.
Democrat Sen. Bettye Davis faces a primary challenge by former State Rep. Harry Crawford, with the winner facing Republican Rep. Anna Fairclough in November.
Two “swing” races to watch are the Thomas v. Coghill Senate contest in Fairbanks and the Anchorage Senate race in which Anna Fairclough, a respected Republican, will face either incumbent Davis or Harry Crawford, both respected Democrats.
Republicans hoping to end the coalition are hoping to pick up more than 10 seats, but even a Senate with 11 or even 12 Republicans can still be unstable, as Democrats can “pick off” Republican senators to vote on key issues (the vice versa works, too).
Also, a Republican Senate is likely to draw some Democrats as members of the Majority as has happened in the House.
To really gain control — that is to run the Senate without any Democrats — the Republicans need a majority of at least 13. The question is, do they want to? Our bet is that a bipartisan coalition, in some form, will remain.
Mike Bradner is publisher of the Alaska Legislative Digest and is a former Speaker of the House.