Internal Republican divisions complicate Alaska House and Senate leadership

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The Senate chambers are seen at the Alaska State Capitol Friday, May 13, 2022 in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Republicans will almost certainly win a majority of the Alaska Legislature’s 60 seats.

That they control the State House and the Senate will depend on who Republicans win.

This year, as has been the case for much of the past decade, the party‘s candidates are divided. There are many differences, but they tend to fall into two groups:

  • Group members are avoiding compromise as they pursue conservative positions on social issues and seek a bigger Permanent Fund dividend than any in recent years.
  • Members of the second group say working with Democrats and Independents is essential to improving government, and they prioritize Permanent Fund spending limits, low (or no) taxes, and keeping or to increased spending on services and construction, although this results in a smaller dividend.

“There have always been moderates in the Republican ranks who just want to work and get ahead,” said Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks. “And then there was a kind of ultra-conservative wing that has a kind of blood oath before going down (to Juneau).”

House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, puts it more simply: “Well, either you have your moderate Republicans or you have your far-right Republicans. It’s just quite simple.

The divide can be seen in legislative races across the state, but is also visible in the statewide race for the U.S. Senate. There, the Republican Party backed insurgent Republican Kelly Tshibaka, but some voters and local party officials backed Republican incumbent Lisa Murkowski.

But in recent years, the divide has been particularly significant in the state House and state Senate, affecting who controls those bodies.

Home control

Since 2017, the State House has been controlled by a coalition that includes Democrats, independents and a few moderate Republicans.

Republicans won House majorities in 2018 and 2020, but both times failed to consolidate into a majority. After a month of deadlock in both 2019 and 2021, a handful of Republicans have joined independents and Democrats in pursuing the coalition.

This time, the path will be more difficult. One of the two coalition Republicans, Eagle River Representative Kelly Merrick, is running for the Senate and will almost certainly be replaced by Jamie Allard, a staunch supporter of a Republican-led majority.

After Election Day, Republican candidates have led 21 of 40 House races, and they have the potential to earn more leads as additional votes are counted and ranked choice races are sorted.

The last remaining Republican coalition is Stutes, who said before the election that she was uncertain whether to continue as a member.

“I don’t think anyone is going to know anything until the fat lady sings,” Stutes said.

Will Stapp is a Republican from Fairbanks and the winner — based on Election Day results — of the race to replace incumbent Rep. Steve Thompson.

“I would probably say it seems to most people I’ve spoken to that you could be looking at a coalition in the Senate, and probably a Republican majority of 23 in the House,” Stapp said. “That’s what I assume. But, you know, voters have a right to say, right?”

The 2018 and 2020 election results created a leadership-level deadlock in the House as Republicans repeatedly tried and failed to create a majority caucus.

These deadlocks lasted for a month after the start of the opening legislative session and only ended when some Republicans joined the predominantly Democratic coalition.

This time around, the candidates say that if Republicans hold only a slim majority in the House, internal divisions could create a new deadlock in early 2023.

It is not yet clear if this will happen.

RELATED: Republicans lead majority of Alaska House seats, with potential for more

Senate control

The situation in the Senate is clearer, in part because most races have definite winners. As of Wednesday morning, Democrats led nine of 20 Senate seats. If these tracks are maintained, the party would win two seats in the pre-election ranking.

That leaves Republicans with 11 seats, the narrowest majority possible, but for the past few years Senate Republicans have been split over budget issues, and the Senate has passed a budget only because Democrats voted in favour. of a document drafted by moderate Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee.

“We’ve kind of seen the party structure, to some degree, break down here,” said Sen. Robert Myers, R-North Pole.

On Wednesday, Democratic senators and senators-elect gathered in Anchorage for a strategy session designed, in part, to determine whether it will be possible to work with these moderate Republicans and others.

Unusually, Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, and Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, were in Anchorage for Election Day and remained in the city afterward. Both men are believed to be likely members of a majority coalition. Stevens served as Senate president from 2009 to 2013, the last time a coalition majority existed in the chamber.

Stevens said it was “premature at this point” to say if a coalition would form, but said “it is possible that within a week” Alaskans will have an answer to the question of the direction of the Senate.

Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, was among lawmakers who flew to Anchorage and said three things were needed for a deal in the Legislative Assembly — alignment on politics, policies and personalities.

“The definition of coalition is different in people’s minds,” he said.

Sen. James Kaufman, R-Anchorage, is likely the winner of the race to replace Republican Sen. Josh Revak, R-Anchorage, and said senators and senators-elect exchanged phone calls and text messages.

“I’m in conversation, but I’m not really ready to say too much,” he said when asked what he thought of the Senate organization.

Kawasaki said it expects negotiations to go smoothly.

“Confirmation will be when the press release comes out,” he said.

RELATED: In preliminary results, Democrats look likely to reverse two Alaskan Senate seats

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a grant-supported network of news outlets and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact editor Andrew Kitchenman with any questions: [email protected] Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

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