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Election focus shifts to November, Senate control

Posted: August 29, 2012 - 11:05pm

JUNEAU — With the primary in the books, and at least two incumbent state senators defeated, the election focus shifted Wednesday to November and the fight for control of the Alaska Senate.

Sens. Linda Menard, R-Wasilla, and Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, lost their respective GOP primaries in races Tuesday where their participation in the Senate’s majority bipartisan coalition became an issue. Sen. Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage, held a narrow lead over former state Rep. Harry Crawford.

While Republicans hold leadership positions in the coalition, Democrats outnumber Republicans 10-6. Breaking up the group has become a priority of some Republican leaders, who prefer instead to have a pure Republican majority or a GOP-led caucus such as the House.

“Well, I think the first thing we want to address is that anybody who talked about the positive aspects of the coalition won’t be around to enjoy being in the coalition,” state GOP chairman Randy Ruedrich told KFQD talk show host Casey Reynolds on Wednesday.

Wagoner had expressed mixed feelings about the coalition, saying recently that he found it “dysfunctional” at times.

Ruedrich said the coalition was the big loser in Tuesday’s primary, and he sees Republicans as being well on their way to securing the 14 members needed for a solid majority in the 20-member chamber.

State Democratic Party chair Don Gray called that speculative.

Republicans “seem to have their own way of looking at the world over there, and I think that what we’re trying to do is look a bit more positively and try and solve problems that may exist for all Alaskans and not worry about party labels quite so much,” Gray said.

There are 16 contested races in the Senate remaining. Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, is unopposed, and Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, isn’t up for re-election.

Two races pit incumbents against each other: Sens. Joe Thomas, D-Fairbanks, and John Coghill, R-North Pole, in Senate District A; and Sens. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, and Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, in Senate District Q. The eventual winner between Davis and Crawford will face Rep. Anna Fairclough, R-Eagle River, in what many see as a conservative-leaning district.

Mike Dunleavy and Peter Micciche, who defeated Menard and Wagoner, respectively, have said they can work with Democrats but have balked at joining a Democratic-led coalition.

Click Bishop, a former state labor commissioner who emerged from a three-way GOP primary for an open Senate seat, has taken a more moderate view.

“I’m an Alaskan first and Republican second, and I’ll always do what’s right for the people,” he said late Tuesday.

Stephen Haycox, professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage and a longtime watcher of Alaska politics, said he thinks the coalition’s days are numbered. But pollster Ivan Moore said that’s not a foregone conclusion, and political science professor Jerry McBeath called Ruedrich’s goal of 14 Republicans banding together optimistic.

Organizational meetings will take place after the November election, and a promise of leadership or other coveted roles to key lawmakers could sway the balance of power.

“The primary is certainly important, but it doesn’t tell you much about who in the end will win these seats,” said Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak.

Stevens defended the coalition’s work, calling it a commonsense caucus. He said bipartisanship has often been the norm among Alaska legislatures and given the biggest bloc of voters in Alaska aren’t affiliated with any party, he said a bipartisan approach makes sense.

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