ANCHORAGE — The high-profile effort to crush the Senate bipartisan coalition isn’t just about its refusal to lower oil taxes.
Social conservatives are latching on, too -- and in a big way. Some leaders say their issues, including the prospect of sharp limits on abortion, resonate with voters as much if not more than the big engine of Alaska oil production and taxes and may draw them to the polls. The same fiscal conservatives who back Gov. Sean Parnell’s desired oil tax cuts, amounting to $2 billion a year, often also support the conservative social agenda.
Alaska Family Action, the political arm of the like-named advocacy group Alaska Family Council, is raising money with an eye on knocking out four Democrats who are part of the Senate coalition.
A separate group is ready to push a constitutional amendment to allow public money to be redirected to private schooling, if the Senate flips to Republican control. The House already is majority Republican.
State legislatures around the country are becoming increasingly Republican, according to an expert from a bipartisan research organization. And with newly drawn legislative districts, Alaska conservatives see their chance. Democrats and unions are pushing back.
“In our view, we have to fire up the social conservative base if we are going to recapture the Senate and be involved in having more a stronger conservative majority in the House,” Jim Minnery, president of both Alaska family groups, told a couple dozen Alaskans recently at a fund-raiser.
Besides abortion restrictions and school vouchers, his group has a range of other issues: elimination of employment benefits for partners in same-sex relationships, opposition to civil rights protections for people who are gay or lesbian, a requirement for Internet filters to prevent people from looking at pornography at public libraries, and greater leeway for the governor in appointing judges. Some would require voter approval of constitutional amendments.
The small gathering was held Oct. 11 at a Midtown restaurant with Parnell as the chief draw. The vice presidential debate was playing on TV. Most of those who sipped on red wine and sampled plates of finger food were headed later that evening to the annual Alaska Right to Life banquet, where the guest speaker was a Michigan woman who was conceived during a rape.
“This goes beyond just pure politics. It goes to who we are as a people,” Parnell said to the Alaska Family Action group. “If we are willing to stand for life as firmly as we are willing to stand for liberty, that is something we each share in common and we each will do together.”
He urged everyone to “give heartily tonight.”
Four in the hot seat
Minnery’s group is trying to raise $40,000 for mailers, automated phone calls featuring national names such as Mike Huckabee, and other tools to turn the Senate. Four Democratic incumbents are targeted:
• Hollis French, a former prosecutor and the influential chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He is trying to stave off a challenge by Republican Bob Bell, a former Assembly member and owner of an engineering and surveying firm, for this West Anchorage seat, Senate District J.
• Bill Wielechowski, a union attorney, who is being challenged by a former one-term House member, Bob Roses, for an East Anchorage seat, Senate District G. Roses, a Republican and former teacher, was president of the Anchorage Education Association, the teachers union, from 2000-2004. This time, the union is endorsing Wielechowski.
• Joe Paskvan, an attorney who co-chaired the Senate Resources Committee, which balked at Parnell’s oil tax cuts. In this Fairbanks race for Senate District B, he is facing Republican Pete Kelly, a former state representative and senator who went on to work as the University of Alaska’s director of state relations.
• Joe Thomas, a retired union business manager who serves on the Senate Finance Committee, which spent weeks working on tax cut alternatives. This Fairbanks-area race, in Senate District A, features a dramatically redrawn district and Thomas must square off against another sitting senator, conservative Republican John Coghill of North Pole.
Minnery said his group also may put money into a fifth race. Republican Sen. Cathy Giessel, who represents the Anchorage Hillside and whose new district stretches to Nikiski and Seward, is being challenged by an independent, Ron Devon, a retired store owner whose wife, Jeanne, writes the Mudflats political blog. Giessel didn’t join the bipartisan coalition and Devon is getting strong backing from unions as well as some old-time Republicans, including Arliss Sturgulewski.
“Cathy Giessel’s race, as she’ll tell you, has become quite competitive, unexpectedly. So we’ll be looking at that race as well to see what we might be able to do to distinguish her as the solid pro-life, pro-family candidate that she is,” Minnery said.
Alaska Family Action also is amassing a wealth of data on likely supporters, Minnery told the fund-raiser crowd. It’s buying into a database launched by the wealthy and ultra conservative Koch brothers originally called the Themis project. The resource is marketed as i360, a database for the pro-business community.
That’s allowing Minnery to dramatically expand his e-mail list, which has numbered around 10,000 conservatives.
“In one fell swoop, we’re going to have close to 50,000 and much, much more information than we’ve ever had in terms of what are their passions, and what districts they are in and what motivates them.”
Minnery’s group backed four GOP candidates in the primary, including Mike Dunleavy, who unseated Sen. Linda Menard of Wasilla and who backers expect to be far more conservative than she was in Juneau.
His group filed disclosures with the Alaska Public Offices Commission detailing the $10,000 it spent during the primary, but not on who contributed.
Paul Dauphinais, APOC’s executive director, said the agency was researching whether Alaska Family Action had to reveal its contributors.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Alaska Family Action had not filed APOC reports for the general election campaign.
Money for church schools
Democrats are advising unions that this state election isn’t just a referendum on oil taxes.
In a recent briefing to the Anchorage Education Association, French said the agenda of social conservatives would likely include school vouchers.
State dollars spent on a child’s education could go directly to parents to use for private school tuition, private tutors, home schools, on-line schools or other options, according to supporters of vouchers, including former Anchorage Mayor Tom Fink.
The prospect worries the teacher’s union, said president Andy Holleman.
“It would almost certainly mean less money for funding our public school system,” Holleman said. “And we think we need more if we’re going to do things like go after the kids who aren’t graduating right now or the kids who are struggling to read or do other things.”
Fink said if the Legislature grows more conservative, supporters are ready to push a constitutional amendment and accompanying legislation to allow public funding for private schooling, including religious schools. The Alaska Constitution says, “No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.” If a proposed constitutional amendment cleared the Legislature, voters would get their say in 2014, he said.
The measures were introduced in this year’s Legislature but didn’t make it through. Two senators who lost their primaries, Menard and on the Kenai, Tom Wagoner, opposed the vouchers for private schooling, Fink said.
“This year we hope to have the votes before the session begins,” Fink said.
His group isn’t raising money for any races but is letting people on its e-mail list know where the candidates stand, he said. On the other side, teachers are going door-to-door to drop off literature, Holleman said.
Kelly, Coghill, and Bell all support vouchers, and Roses said he would support legislation authorizing a system once voters approved a constitutional amendment, according to the Alaska Family Action voter guide.
Giant GOP gains in 2010
Around the country, Republicans hold more seats in state legislatures than they have since the 1920s, according to a recent report by Tim Storey, an elections analyst with the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.
They claimed a number of new seats in 2010 — a midterm election for President Obama, when it’s common for the opposition to gain ground. Some 24 legislative chambers went from Democratic to Republican control — and none flipped the other way, Storey wrote.
“Republican legislators seized the opportunity to push a more conservative agenda in the states where they had complete legislative control,” the report found. “They also took advantage of their new majorities to draw favorable new district maps, better positioning them to hold on to some of the 2010 gains.”
One dynamic that has emerged across the country is that partisan clashes over social issues has diverted legislatures from budget debates, when passing a budget used to be their main business, according to a report by the nonpartisan Pew Center on the States.
‘The new normal’
Conservative candidates often campaign on fiscal matters such as the budget, the economy, and jobs, said Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager for the Guttmacher Institute, a research center that focuses on reproductive health.
“But when they came to power what we quickly saw was this change from working on any of those issues to working on social issues, and one of the most prominent was abortion and specifically abortion restrictions,” Nash said in an interview.
In Alaska, the four Republicans being helped by Alaska Family Action are all staunchly anti-abortion. Bell and Coghill oppose abortion in any circumstance, according to the Family Action voter guide. Roses and Kelly say they would allow just one exception, to save the life of the mother.
Opposition to abortion even in cases of rape and incest is “becoming the new normal” for conservatives, said French, one of the Democrats being targeted. “It’s shocking, but that’s their position.”
His opponent, Bell, says he feels strongly about it. “That child hasn’t done anything wrong,” he said.
Still, Bell said he’s not campaigning on abortion or school vouchers and wouldn’t make them his top causes in Juneau.
“Those issues are very contentious. I would hope there would be a way of dealing with them without them being contentious and I’m not sure,” Bell said.
Under Senate President Gary Stevens, the bipartisan coalition agreed not to push certain hot-button measures.
Loren Leman, the staunchly anti-abortion former state senator and lieutenant governor, said if the Senate flipped to GOP control, the initial focus might be crafting a strict definition of medically necessary abortions, to cut how many the state pays for.
“It’s a big number right now and it doesn’t need to be that big,” Leman said in an interview at Minnery’s fund-raiser.
The anti-abortion activists at the event said they eventually want to end abortion outright.
In Indiana, one of the states cited by Minnery as a model for Alaska, nothing much had happened on abortion for years until 2011, when a more conservative legislature passed a number of restrictions, Nash said. “There was not enough opposition to stop them from essentially eviscerating women’s rights,” she said.
For his part, Gov. Parnell said he doesn’t have specific social legislation at the ready should the Senate turn.