ANCHORAGE — The Alaska state Senate faced the possibility of a major power shift Tuesday with several Democrats in the majority coalition trailing in their races.
Democratic Sens. Joe Thomas and Joe Paskvan of Fairbanks were behind in early results, while Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, was locked in a close fight with Republican Bob Bell. Democrats had hoped to take or hold on to four of five Anchorage Senate seats. Sen. Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage, was also trailing in her race against Rep. Anna Fairclough, R-Eagle River.
The Senate is ruled by a bipartisan coalition, which includes all 10 Senate Democrats and six Republicans. The coalition has been in power since 2007. Some GOP leaders, including Gov. Sean Parnell, wanted to break up the group, which they consider obstructionist on issues including changes to Alaska’s oil tax structure.
Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, defeated Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon; redistricting forced the two incumbents — and coalition members — into the same district. Stedman has been a leader in the coalition, as has Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, who also won.
Control of the Alaska Senate has been a hot topic for months, with 16 of the Senate’s 20 seats up for grabs in Tuesday’s elections. Of the four seats either uncontested or decided, two belonged to incumbent Democrats — Sens. Lyman Hoffman and Dennis Egan — and two to Republicans who unseated GOP coalition members in the August primary, Mike Dunleavy and Peter Micciche.
The coalition last year refused to follow the House and pass Parnell’s oil tax-cut plan, which critics called a massive corporate giveaway with no guarantees it would mean additional investment here. Coalition leaders at the time said they didn’t have the information needed to make a sound policy call.
This year, an overhaul of the tax structure stalled in the coalition caucus, but the Senate approved a narrower plan, intended to encourage oil production from new fields, late in the regular session. That died in the House. Lawmakers in both parties and chambers lambasted a Parnell tax-cut plan proposed during a special session and eventually pulled.
Boosting oil production is a top economic priority for Parnell, who sees changing Alaska’s oil tax system as a way to do that. Alaska relies heavily on oil taxes to run, but production has been declining.
No one in the Legislature has argued with the desire to increase production; the debate lies in how best to do that.
Redistricting shook up a number of districts, throwing four incumbents together on the Senate side and eight in the House.
Senate District A featured Thomas against Republican Senate Minority Leader John Coghill of North Pole. French faced Bob Bell, in an expensive and sometime contentious campaign.
On the House side, Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, the House majority whip, won in a three-way race that included Rep. Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan. Johansen, a former House majority leader, ran as an unaffiliated candidate in House District 33, after skipping a crowded GOP primary in August. He finished a distant third, behind Democrat Matt Olsen.
In other statewide election news, Republican Mitt Romney has won Alaska’s three electoral votes.
Romney easily defeated President Barack Obama in the nation’s largest state, which has a solid Republican pedigree when voting in presidential elections.
Four years ago, Alaskans overwhelmingly voted for Republican presidential candidate John McCain and his running mate, then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Alaskans last chose a Democrat in 1964 when they voted for President Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater by a 2-1 margin.
Neither Romney nor Obama campaigned in Alaska.
Constitutional Convention measure falling short
Alaska’s constitution is just over 50 years old, and early vote returns Tuesday showed Alaskans don’t think a convention is needed to make changes.
This issue comes up after every Census.
One supporter of calling a constitutional convention is former Attorney General John Havelock. In a statement of support in the State of Alaska Official Election Pamphlet, he lists several areas where the constitution could be strengthened, including protecting the Permanent Fund Dividend. He also suggests Alaska could benefit from a one-chamber legislature, like Nebraska, which has the nation’s only unicameral legislature.
The League of Women Voters opposed calling a convention, saying there is an amendment process already in place to change the constitution.