A lot is riding on this year's legislative races with the balance of power in the state Senate in flux and myriad of House races considered toss-ups.
But with the governor campaigning for vice president, congressional races on the boil and the continuing fallout from an FBI corruption probe hogging headlines, the limelight's glare has skipped over state races for the Nov. 4 election.
Still, 40 House seats and 10 Senate seats are open across the state; all are contested except for three in the Senate and 10 in the House where the incumbents have no challengers. And local politicians are busy doing what they do best: touting their positions at local forums, filling out questionnaires, raising money and talking to constituents.
In downtown Fairbanks, Republican Cynthia Henry is reaching out and touching her constituents by telephone, leaving the family Hallmark business to her husband, Ken.
"We're a mom and pop operation, and pop is really stepping up," said Henry, who is vying for a Senate seat that opened up with Republican and five-term veteran Gary Wilken's retirement.
Her opponent, Democrat Joe Paskvan, an attorney, is spending weekends going door to door.
"When I started yesterday, it was 8 degrees and I walked for seven straight hours," Paskvan said.
Both candidates say local energy costs are uppermost on people's minds, especially with home heating fuel in the "Golden Heart City" pushing $4.50 a gallon last winter.
The Fairbanks Senate race is one political watchers are keeping a close eye on. For Democrats, it represents their best chance to draw even with Republicans in the state Senate next session.
The current makeup of the Senate is 11 Republicans and nine Democrats. Last session six Republicans aligned with the Democrats to form a bipartisan majority, but the main GOP architects of that deal, Republican Sens. Lyda Green and John Cowdery, are leaving the Senate this year.
To draw even in the House, which has 23 Republicans and 17 Democrats, Democrats would have to pick up three more seats, a much more difficult task. The last time Democrats had control of the state House was in 1992 though they have been slowly gaining ground in recent years.
Party leaders are bullish over prospects of further advancing their numbers and said they expect some of the broader statewide issues to rub off on local races, however indirectly.
Alaska Democratic Party Executive Director Mike Coumbe said while the initial excitement over Palin's ascent to vice presidential candidate has worn off, voters have not forgotten the corruption scandal that's already netted prison terms for three former legislators, all Republicans, and put 40-year U.S. Senate veteran Ted Stevens on trial.
"Republicans have put a real stain on the state and to overcome that, this is the year to elect Democrats," Coumbe said.
Republican Party of Alaska Spokesman McHugh Pierre disagreed. He said the enthusiasm over Palin's national race has only grown in the last two months, and it has energized the base and boosted the party rolls.
Meanwhile, Alaskans believe the "bad apples" have been removed, he said.
"And now we are seeing new folks with refreshing faces, and everyone is excited and happy about the election process," said Pierre.
Registration rolls have grown for both parties though Democrats have made the most significant gains in the past year, especially after the February Democratic caucuses that drew overwhelming support for presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama. Interest in two close congressional races likely also played a role in the overall boost in numbers.
Since October 2007, more than 20,000 new voters signed up for a total of 495,731 registered voters in the state. Close to 26 percent are Republicans, up more than 0.75 percent from last year. About 15 percent are Democrats, up about 1.25 percent over that period.
The biggest voting block in the state, about 54 percent of all registered voters, are the nonpartisan and undeclared voters. Their numbers have dropped about 1.25 percent in the past year.
Pierre said he believes that block will continue to lean heavily Republican and shatter the notion that Alaska will change from red to blue this fall.
"There was talk of that this summer, but this will reaffirm that Alaskans are most closely aligned with the values and platform of the Republican party," said Pierre.
Coumbe believes voters are ready for a change. "People are really feeling and caring about the whole economic situation," he said. "It's generally felt that Democrats have a better handle on that."
With the ailing economy and big ticket statewide races under way, it also appears that less money is going to local races.
Anchorage pollster Ivan Moore said that should benefit incumbents "because challengers need money to have a significant chance."
University of Alaska Fairbanks political science professor Jerry McBeath disagreed. He said, in Fairbanks at least, Democrats are outraising incumbent Republicans by significant factor.
"In general high interest national races draw money away from state level races and that's probably hurt the incumbents because of (Congressman Don) Young and Stevens needing more," he said.
McBeath said some Republicans, including Henry and Rep. Mike Kelly in Fairbanks, are benefiting from high profile endorsements by Palin.
According to a smattering of political pundits, some incumbents whose races could be close on Nov. 4 include:
- Kelly against Democrat Karl Kassel and Democrat Scott Kawasaki against Republican Sue Hull in Fairbanks;
- Republican Bob Roses against Democrat Pete Peterson and Democrat Bob Buch against Republican Bob Lewis in Anchorage,
- and Democrat Andrea Doll against Republican Cathy Muñoz in Juneau.
Also hanging in the balance are two Anchorage seats currently held by Republicans, Kevin Meyer and Ralph Samuels. Meyer is running for the Senate and Samuels is retiring.
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