Alaska legislative races take shape approaching filing deadline, with some big surprises

Legislative chamber
Legislators listen during a joint session of the Alaska Legislature on March 12, 2024 (Eric Stone/Alaska Public Media)

The deadline to file to run for a seat in the Alaska Legislature is Saturday, and there are some big names among lawmakers who say they’re bowing out.

The Anchorage Daily News reports that, for now, many of those who are running also appear to be unopposed, though that could change if more hopefuls throw their hats into the ring.

How this fall’s election might shape the next Legislature is, of course, something we won’t know for months. But with the filing deadline fast approaching, there’s at least a sense of who the players might be.

Anchorage Daily News reporter Iris Samuels joined Alaska Public Media’s Casey Grove to discuss all of that.


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This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Iris Samuels: So it’s pretty typical for some candidates to wait until the very last minute to file for election. And there’s some strategy there of not wanting to reveal your strategy too soon. So the deadline is this Saturday, it’s June 1 at 5 p.m. And at this point, we’re seeing a lot of incumbents in the race without challengers.

Casey Grove: And like we said, I mean, people still could jump in. It’s sort of this fun thing. If you’re at the counter there at the Division of Elections, you see somebody filing their paperwork, it’s like they’re turning in their homework at the last second or something.

IS: Exactly, yeah. And sometimes it’s really the last minute, and they have to bring the right form of ID and bring the required $30. So, yeah, they better have all their ducks in a row.

CG: Dig that change out of the couch cushions. Do we have any idea why there’s just, you know, one candidate in some of these races?

IS: I think that last election cycle in 2022, that was the first election cycle after a redistricting process. And that meant a lot of shakeup, because you had a lot of people who got redistricted in such a way that maybe they weren’t the best fit for the district, the new district that they lived in. So you had some candidates bowing out, you had a lot of new people coming in, and that created a very large class of freshmen lawmakers. And they’ve now gone through their freshman cycle and they’re ready to become sophomores. So that means that you have a lot fewer people bowing out. But also, even in races where you do have challengers, a lot of those are just rematches of 2022 races.

CG: Well, speaking of incumbents, we’ve heard here just in the last couple of days about at least two of the most experienced lawmakers announcing that they’re going to step away from the Legislature. And that’s Fairbanks Republican state Sen. Click Bishop and Ketchikan independent Rep. Dan Ortiz. Let’s start with click Bishop, what’s going on there? What did he say about that?

IS: So Sen. Bishop made the announcement in an email. And in that email, he also said that he was going to his cabin, so he was not available for an interview. So not a lot of opportunity for follow up questions. But what he did say was that he wanted to spend the next couple years spending more time with his family and also spending more time gold mining, which is something he’s done. But He also hinted that he’s not done with politics. And I have heard various conversations about him potentially running for governor in 2026. Gov. Mike Dunleavy will be termed out, he won’t be able to seek another term, so that kind of creates an open field, And we may see (Bishop) in that race.

CG: I mean, it takes money. Does that depend on how much gold he mines?

IS: That’s a good question. You know, he had all of the pieces laid out in his announcement. He was going to spend time with his family, because that’s not something you can necessarily do when you’re governor. So banking some family time and then also banking some cash so he can afford to run for governor.

CG: And that’s no joke. I mean, Nat Herz, you know, a colleague of ours with the Northern Journal, had pointed out that, I think, he made like $10,000 mining gold last year or sometime recently, anyway.

Well, Click Bishop, you know, maybe returning in a couple years to to Alaska politics. Sounds like a different story with Ortiz, though. What’s what’s going on with him?

IS: Yeah, Ortiz said that he is dealing with what he described as a chronic health issue. He didn’t elaborate. But it sounds like this was a decision that was very difficult for him to make. But he just decided that it wasn’t right for him to continue. So that’s an interesting seat because it’s seen as a potential pickup for Republicans. And if that seat is won by a Republican, that Republican will probably bring a different vision than the one that Rep. Ortiz has pursued.

CG: And then, similarly, as far as maybe one party taking a seat away from another, just recently you had written about another seat and another challenger to that seat. And that’s state Rep. Tom McKay. He’s in Anchorage Republican. It sounds like he wants to run for a west Anchorage Senate seat that is currently occupied by Matt Claman, setting up a showdown there. Can you tell me about that?

IS: Yeah, so Rep. Tom McKay, a Republican, won his current House seat by seven votes in 2022. And the Democratic challenger he faced, Denny Wells, is running again. And so that was seen until very recently as a potentially easy pickup for Democrats, because Rep. McKay, he’s been at the forefront of this effort to support Gov. (Mike) Dunleavy’s vision for education funding, which includes essentially conditioning education funding on some of his other education priorities. And I think that Democrats saw that McKay’s record on that could make it easy for a Democrat to challenge him and to raise that as an issue and potentially win on challenging that record.

So McKay switching to that Senate race, that opened up the possibility for former state Sen. Mia Costello to jump into that House race. She is a Republican with name recognition, because she previously served in the Legislature. She also doesn’t have as much of a record on this education situation that has bogged down the Legislature for the past couple years. So that’ll be an interesting race to watch between former state Sen. Costello and Democrat Denny Wells.

CG: You also you wrote about this interesting showdown that seems like is brewing between two Republicans for the same Anchorage House seat. That’s incumbent Rep. Craig Johnson and former Rep. Chuck Kopp. Not ironic, used to be a cop. Kopp filed to run just on Wednesday. What’s going on there?

IS: Yeah, Rep. Craig Johnson is another person who is kind of seen as aligned with Gov. Dunleavy’s vision on education funding and other issues. And former Rep. Kopp actually lost a Republican primary race to Rep. McKay back in 2020. That was before we had this new voting system — open primaries, ranked choice voting — in the general election. And that means that if you have those two Republicans on a general election ballot, it can potentially be easier for a more moderate candidate, rather than a more conservative candidate, to win an election. We saw that back in 2022. And that’s because they can gain votes from some Democrats, some centrist voters, who wouldn’t necessarily vote in a primary race. So that’ll be an interesting one to watch, to see if Craig Johnson can hold onto that seat.

CG: Yeah, for sure. Are you seeing any other interesting challenges to incumbents? And I guess I’m thinking about Homer Republican Rep. Sarah Vance here.

IS: Yeah, I think that that race on the Kenai Peninsula will be an interesting one. Sarah Vance has been in the Legislature for a few years now. She is seen as a fairly conservative member of the House, and she will face, at least as things stand right now, a few challengers. And one of them is Brent Johnson, who currently serves on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly. And he is a nonpartisan candidate who said that he decided to enter the race after Sarah Vance decided to vote not to overturn Gov. Dunleavy’s veto of an education funding bill. And that was seen to him as a pretty pivotal vote that would have pretty significant consequences for Kenai schools. I think that race will be sort of a barometer for how impactful this education funding issue can be on legislative races and 2024.

CG: I mean, obviously that election is months away. Probably it’s not worth trying to figure out what the exact outcomes are going to be. But I have to ask, I mean, if you could look into a crystal ball, do you see, you know, the makeup of the Legislature changing significantly from this fall’s election?

IS: I mean, I am really not in the business of predictions. I will say that in the Senate, a couple of the key Senate leaders are not up for reelection. And that’s Senate President (Gary) Stevens and Senate Majority Leader Cathy Giessel. They both still have a couple years to serve before they need to run for reelection, if they so choose. And so the fact that we have those leaders in place, and the fact that the Senate is governed by a bipartisan coalition with 17 members out of 20 Senate members total means that even if they lose a couple seats of current coalition members, they could still retain that coalition. And so I think that drastic change in the Senate leadership would surprise me.

On the other hand, in the House, leadership is much more kind of on a razor thin edge, you might say, because it’s essentially split down the middle between conservative Republicans and then everyone else. And that everyone else kind of includes Rep. David Eastman, who is a Republican who doesn’t like to play nice with the other Republican members of the House. And it also includes Democrats, independent House members who would rather see a bipartisan coalition or would be open to the idea of a bipartisan coalition if one were to arise. So even flipping a couple House seats from Republican to Democrat or independent or nonpartisan could have a major impact on the House side. But you could see a couple flip from Republican to Democrat, and then maybe one or two Democrat seats flipping to Republican, and then it all stays kind of on balance as it is right now. So that remains to be seen. I’m not making any predictions.

a portrait of a man outside

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him Read more about Caseyhere

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