Majority Republicans worry about possible bipartisan coalition

Republican primary challengers in some races for seats in the Alaska House of Representatives fear that Republican control is threatened by members of their own party.

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They say it’s important for majority-caucus Republicans to maintain party discipline, but some lawmakers say focusing on constituents’ needs can conflict with the party line.

There are two groups talking about the possibility of a bipartisan coalition: Primary challengers who don’t want it to happen and Democrats who do. The one group that isn’t raising the idea is the so-called Musk Ox Caucus. It’s a group of six Republicans and Democrats who opposed using Permanent Fund earnings to pay for the budget last year, and advocated for cutting oil and gas tax credits this year.

Jim-Colver---House-9
Jim Colver (Photo courtesy of Alaska Public Media)

Two Musk Ox incumbents are facing Republican primary challengers. George Rauscher of Palmer is challenging Representative Jim Colver. Homer Mayor Beth Wythe is challenging Rep. Paul Seaton.

Both challengers say they’re concerned about incumbents switching from the Republican-led House majority to a bipartisan coalition.

Wythe said Republicans haven’t been able to count on Seaton to support party-backed positions.

“I am concerned that if a person is running under a party affiliation, they should at least represent the values of the party they’re aligned with,” Wythe said.

Another candidate opposing Seaton, John Cox of Homer, also opposes having a bipartisan coalition, although he said he isn’t focusing on the issue.

“A bipartisan coalition of course would wind up wanting to implement taxes – that’s not what we need,” Cox said. “We need tax cuts.”

Seaton said it’s way too soon to talk about a bipartisan coalition. He said he hasn’t been in any discussions to form one.

He said lawmakers should put their constituents’ interests first. But he also noted that he usually votes with his party. He said he voted the same way as House Speaker Mike Chenault on all but four of more than 100 bills that passed the past two years.

“You have to take an independent review of each of the bills that you have before you and make a decision based on, you know, what the constitution is, and what your basic philosophy is and what you’re supporting, and your constituents tell you,” Seaton said.

The House majority currently has 22 Republicans and four Democrats, while the minority has 12 Democrats and an independent. Eagle River Republican Lora Reinbold doesn’t belong to either caucus.

Colver said that while he may not always vote with party leadership, he wants to stay in the Republican-led caucus.

“I have no plans and, no, I’m not going to join a bipartisan coalition,” Colver said.

Colver first described lawmakers as Musk Ox last year, when he and five others opposed a move by majority caucus leaders to use Permanent Fund earnings to pay for the budget, without negotiating a budget with the minority caucus. They gathered again this year to seek cuts to oil and gas tax credits.

Homer Republican Paul Seaton on the House Floor on May 24, 2016, the second day of the Legislature's fourth special session. (Photo by Rachel Waldholz, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage)
Homer Republican Paul Seaton on the House Floor on May 24, 2016, the second day of the Legislature’s fourth special session. (Photo by Rachel Waldholz, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

Colver said corporations are behind accusations of disloyalty. The Accountability Project is an Alaska group that’s putting money into efforts to defeat Colver and Seaton. The Alaska Dispatch News reported that the Accountability Project is funded by the Washington, D.C.,-based Republican State Leadership Committee, which receives donations from corporations.

“The accusation that I’m going to organize with anyone other than the House Republican majority, that’s just a false and misleading cover-up for this mischief to bring in this tons of corporate cash from Outside,” Colver said.

Colver opponent Rauscher said he and many other Republicans are concerned about a bipartisan coalition. He said that if one formed, it would have a small majority and would likely be ineffective.

“It could be an obstructionist coalition, more than it would help,” Rauscher said.

One of the Accountability Project-funded groups is named Conservatives for George Rauscher. Rauscher said that while he knows leaders of the group, he isn’t coordinating his campaign with it.

Talk about a bipartisan coalition isn’t confined to races with incumbents. Republican Representative Shelley Hughes of Palmer is leaving her seat to run for Senate. One of her possible successors, Richard Best, said he’s concerned his opponent – Palmer Mayor Delena Johnson – would join a bipartisan coalition.

“I actually have great fears of that … I’ve been on Palmer City Council for 11 years and six of those have been with my opponent, and to nail down a position sometimes is kind of difficult,” Best said.

Johnson said she plans to join a Republican-led majority, and not a bipartisan coalition.  She added that she often can’t figure out where Best stands.

“To me, it’s just obvious what I would be doing. I’d be working for my constituents,” Johnson said. “I’m a Republican. They’re going to elect me as a Republican, and I’ll work with the Republican leadership to, you know, to try to solve the problems that we have before us.”

Legislative caucuses won’t formally organize themselves until after the November 8th general election. The primary elections are August 16.

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Andrew Kitchenman is the state government and politics reporter for Alaska Public Media and KTOO in Juneau. Reach him at akitchenman@alaskapublic.org.

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