Ahead of Tuesday primary, Republicans jockey for ‘true conservative’ clout

A fierce primary battle is playing out in one of the most conservative parts of the state.

Listen now

Eagle River Sen. Anna MacKinnon is retiring from her District G seat, and the campaign between two house members to replace her is growing increasingly malicious, with both candidates accusing the other of slinging mud. Over the past few months, the primary has turned into a fight over what it means to be a true conservative.

Rep. Dan Saddler has lived in the Chugiak-Eagle River area for 26 years, during part of which time he had a career as a newspaperman at the now defunct, right-leaning Anchorage Times. He and his primary opponent have a long list of issues on which they are generally aligned. Saddler wants to reform education and cut government services in order to fix the state’s deficit.

“To those people that say we’ve cut to the bone, I would say: balderdash,” Saddler said in a phone interview. “I know there’s places to reduce more spending, and those are not even the harsh cuts. Those are difficult but not harsh.”

Saddler wants school vouchers, cuts to Medicaid and for the state to court more investment from oil companies. Though he originally voted for Senate Bill 91, the omnibus crime reform bill designed to slow prison spending, now Saddler is campaigning for a full repeal.

Saddler maintains that he and his opponent, Rep. Lora Reinbold, have largely consistent values but extremely different ideas about how to put them into practice.

Saddler points to his record of working within the Republican caucus to bring results to his district. He holds up his committee assignments, bills he’s helped guide through the House, and specific budget reductions he’s helped implement. Saddler’s core argument is that voters should pick him over his opponent because he’s proven himself more adept at pulling the levers of power in Juneau.

“Senator is by nature a complicated job that involves work in an established institution with lots of rules. If you can’t play by the rules you cannot be an effective senator. You might be a gadfly, you might be an iconoclast, but you’re not actually doing the things, and accomplishing the things you claim to want to do,” Saddler said.

Call it effective, call it establishment, but Saddler is positioning himself as the insider candidate. And he’s got the high-level Republican endorsements to prove it, including from MacKinnon, the seat’s outgoing holder.

Implicit in this argument is the suggestion — sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly — that this is the approach to governance his challenger lacks.

“While my opponent is more polarizing and gets more publicity, I’m much more productive,” Saddler said. “I’m much more of a work horse, and far less of a show horse.”

The jab is at Reinbold, and refers in part to when she was booted from the majority caucus in 2015 after voting against the Republican-drafted budget. Even though it cast her out into the wilderness, Reinbold sticks by the move, because she believes the spending bill didn’t align with the party’s values.

“Our caucus principles said that we will save for future generations,” Reinbold said. “I think if we have principles we need to stick by our principles.”

Similar to her opponent, Reinbold sees public safety imperiled because of SB91, thinks the state education system needs to be reformed, and believes that the outgoing senate majority didn’t do enough to tighten the state’s belt. Also, like candidates on both side of the partisan divide, she wants more money for the Permanent Fund Dividend, determined by the old legal formula.

Reinbold grew up in Alaska, went to Anchorage public schools and worked in business and healthcare.

If Saddler is casting himself as the insider, Reinbold is appealing to voters as the insurgent, touting her record of speaking up for “true conservative” values even when it might come at the expense of efficacy.

“He doesn’t represent the constituency, he represents the good ol’ boys club in Juneau,” Reinbold said of her opponent.

The primary contest between the two has gotten vicious. In interviews, both candidates complained about the other’s negative campaigning, but offered unprompted attacks at the others’ voting record, character and conduct. Both have leveled accusations of misleading mailers and unfair attack ads put out over social media and the radio.

There is a third self-described conservative in the race for Senate District G, but he’s running as a Democrat. Oliver Schiess is a U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran who vacationed in Alaska during his childhood, and moved permanently to Eagle River with family three years ago.

“I’ve voted Republican in the past,” Schiess said in regards to his platform. “I consider myself to be conservative. I just have some problems with the party within the state of Alaska. Also on certain social issues I’m more left-leaning.”

Schiess is the sole Democrat running, and faces no primary contest on August 21st. He’s attracted donations from several prominent Dems, as well as the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm.

No matter what, heading toward the November elections he’ll have an uphill battle running against either Saddler or Reinbhold. They’ve spent months persuading voters what the right kind of conservative leadership is for a deeply red district.

A separate Republican primary race in Anchorage has descended into acrimony and personal attacks.

That three-way contest is for District 26, encompassing large parts of south Anchorage. Over the weekend, two political blogs reported that a group connected to candidate Joe Riggs sent a mailer to voters that claimed to be from one of his opponents, Albert Fogle. The mailer features an unflattering picture of Fogle and touts his support for gay rights. In a Republican primary within a relatively conservative district, the move is seen as trying to discredit Fogle because he’s married to a man.

Riggs did not respond to multiple messages Monday. The action drew a rare rebuke from Alaska GOP Chairman Tuckerman Babcock, who said the mailer “crossed a line.”

A third candidate, Laddie Shaw, is also running in the primary race.