The results of Tuesday’s primary election didn’t answer one of the biggest questions about the future of the Alaska Legislature: whether the state House will stay under the control of a mostly-Democratic coalition next year.
But it did yield several surprises, including three stunning upsets that could send two of the state’s most powerful legislators packing. Senate Majority Leader Peter Micciche, a Soldotna Republican, trailed challenger Ron Gillham by a razor-thin margin of 12 votes out of more than 5,000 cast for a Kenai Peninsula-area seat.
In Anchorage, meanwhile, another legislative leader, Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, trailed three votes behind her Republican primary opponent, Aaron Weaver, whose own GOP allies described as having mounted a lackluster campaign.
Weaver, a former TV cameraman, didn’t spend a single dollar on his campaign after January, according to his financial reports filed with state regulators.
A third long-serving incumbent, House minority leader Charisse Millett, an Anchorage Republican, trailed her primary challenger, Josh Revak, by a wide margin and conceded in a Facebook post Wednesday morning.
“I think there’s a message that was sent that people were upset with the way things were going, the status quo,” Gillham said in a phone interview Wednesday from Seward, where he was picking up his campaign signs. “I took on the most powerful senator in the state and I’ve never run for office, and now here I’m sitting ahead of him.”
Gillham’s narrow lead, however, is not final, and neither is Weaver’s. The state still must tally hundreds of absentee and other uncounted ballots, and aren’t expected to finish doing so until the end of the month.
“We’ll just have to sit back and wait. I don’t actually know what to expect at this point in this race,” Micciche said.
Gillham said he decided to run for Micciche’s seat after a conversation with some of his co-workers on the North Slope, where he works for Arctic Slope Regional Corp. running a crane.
“Everyone was complaining about what was going on with the government. And I just thought, ‘If you’re going to complain, you might as well do something about it,’” Gillham said.
Gillham ran a shoestring campaign. He raised $8,000, half of which was his own money. Micciche raised almost 10 times as much, with donations from executives and industry PACs.
Like several Republicans challenging sitting GOP legislators, Gillham attacked Micciche’s vote for Senate Bill 91, the 2016 criminal justice reform bill that some people have blamed for a rise in crime.
Gillham also attacked Micciche’s vote to use some of the Permanent Fund’s earnings to close the state’s massive deficit.
But no one in Alaska’s political world seemed to take Gillham seriously, until Tuesday night.
That was also the case with Weaver, the challenger to LeDoux, who as chair of the House Rules Committee wields huge power over which legislation comes up for a vote.
Even the Alaska Republican Party, which desperately wanted to unseat LeDoux after she joined the largely-Democratic House majority coalition two years ago, had largely given up hope of beating her. Tuckerman Babcock, the state GOP chair, described Weaver’s campaign as practically nonexistent.
“If you look on our Facebook pages, in discussions that we’re having with people in the district, it’s, ‘Who is Aaron Weaver? I’ve never met him. Should I vote for him? I’ve never met the guy,’” Babcock said in a phone interview Wednesday.
Babcock called it “amazing” that LeDoux could “lose to a candidate that people don’t even know who he is or what he looks like.”
Weaver didn’t dispute Babcock’s characterization, calling it “absolutely right.” He said LeDoux’s campaign fundraising – she ultimately collected more than $100,000 – made her an “unstoppable force.”
Weaver raised less than $3,000.
“I thought it would be better to return my campaign contributions so that people could spend it on their kids, rather than spend it on a futile campaign,” Weaver said Wednesday.
Weaver said he thinks the results reflect “much more of a vote of disapproval of LeDoux than it was for me, because I really ran, effectively, a silent campaign.”
“I just didn’t put that much effort into getting the message out because I didn’t think I’d have a chance,” Weaver said.
A downcast LeDoux spent Tuesday evening at a results-watching party at the Dena’ina Center downtown, where she sat at a table with one of her legislative aides, checking her phone.
“Obviously it’s a nail-biter. I’m still cautiously optimistic,” LeDoux said at the end of the evening. She added, “I feel real good about the absentees. I’ve really, really worked the absentees.”
Millett, who lost her GOP primary for her South Anchorage district, had spent a decade in the Legislature, most recently as the Republican minority leader.
Millett was a candidate to be House speaker if Republicans take back control of the chamber in November. Instead, Millett lost her primary decisively to Revak, a former aide to U.S. Rep. Don Young and U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan. Revak, a U.S. Army veteran, ran campaign ads that showed him dressed in combat gear.
“It’s really surreal and there’s a healthy level of fear, because every vote that’s tallied in those numbers are folks that would put their faith in me,” Revak said in an interview Tuesday night. “And I take that very seriously and I just hope I can live up to those standards.”
Tuesday’s results appear likely to push the Republican-dominated Senate in an even more conservative direction.
But the dynamic in the state House is still murky. State GOP leaders failed in their effort to take down another moderate in Kodiak, Louise Stutes.
But they did help fend off a primary challenge to one of their allies, George Rauscher, a Sutton Republican.
The Republican primary for the Eagle River House seat now held by ultra-conservative Lora Reinbold, meanwhile, went to Kelly Merrick, who was backed by organized labor. She defeated Jamie Allard, who had Reinbold’s endorsement.
Some Republicans have said they fear Merrick, with her support from organized labor, could join a mostly-Democratic majority. As she left the Dena’ina Center late Tuesday, Merrick, who’s also a former Congressional aide to Young, said her campaign donations from figures in “business and industry” should settle those fears.
But Merrick declined to speak directly about which group of legislators she might organize with.
“I’m not talking about any of that tonight. I’ll talk to you guys about that another time – we’re just celebrating tonight and enjoying this and realizing we have to work until November before anything will happen,” Merrick said.
Merrick faces nonpartisan Joe Hackenmueller in the general election. And the races for many more competitive districts also won’t be decided until November.
“I think we’re going to know about the makeup of the House, and who’s in the House majority, after the November election,” LeDoux said. “Regardless of whether I survive this primary or not.”