Rematch: This Alaska legislative race could make or break the next House speaker

Anchorage Republican Rep. Lance Pruitt speaks at a committee hearing in Juneau. (Skip Gray/360 North)

Lance Pruitt, the East Anchorage Republican, could become the next speaker of the Alaska House when the state Legislature convenes in Juneau next year.

But first, Pruitt, the leader of the House GOP minority, has to win re-election.

Pruitt, who’s served in the Legislature for a decade, faces a rematch against Liz Snyder, the Democrat and University of Alaska Anchorage science professor who came within 200 votes of knocking off Pruitt two years ago.

Snyder is now running again, this time with a huge fundraising advantage and the groundswell of Democratic, anti-Trump enthusiasm that’s buoyed left-of-center candidates nationwide.

But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s also eschewed door-knocking — one of the mainstays of legislative campaigns — depending instead on meet-and-greets and socially distant organizing strategies like phone banking.

Pruitt, meanwhile, says he has been door-knocking aggressively, albeit with a mask and hand sanitizer.

Read more of Alaska Public Media’s coverage of the 2020 Election including debates, candidate profiles, and issues analysis

“It’s been going very, very well,” Pruitt said in an interview Monday. “And I’m feeling very good about where we are and where we’re going to be in the next couple weeks.”

The race between Pruitt and Snyder for an East Anchorage state House seat is one of the most closely-watched and hotly-contested legislative campaigns this year. Outside groups on both sides are spending tens of thousands of dollars to sway voters. Pruitt has needled Snyder with his Twitter account, while Snyder has attacked Pruitt for his campaign contributions from employees of the company seeking to build the Pebble mine.

Anchorage Democrat Liz Snyder, who’s running against Republican Rep. Lance Pruitt (courtesy photo)

On the surface, the race appears to be a conventional Democrat-Republican matchup.

But in interviews, and in Snyder’s appearance at an Alaska Public Media debate — one in which Pruitt declined to participate — the two candidates offer to bring strikingly different styles to Juneau, not just substance.

Pruitt, who would need to balance a spectrum of political views if elected speaker, is taking a moderate tact. He is not promising to support “full” Permanent Fund dividends of some $3,000 per person, noting that doing so would leave a $2.4 billion deficit in a state budget of less than $7 billion.

Pruitt also is not ruling out the need for higher oil taxes, if they’re “reasonable” and if an increase would leave the issue settled for “for a while,” he said.

And Pruitt similarly won’t rule out the need for a broad-based tax on Alaskans to help fill the deficit, which, even with a smaller PFD of roughly $1,000, is still larger than the amount of cash that will be left in the state’s main savings account next year.

“Do I like the concept of taxes? I hate them,” Pruitt said. “But I also recognize the reality of our scenario: If people had to choose between public safety and the roads and education, people of all stripes — Republican, Democrat, etc. — they get that those things are important and they cost money.”

The key, Pruitt said, is that people still don’t trust government to spend their money carefully, which is why he also argues that Alaska needs a tighter spending cap in its constitution.

Pruitt didn’t file to run for re-election until deadline day. He said he needed to make sure he was still motivated to work the long days in Juneau and spend the time away from his family. And he’s raised just $50,000 for his campaign, which includes more than $6,000 of his own money.

Snyder, by contrast, has been a fundraising juggernaut, collecting more than $150,000 since she announced she was running again in the summer of 2019. At the time, Pruitt was leading a group of Republican lawmakers aligned with GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his deep budget vetoes — including to the university system, the Medicaid health-care program and ferries. Snyder told the Anchorage Daily News at the time that the vetoes would “potentially bankrupt our communities.”

Snyder’s platform is less flexible than Pruitt’s.

She supports paying the “full” PFD under the historical legal formula, even though that would leave the state with the $2.4 billion deficit and almost certainly will require lawmakers to spend more from the Permanent Fund than experts have deemed a sustainable amount.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic,” she said. “Families and businesses are hurting.”

The state has “failed miserably” at issuing relief grants to small businesses in an orderly fashion, she added.

“And with the PFD, we have an existing mechanism that ensures families have access to money in a time that we arguably have never needed it more,” Snyder said.

Snyder’s main proposal to fill the deficit is through higher taxes on oil companies — though a forecast by Dunleavy’s administration says that at current oil prices, the oil-tax initiative on this year’s general election ballot would raise less than $400 million in extra revenue.

As for broad-based taxes, like on income or sales, Snyder said at the Alaska Public Media debate that she’s not willing to discuss them before the state addresses its oil-tax system.

“I do not want to talk about shifting some of these other expenses onto Alaskans until that conversation is had,” she said.

While that platform might sound more extreme than Pruitt’s, Snyder and other critics of the incumbent say that his decade-long record in the Legislature does not show him to be a proven compromiser or pragmatist.

Joelle Hall, a top Alaska AFL-CIO organizer who’s working with the labor organization to support Snyder, described Pruitt as an important figure in the Legislature over the past four years as the institution has proven incapable of fixing Alaska’s budget deficit, instead spending down billions in savings.

She cited a close 2016 committee vote in which Pruitt rejected legislation that would have used investment earnings from the Permanent Fund to help fill the deficit.

“He refused to do the right thing. He’s refused the whole time to make any decision,” Hall said in an interview. “We need to be able to have a conversation about what’s going to happen next, and he’s proven himself unwilling to even have the conversation — so I’m willing to take my chances on somebody who’s new.”

Pruitt’s pitch to voters is that he has relationships with state House members that both cross party lines and extend to the far-right fringes of the Republican Party.

One of his campaign videos features endorsements from a number of his GOP colleagues, as well as Lindsey Holmes, the former Anchorage representative who was elected as a Democrat and later switched to the Republican Party.

It’s an honor to have the support from my current and former colleagues. We’ve accomplished a lot together for East Anchorage and Alaska. Here’s some of my friend and colleagues to tell you more.

Posted by Lance Pruitt for State House on Saturday, October 17, 2020

Holmes said that when she was in the Legislature, Pruitt treated her respectfully when she was on both sides of the aisle.

“When you came to him with a good point, he’s always ready to take the time and listen and help figure out a way to make it work,” she said. “It didn’t really matter if you were coming to him with a Democratic or Republican point of view. If it made sense, he was willing to listen and he was willing to work on things.”