Matt Buxton

Matt Buxton





It’s a chilly Saturday midway through November 2021 and it already feels like we’re several months into the grueling election season. We’re seeing a flurry of post-redistricting political activity as candidates launch campaigns, eyeing newly friendly matchups, and try to squeeze in as many fundraisers as possible before we ring in the new year (that’s because campaign contribution limits go by calendar year). And that’s not to mention another recall that got underway this week in Anchorage. With a whole year of this to look forward to, you can certainly be forgiven about not wanting to engage with any of it when, well, everything else is going on.

Still, I wanted to delve into what I’ve been seeing develop on the far-right side of the tickets. Specifically, just how it all same-y it feels. We’re into rerun season.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy skipped out on a gubernatorial debate this week just as he did throughout his 2018 bid, leaving his opponents to refer to him as “the guy who didn’t show up today.” Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson is back at it with antagonizing the Anchorage Assembly—issuing a pair of new vetoes under the guise that the Assembly’s efforts to enforce separation of powers is a pernicious “power grab” (which have both since been overridden, as was expected)—and drumming up far-right candidates to “take control of the school system.”

But perhaps what was most attention-grabbing for me is that far-right U.S. Senate candidate Kelly Tshibaka’s miserably awkward Twitter presence found a hit in parroting the far-right’s favorite swear-word stand-in. “He doesn’t understand the Let’s Go Brandon Movement,” reads her tweet in a nod to what has become a far-right in-joke meaning “Fuck Joe Biden,” which I wouldn’t exactly describe as a movement (more on that later), but has nevertheless done far better than of her previous “Liberal Lisa” postings.

To me, it’s got some real strong U.S. Dan Sullivan-running-for-office-in-2014 vibes. For those who recall, Sullivan’s campaign was doggedly committed to turning each question back on President Barack Obama, making it more a race against Obama and the entire Democratic Party rather than a race against a senator who was by almost every metric a pretty conservative Democrat. Economic development goals? Blame Obama. What about the military? Blame Obama. What about Mark Begich? Well, he’s friends with Obama! As tiresome and predictable as it all was, it worked. (And, sure, the race was far more complicated than that, but was it? Was it really?)

And it makes plenty of sense! Alaska pollster Ivan Moore’s numbers from earlier this week more than paint the picture. At the bottom of Alaska’s elected officials are Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson with a -13 approval rating and Gov. Mike Dunleavy with a -3 approval rating. It’s not a place that any campaign worried about reelection would be thrilled about, but there’s a consolation for conservatives with the official at the very bottom of the list: President Joe Biden’s -30 approval rating.

And that, right there, is a proven route to success for candidates like Dunleavy and Tshibaka.

You don’t need to harp about Murkowski—who has a middling -2 approval rating in that poll, by the way—when you’ve got an unpopular president to heap the blame on. And seven years of politics and a Trump presidency have made it that much easier for Tshibaka, who can now just say stand-in words for “Fuck Joe Biden” and get the point across.

And about this whole “Let’s Go Brandon Movement.” It’s a weird thing to grapple with from the outside, which is probably the point. On the one hand it’s a hollow, childish stand-in for a swear word (Also, c’mon! Just say what you mean! I thought this was America!) that they seem to love throwing out there with delight. On the other, it’s quite literally virtue signaling. Signaling that they’re part of an in-crowd with a secret phrase that everyone knows about.

Ultimately, there’s just nothing to it.

And, to me, when we contemplate just what kind of U.S. senator that Tshibaka would be based on what she’s telling us, she’s just another opportunistic right winger who’ll be more beholden to the national conservative outrage machine than anything else. (And if you want to learn more about her authenticity, Dermot Cole has you covered.) More interested in obstructing any policy goals that have a D next to them and rubberstamping whatever has an R next to it. After all, what else is there to the “Let’s Go Brandon Movement”?

It’s a position that would relegate U.S. Sen. Kelly Tshibaka to the backbench of reliable, unremarkable conservatives… and Alaska already has one of those in U.S. Sen. Sullivan! But at least Sullivan had the good sense to vote for the infrastructure bill, understanding the late Ted Stevens’ immortal words of “to hell with politics, just do what’s right for Alaska.” Which, if we’re in the mood of decoding political statements, would really translate to “to hell with politics, just bring home the bacon for Alaska.”

Tshibaka, in her haste to oppose all things Biden, wouldn’t even have done that.

Why it matters: Sure, a good bit of this all is just effective politics. By reframing the race into more friendly terms, it becomes an easier race to win. To me, though, what’s so frustrating about it is that it represents this larger push to morph Alaska politics into just more of the same Lower 48 national drivel. It’s fully on display in the U.S. Senate race, but we’re also seeing it on the local level as conservative groups push to rile people up about vaccines and masks, drum up fears about critical race theory, and ban books. These aren’t some earnest Alaska grown concerns, but merely talking points straight from Outside aimed at keeping the base angry, engaged and divided from everyone else.

As we move forward, it’s critically important to stay in tune and aware of what’s going on. Not just to the on-the-ground moves but how they fit into a wider national outrage machine. Moves like banning a book intended to help gender queer young adults navigate a difficult and uncertain world is just the start.

Redistricting breakdown

This section’s a week old from the newsletter. I meant to reheat it into last week’s Friday in the Sun before the steam just ran out on everything but in the interest of making a complete-ish record of things (and definitely not to pad out this column any more) here’s my Nov. 13 breakdown of the redistricting board’s plan on the political layout: 

It was a tense and frequently frustrating process that saw months of discussions, debate and public hearings come down to a largely sneaky hard-to-feel-great about result. Much of the veneer of an open, responsive and public process gave way as the board’s conservative trio (Binkley, Marcum and Simpson) pushed forward with their plan over the reasoned objections of members Nicole Borromeo and Melanie Bahnke, issues that I’ve covered at length in the previous newsletters and posts. As much as we would like it to be anything else, redistricting is inherently a political process and was always going to favor one side of the equation over than the other. The question as we move forward into the realm of legal challenges is just how the court will view these gerrymanders, whether they will act in time for the 2022 election and just how the impacts will alter the political landscape.

The reality is that we won’t really know the impact of any of these changes will have on the political landscape until there’s an election through—except for maybe the changes to the district held by Rep. Grier Hopkins, oof (more on that below). Alaska’s political landscape is changing and has been changing for a while now, throwing out much of the traditional knowledge about how things ought to work. After all, the seat that extreme-right Republican Sen. Lora Reinbold currently holds was generally understood to be drawn for moderate-by-comparison former Republican Sen. Anna MacKinnon (the “former” ought to tell you about how that worked out). That’s all to say that everyone—particularly the Republican old guard—think that they have everything figured out and are betting hard that their new districts will play to their advantage. But as is the case with everything in Alaska politics, there’s a wide gulf between what ought to work and how things actually work.

So in today’s newsletter, I’ll be highlighting three big political impacts of the map and the two most obvious legal challenges for the map (I know there’s more, and I’m supposed to give someone a call to hear about concerns with the Mat-Su area maps).

Political impacts

First, a big caveat: In a more overachiever time, I would have spent several days attempting to crunch the political shifts on my own, coming up with some interesting but ultimately deeply questionable numbers about how trends might be shaping up. Thankfully, Twitterer and data nerd Robert Hockema (@alaskanrobby) has done an excellent job breaking down the numbers and trends in the maps. He’s taken a look at how the new districts would play out if they were in place for the 2020 presidential election, which gives us a good idea of some trends with the major, major caveat that legislative races do not precisely follow the outcome of the presidential election (Fairbanks Democratic Sen. Scott Kawasaki being one of the biggest exceptions to the rule, winning handily in 2018 in a district that went Trump +13 in 2020).

Alright, let’s take a look at the obvious political impacts:

  • The Alaska Redistricting Board did Fairbanks Democratic Rep. Grier Hopkins dirty. He goes from representing a solidly blue house district to the blood-red House District 31 following the removal of some 4,000 Goldstream Valley residents from his district in return for much of the conservative east side of the Fairbanks North Star Borough, which sees his district go from a Biden +1.5 district to a Trump +26 district. It’s the most dramatic political shift of any candidate, which will make it really tough sledding for the Democrat if he decides to run again. The siphoning off of the 4,000 Goldstream Valley residents means that the rural Interior House District 36 (currently represented by Republican Rep. Mike Cronk of Tok) to the left, but it still sits solidly in Republican territory.
  • In terms of political shifts for the Senate incumbents (Hockema has a breakdown here), there’s nothing nearly as significant as what Hopkins is facing. The North Pole seat currently held by Sen. Robb Myers swung even harder to the right to the point where it’s looking like the reddest of the red Mat-Su and Kenai senate seats. The place that I think is the most interesting is Sen. Lora Reinbold’s new Eagle River/South Muldoon district. The impact of adding that South Muldoon seat (currently held by Democratic Rep. Liz Snyder, who narrowly won the seat over Republican Rep. Lance Pruitt in 2020) sees the seat shift 16 points in the wrong direction for Reinbold. It goes from a Trump +25 district to a Trump +8 district. It’s not a world-altering shift as the South Muldoon district is pretty evenly split, but it could be enough to make Reinbold’s chances difficult given her high-profile antics over the pandemic and the implementation of ranked-choice voting.
  • As far as incumbents go, there’s four pairs of Republican incumbents who now find themselves in the same House or Senate districts compared to two pairs of Democratic incumbents in the House. All the pairings with the exception of one in the Mat-Su—where we see extreme-right Republican Reps. David Eastman and Christopher Kurka paired together—occur in Anchorage/Eagle River. In the Anchorage-area you have: Democratic Reps. Chris Tuck and Andy Josephson now sharing what is largely Tuck’s district (that he’s somehow managed to hold onto despite pretty much every other indicator saying it should’ve gone conservative); Democratic Reps. Zack Fields and Harriet Drummond sharing the Downtown Anchorage seat; over in Eagle River you have Republican Reps. Kelly Merrick and Ken McCarty sharing a seat (they’ve both since announced plans to run for Senate); Republican Sens. Mia Costello and Natasha von Imhof sharing a pretty blue-looking west Anchorage senate seat; and Democratic Rep. Matt Claman sharing the very-blue north end of that senate seat with caucus-less Republican Rep. Sara Rasmussen. As far as the overall landscape goes, it leaves open four Anchorage-area House seats, one Mat-Su House seat and the newly minted Eagle River/Downtown Anchorage Senate seat. Two of the open House seats should be solidly Democratic (North Muldoon and Midtown) while the other two would be Republican (South Anchorage and Eagle River), as would the Senate district (Eagle River/Downtown Anchorage).

How it works out: Overall, it should be noted that the House district maps don’t represent a significant shift away from the status quo. This isn’t all that surprising given that beyond the Fairbanks fix, there’s not many other places where the conservative efforts to gerrymander prevailed. It was a significant win for fairness when the board approved Borromeo’s Anchorage-area maps that pretty closely reflected the existing and natural community boundaries. According to Hockema, the end result is that 17 seats are solidly Republican (the same), 10 are solidly Democratic (an increase of one) and 13 are competitive (down by one). There’s going to be some jockeying by the paired incumbents, but ranked choice voting would allow the decision to be made at the general election level instead of at the party primary level.

In the wide view of the situation and Senate pairings (which are problematic), you could squint and perhaps see an effort to pull things in a slightly more moderate direction than things were before. The pairings of Eastman and Kurka means one of those characters will be sent packing, which a notable outcome given Anchorage-area Republicans’ efforts to campaign against Eastman in the 2020 election. There’s also some key shifts in districts that see some—like Sen. Reinbold’s Senate district—shift away from a safe situation. It doesn’t mean that they’d switch party hands by any means, but moves like this open the door for a somewhat moderate Republican challenger to Reinbold and the open Mat-Su seat created by the pairing together of Kurka and Eastman happens to include the home of Jesse Sumner, who was the GOP’s favored challenger to Eastman. There’s a big gulf between the extreme-right Republicans and the moderate Republicans (though, it should be noted, that they’re all still Republicans).

Find a full breakdown of my take on the legal issues facing the board here.

Those poll numbers in full

From Ivan Moore, it’s Sullivan +7, Young +2, Murkowski -2, Dunleavy -3, Bronson -13 (Anchorage only) and Biden -30. 

Don Young

Speaking of Young, the knife-wielding, infrastructure bill-supporting, cannabis caucusing, oft-embarrassing and frequently problematic representative crossed another milestone this week by becoming the sixth-longest serving member of the U.S. House. 

Lt. Runningmate

Here’s a tidbit that’s been gathering dust in my notebook now for several weeks:

I’ve heard from two different sources that there’s some meat to the rumor that Deena Bishop, Anchorage School District’s superintendent who announced her plans to retire at the end of the school year, is on the list for possible running mates to replace Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer on Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s ticket. However, other sources that I’ve talked to since this item first entered my notebook have said there’s between little and nothing to it. While they had a good working relationship back in the Mat-Su, three years of Big Mike in the governor’s office may have changed that one source tells me. Another source familiar with the Dunleavy campaign also said there’s nothing to it but conceded that there is talk that Meyer won’t be on the ticket by the time that ballots are printed.

Outside observers on the situation also note that Meyer poses a Trump problem for Dunleavy in that if you want to exert complete partisan control over the state elections for the next four years, Meyer’s probably not your guy.

The talk has long been on Sen. Mia Costello potentially stepping into that spot (which, hey, she’s now sharing a seat Sen. Natasha von Imhof (who also happens to be rumored to be considering a gubernatorial run) so there’s worse exit strategies), but that’s been going around for a while now without any developments. 

Probably the biggest flaw about the Bishop rumor and the whole switcheroo talk is that it would leave the Dunleavy campaign hamstrung in terms of fundraising—getting a candidate settled before the end of the year allows boosters to get in on two calendar years of giving (currently at $1,500 per candidate per year, for now). Bishop’s commitment to stay on through the end of the year would really undercut the campaigning (though, then again, fundraising wasn’t that big of an issue last time around with Francis Dunleavy and Bob Penney bankrolling the pro-Dunleavy PAC that did most of the campaigning anyways). 

And then there’s the whole thing about a governor who’s got a weak flank on the right bringing on the former head of the Anchorage School District (She certainly improved the case by welcoming book banning). Observers seem to think that Dunleavy would be better off with someone from Fairbanks, where Dunleavy’s struggled mightily to gain much traction, but I guess we’ll be kept waiting a bit longer. After all, decisiveness isn’t exactly Dunleavy’s strong suit. 

Don’t call it a junk drawer, call it an backlog

In case you’re not an avid listener to Gov. Dunleavy’s state-run propaganda podcast, FristHand, the latest episode is about how great the DMV actually is. I wouldn’t know, but that’s the story according to a lengthy news release accompanying the new episode entitled “DOA, More than a Junk Drawer of Services, Podcast Says” (which, woof) that sings the praises of just how great everything is with the DMV. 

I guess the Dunleavy administration’s press office really found plenty to like when they penned the bizarre anti-Biden “satire” in the voice of Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Muhammed bin Salman (which if you really want the story, check out Matthew Tunseth’s excellent dissection of the whole thing) because this news release includes zingers like: “Commissioner Vrana describes the DOA as the unseen mortar that gives the structure of government its strength” and “The DMV is just one of the 14 divisions or agencies managed or supported under the DOA, a department whose responsibilities are so varied it may be considered the junk drawer of State government — you don’t really know what is in there, but it always seems to have what you need.” 

All hail Glorious Leader Tall Mike! 

Anyways, it’s sure an interesting posture in light of this RFP that the administration simultaneously put out to help clear out the DMV’s inbox: DMV is currently experiencing a three-month backlog in mail; this is primarily due to the increased number of mailed-in transactions during the pandemic and a high staff vacancy rate of approximately 25%.

They’re looking to drop $40,000 on “qualified professionals to provide the processing of backlog mail, including but not limited to collecting mail, opening mail and distributing the mail to the correct parties. 

Gosh. These people. 

Covid-19 backlogs 

Speaking of backlogs: On the covid-19 front, the word going around is that we ought to expect another massive dump of late-reported deaths—perhaps a few hundred—that will push us over the 1,000 deaths mark. While it’s been officially chalked up to the whole backlog and data entry issues, it seems like there’s a growing feeling that part of the inability to meaningful address the backlog and data entry issues is that it would ramp up pressure to actually do something, which, again, is not really Dunleavy’s strong suit. 

Easier to skip out on debates. 

‘This is about as bad a time to have a new convention as there ever could be’

That’s the assessment of a potential constitutional convention from Vic Fischer, the last surviving delegate of the state’s original convention, in a new story by KTOO/Alaska Public Media

Fischer told the outlet that he’s worried that a potential convention, which pro-PFD proponents in the Legislature are openly pushing for now that they haven’t got their way through the normal legislative process, would be undermined by the political opportunism. The original plan, he argued, was driven from unity in a shared vision for the state. Now, he says, people are more concerned about winning.

“You probably have strong intentions of changing one or more parts of the constitution,” he said. “The proper way would be to do it by amendment and not open up every phrase, every paragraph in the constitution because nobody knows what a horror may descend if it’s opened up all the way and people are elected who would rip apart a constitution that was written under the idealistic convention of 1955.”

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