ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The Alaska state Senate faced the potential of a major power shift, with Republicans seizing a majority in the chamber in Tuesday's elections.
Coming into Tuesday, the Senate was comprised of 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans, with six Republicans joining Democrats to form a bipartisan majority. The GOP won at least 12 seats Tuesday, in a political landscape reconfigured by redistricting, and Republican party chairman Randy Ruedrich expected that number to rise to 14 when the results were finalized.
"That's going to be a Republican organization that can work with the House, work with the governor, and I am pleased," he said Wednesday. The Alaska House stayed firmly in GOP control.
Senate Republicans planned an organizational meeting Wednesday, with the potential still there for a coalition of some kind to survive. Ruedrich said it was possible Republicans could join with the Democrats but didn't know why they would.
Democrats won or held six seats, including that of Sen. Dennis Egan of Juneau, the only lawmaker whose seat was not up for grabs in 2012. Two Democrats were in races Tuesday where absentee votes might factor in: results showed Sen. Joe Paskvan of Fairbanks trailing GOP challenger Pete Kelly by 529 votes and Sen. Hollis French of Anchorage leading Republican Bob Bell by 249 votes.
French, who on Tuesday night said he felt "reasonably confident" in his chances, reserved his comments Wednesday to see how the ballot situation sorted itself out. Ruedrich on Tuesday said he liked Bell's chances.
Democrats sought to take or hold on to at least four Anchorage Senate seats and keep at least one of the Fairbanks seats in hopes of keeping a coalition similar to what exists today intact. Sen. Joe Thomas, D-Fairbanks, lost to Senate Minority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, in one of two Senate races that forced incumbents to face off due to redistricting. Sen. Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage, lost to Rep. Anna Fairclough, R-Eagle River, in her new district.
Sens. Johnny Ellis and Bill Wielechowski, Anchorage Democrats, won their races, as did Rep. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, who faced Republican Don Smith in the Senate District H race.
In southeast Alaska, in the other incumbent pairing, Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, defeated Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon. Stedman has been a leader in the coalition, as has Ellis.
A Senate coalition has been in power since 2007. But some GOP leaders, including Gov. Sean Parnell, wanted to break up the current group, which they consider obstructionist on issues including changes to Alaska's oil tax structure.
Sixteen of the Senate's 20 seats were up for grabs Tuesday. Of the four seats either uncontested or decided, two belonged to incumbent Democrats — Sens. Lyman Hoffman and Egan — and two to Republicans who unseated GOP coalition members in the August primary, Mike Dunleavy of Wasilla and Peter Micciche of Soldotna.
The coalition last year refused to follow the House and pass Parnell's oil tax-cut plan, which critics called a massive corporate giveaway with no guarantees it would mean additional investment here. Coalition leaders at the time said they didn't have the information needed to make a sound policy call.
This year, an overhaul of the tax structure stalled in the coalition caucus, but the Senate approved a narrower plan, intended to encourage oil production from new fields, late in the regular session. That died in the House. Lawmakers in both parties and chambers lambasted a Parnell tax-cut plan proposed during a special session and eventually pulled.
Boosting oil production is a top economic priority for Parnell, who sees changing Alaska's oil tax system as a way to do that. Alaska relies heavily on oil taxes to run, but production has been declining.
No one in the Legislature has argued with the desire to increase production; the debate lies in how best to do that.
Democrats feared Republican control of both the House and Senate would mean a rubber-stamping of Parnell's tax-cut ideas, which they consider dangerous. But political scientist Jerry McBeath said he doesn't see that happening, noting that Stedman and Republican Senate President Gary Stevens were among those opposed to Parnell's plans. Stedman, as co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, earlier this year led the Senate's oil tax effort.
On the House side, Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, faced a possible upset against political newcomer Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, who led by 49 votes with all precincts reporting but where outstanding ballots also were being watched.
Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, won a three-way race that included Rep. Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan. Johansen, a former House majority leader, ran as an unaffiliated candidate in House District 33, after skipping a crowded GOP primary in August. He finished a distant third, behind Democrat Matt Olsen.
Republican Rep. Lance Pruitt held a 97-vote lead over Democratic Rep. Pete Petersen in District 25 in Anchorage, and was confident the outstanding absentee ballots favored him; Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, led Rep. Bob Miller, D-Fairbanks, by 288 votes in District 2, with all precincts reporting and Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, led Rep. Alan Dick, R-Nenana, by 366 with all precincts reporting in District 38, with non-affiliated candidate Dorothy Shockley in third.