Alaska election authorities said Wednesday that they were done counting ballots and had produced final unofficial numbers but explained they would spend a week double-checking before certifying the results. The only contest that appears to be in any doubt, though, is in the Anchorage-based House District 27, where Democrat Liz Snyder enjoys a 16-vote edge over Republican Minority Leader Lance Pruitt, who was hoping to be speaker in a GOP-led House.
The race is close enough that the state would pay for a recount, and Pruitt said Tuesday that he was still deciding whether to proceed. James Brooks of the Anchorage Daily News notes, however, that no recount in state history has ever overturned a lead as large as Snyder’s.
Regardless of what happens between Snyder and Pruitt, it remains to be seen who will be able to put together a majority. Two of the three Republican members of the Majority Caucus, state Reps. Steve Thompson and Bart LeBon, said in October that they wanted “to form a Republican majority,” while the third, state Rep. Louise Stutes, described herself at the time as “noncommittal.” LeBon, however, backpedalled this week, saying he hadn’t decided what to do, though he predicted that the new governing coalition would include members from both parties and some independents.
LeBon added that he was wary of any caucus that includes only a bare majority of members, which he argued would not be “healthy.” The person the Republicans may need to win over to give them a plumper majority is Patkotak, the independent who flipped an open Democratic-held seat in the far northern part of the state and has not decided on what caucus to join.
Patkotak said this week that he wanted to make sure several programs he supported, including “petroleum property taxes and Power Cost Equalization,” were protected, warning that he didn’t want to join a caucus that would undermine them. Power Cost Equalization is an Alaska program that subsidizes rural utility customers, which Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy has proposed eliminating. Dunleavy has also advocated for transferring authority to tax oil-related properties from local municipalities to the state government. The governor will propose a budget next month, and it remains to be seen whether he’ll call for these changes again.
Republicans may also have problems even if they do earn the support of Thompson, LeBon, Stutes, and Patkotak. One big divide in the party has been over the legislature’s “binding caucus rule,” which Brooks described earlier this month as “a set of voluntary rules that require members of a majority to vote together on specific items, including the budget.”
State Rep. David Eastman, a conservative who never joined the Majority Caucus but has nevertheless been a huge pain for party leaders, has opposed this rule and recently said that he’d be reluctant to stay in the GOP caucus if it remained a requirement.
LeBon, by contrast, wants to keep the rule, saying, “Eventually, you need to pass a budget … And, if you’re in the majority, you basically need to depend on your teammates in the majority to support the budget process from the start to the finish, and then pass it on the floor.” (The Majority Caucus actually booted a Republican member last year after she crossed it on a key budget vote.)
Republicans in the state Senate are also struggling to sort out their own differences, leaving Democrats hopeful that they can put together a similar bipartisan coalition in the upper chamber, which the GOP has run on its own since 2013. One factor that could improve Democrats’ prospects is the narrow passage of Measure 2, which will implement a “top four” primary system in place of the current partisan primary.
Starting in 2022, Measure 2 will require all candidates from all parties (including independents) to face off on a single primary ballot. The top four vote-getters—regardless of party—will advance to the general election, where a winner will be chosen via an instant runoff. This new system, which is the first of its kind in the United States, could make it easier for more pragmatic Republican legislators to form cross-party alliances and still keep their seats now that they no longer have to worry quite so much about protecting their right flank in GOP primaries.
With so many factors in play, it could take a while before we know who winds up on top in either chamber. Indeed, just two years ago it looked like Republicans had taken control of the House from a previous bipartisan alliance, but they simply could not find a candidate for speaker who could command a majority. The deadlock lasted through February of 2017, a full third of the way through the legislature’s 90-day session, until a new coalition finally formed.
Republicans will send 13 members to the Senate and Democrats seven, the same breakdown as before the election. However, one Democrat, Lyman Hoffman, has long caucused with the GOP. Democratic Leader Tom Begich recently said that “there remains the possibility of a coalition” but also noted that “there’s more of them than there are of us,” so Republicans—at least in theory—will have the final say.