Voters send some legislative incumbents packing

ANCHORAGE — Wasilla state Rep. Wes Keller said Wednesday that he had mixed emotions about losing his Republican primary.

Part of him is relieved, he said, given the difficult legislative session that lies ahead with Alaska’s multibillion-dollar budget deficit still unresolved. But he called his loss a bit of a surprise, too, noting he felt confident at times leading to Tuesday’s race, and said rejection is never fun.

Keller was one of several legislators who lost their primaries. But reading too much into that is difficult, since a number of other lawmakers fended off challengers Tuesday and 10 faced no primary opposition.

The idea that voters could send a few legislators packing and that “all of a sudden, magically, everything will be different is ludicrous,” pollster Ivan Moore said. One can hope, though, that there will be a few more legislators willing to compromise, he said.

Lawmakers went into an extended legislative session earlier this year as the House struggled to come to terms on changes to the state’s oil tax credit system. Disagreement over how to close the bulging budget gap resulted in two special sessions of gridlock.

Marc Hellenthal, another pollster, said the best he could tell was that those who prevailed worked the hardest campaigning in their districts. Limitations on fundraising while the Legislature was meeting could have impacted some incumbents, he said.

Moore said there was an anti-incumbent sentiment, but it wasn’t across the board.

One of the successful candidates, Natasha von Imhof, ran against a “do-nothing Legislature,” Hellenthal said, but he noted that she also raised lots of money and did considerable door-to-door campaigning.

Von Imhof won a three-way GOP primary in Senate District L, defeating Rep. Craig Johnson, a leader of the House’s Republican-led majority who entered the race late. Jeff Landfield, known for his colorful social media presence, was the third Republican. The seat is currently held by Republican Lesil McGuire, who didn’t seek re-election. Forrest McDonald will be the Democratic candidate in the race in November.

In a statement, von Imhof said voters are tired of gridlock, adding that she offers “a new voice and optimism about how we can tackle the state’s challenges in a responsible way.”

Other Republicans who lost their races include Rep. Lynn Gattis, who was defeated by Wasilla City Council member David Wilson in a bid to replace retiring GOP Sen. Charlie Huggins. Wilson is poised to take over the seat though it’s possible someone could run as a write-in for the general election. Rep. Bob Lynn lost his primary, as did Rep. Jim Colver. Colver was targeted by his party, which saw him as having Democratic leanings.

Races involving two Democratic lawmakers who are part of the House majority, Reps. Bob Herron and Benjamin Nageak, were undecided as of early Wednesday afternoon. The state Democratic party, hoping for a shakeup in the leadership structure in Juneau, backed their Democratic challengers.

Wilson said he ran for Senate because, at the time, Huggins was going back and forth on whether to retire. While Wilson said he respects Huggins’ military service and what Huggins has done for Alaska, he believes that when you represent the people you should have a fire to do so.

Keller, a conservative who helped lead a push for more parental involvement in schools earlier this year, lost to firefighter David Eastman, who said in his candidate statement that he believes in limited government and aspires to be a statesman.

Keller said he got good feedback from constituents and believes low turnout hurt him. But he said the voters have spoken.

Turnout was estimated at 15.4 percent Wednesday, Division of Elections director Josie Bahnke said. If that stands, it would be the lowest primary turnout since the state started tracking it in 1976. Turnout was 17.2 percent in 2000.

State GOP chairman Tuckerman Babcock said he was troubled by the low turnout and is considering what he or his party could do to encourage more people to vote.

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