ANCHORAGE, Alaska — As the big field of Republican challengers jostles to get noticed against incumbent state senators, a common target has been emerging for many of them: the bipartisan coalition that has governed the Alaska Senate.
"It's partially why I'm running," said Mike Dunleavy, a tea-party backed Republican from Wasilla challenging Sen. Linda Menard, a first-term Republican and a member of the coalition. "I don't believe the coalition represents the constituents. I think it represents itself."
"Senate District K deserves to have a senator who stands firm on their principles by refusing to join a coalition that gives the Democrats control," Jeff Landfield said in May when he announced he was taking on veteran Anchorage Sen. Lesil McGuire in the Republican primary. She's also a member of the coalition.
And at a recent candidate forum sponsored by the Anchorage Tea Party, two other Republican senate candidates, Liz Vazquez and Bob Roses, signified in a panel question that they wouldn't join a bipartisan coalition "similar to the one structured in the Senate." Both are running in districts represented by incumbent Democrats who are part of the coalition -- Hollis French and Bill Wielechowski.
Such sentiments make no sense, said members of the coalition.
"Compromise requires you to work from the middle," French said. "We've been doing that, and for many extremists, that's not acceptable."
"I'm very proud of the fact we could find a way to cross party lines and work together and work in the middle," said Sen. Gary Stevens, a Republican from Kodiak. As president of the Senate for the last four years, he has led the coalition, which by its nature creates centrist politics.
"We're not able to deal with the far left or the far right issues. I think if you look at what we actually accomplished, we pretty much stayed in the center, where most Alaskans are," Stevens said
10-10 Senate split
Unlike other states and Congress, which organize strictly on party lines, majority legislative coalitions are nothing new to Alaska. In fact the House too was run by a coalition in its most recent session, though its 22 Republicans were clearly in control, holding all leadership positions and all standing committee chairmanships. Four rural Democrats from among the House's 16 Democrats served small committee roles within the majority.
But the Senate is different and that difference proved significant in the 27th Legislature, which gaveled to a close in April. The coalition's makeup of all 10 Senate Democrats and six of 10 Senate Republicans played a role in defeating Gov. Parnell's oil-tax breaks and the House's in-state gas line bill. The disappearance twice in the Senate of a tea-party favorite, the House-passed "stand-your-ground" gun bill of Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, has been an additional annoyance to Alaska's conservatives.
In the past two elections, voters have sent an equal number of Republicans and Democrats to the Senate. In 2011, the first year of the 27th Legislature, the coalition resolved the 10-10 tie with the officially named Senate Bipartisan Working Group. As it did in the tied year of 2009, it chose the moderate Stevens as Senate president; Bert Stedman, another Republican also from a fishing town far from the oil industry, was named co-chair of the Finance Committee.
Stedman largely managed the Senate's drawn-out response to Parnell's oil-tax bill, but four Democrats, French and Wielechowski from Anchorage, Joe Paskvan from Fairbanks and Finance co-chair Lyman Hoffman of Bethel, also played major roles in its ultimate defeat.
Meanwhile Sen. Donny Olson, a Democrat from Nome, dismantled the House's in-state gas-line bill as chairman of the Community and Regional Affairs Committee.
The arguments over the oil-tax measure should be familiar to any Alaskan who has watched television, read a newspaper or paid any attention at all to the Legislature between January and April. The debate will only grow louder as it develops into a prime election issue.
Gov. Parnell, joined by House Republicans and a coalition of oil industry contractors and other business leaders, say that Alaska's oil tax system, put into place during Gov. Sarah Palin's administration, reaches too deeply into the pockets of oil producers, especially when oil prices are high. They said that the major producers -- BP, Conoco Phillips and Exxon -- were investing their money in states and countries with lower taxes, resulting in production declines here.
Stedman, Stevens and the Senate Democrats said Parnell's cuts would amount to an annual giveaway of up to $2 billion to the oil industry without any firm commitment to increase production. They agreed to more modest cuts that would give back about $500 million, but got nowhere.
"They did not support our compromise," Stevens said in a recent interview. Stevens and others suspected that the supporters of a larger oil-tax cut believed they could get better results from an election in which spending on advertising would be virtually limitless than they could get out of a legislative compromise.
'Alaska is in trouble'
The Aug. 28 primary is still a long way off, and the Nov. 6 general election even further, but the coalition is already guaranteed to lose at least one member. Another is in a perilous position. That's because of redistricting, the adjustment process that follows every 10-year census and attempts to ensure that each district has close to equal population.
With Southeast losing population and Mat-Su gaining, the Alaska Redistricting Board put Stedman in the same Senate district as another coalition member, Democrat Al Kookesh of Angoon, forcing a November face-off. In Fairbanks, Democrat Joe Thomas, a coalition member, was paired with another incumbent, Republican John Coghill, who is not part of the coalition.
Redistricting has also brought out a large number of candidates, said Republican Party chairman Randy Ruedrich.
"It's an opportunity to see massive change and a lot of people want to be part of it," Ruedrich said. With so many candidates, each is looking for distinguishing issues and some have alighted on the coalition. But it's probably not an issue that drove candidates into the race in the first place, since proportionally, there are just as many contested House seats, where there is no coalition issue, as there are Senate seats, he said.
One relatively new factor, however, is the tea party. Two years ago, it was a new phenomenon that came into play when Joe Miller upended U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary. Miller campaigned on many of the same themes now echoing in the state Senates races: She was a Republican In Name Only or RINO, she compromised too much with Democrats, she favored too much government spending, she had a middle-of-the-road policy on abortion rights.
When she lost the primary, Murkowski turned those negatives into positives in appealing to centrist Republicans, moderate Democrats and independents who together make up a majority of the electorate. She achieved a rare write-in victory in the general election over Miller and the populist Democrat, Scott McAdams.
The tea party has no central organization. The most prominent one operating in the Mat-Su area, the Conservative Patriots Group, has set its sights on Republican Menard in the Senate.
"We're really disappointed and angry to see her join the coalition down there and essentially be an impediment to some of the good bills that were introduced down there in Juneau," said Frank Bettine, a board member in charge of the group's public relations. "We just don't like her. We think, to be plain and simple, that's she's a real RINO."
Bettine would also like to see Democrats French, Wielechowski, Paskvan, Kookesh and Bettye Davis defeated, but doesn't believe the Conservative Patriots Group has the breadth to go after all of them. He's focusing on the group's endorsement of Dunleavy, president of the Mat-Su School District Board, who's running against Menard, along with three Mat-Su Borough primary races in the House.
"We do believe Alaska is in trouble -- oil production is declining, our budgets have not declined, they've actually increased over the years," Dunleavy said in an interview. "We ask ourselves, if we continue with the same players, are we going to continue to get the same results? The chances are, yes."
Menard, however, said the tea party overstates the concerns that voters have about the coalition. Most voters are more interested in seeing their legislators working hard for their district, she said. She cited a Web poll on the Anchorage Tea Party's home page, which, while not scientific, shows that more than 70 percent of respondents even there believe that legislators should form bipartisan coalitions and that "parties don't matter."
"I'm maybe not as conservative as they would like me to be -- I don't know -- but I stand behind my conservative record," she said.
Menard said she supported "meaningful" oil tax reform within the coalition and had thought a compromise might pass until the governor withdrew his bill during the special session in April.
In Anchorage, where McGuire is facing Republican challenger Landfield, the veteran incumbent said it was "silly" to run against the coalition.
"We have had coalitions governing our state government throughout state history," McGuire said. "That's part of what makes Alaska a unique and wonderful place, that we do work together, urban and rural, people of all genders, people of all color. You have to, because we're a small state."