With nearly all the ballots tallied and final vote counts awaiting official approval, the results of Anchorage’s municipal election are clear: With one exception, progressive and moderate Assembly candidates were able to retain a majority solid enough to override mayoral vetoes and school board incumbents handily beat challengers.
Despite record campaign spending this cycle, at just under 30%, turnout was almost exactly the same as it has been in recent municipal elections without a mayoral race in play. The election also followed an unprecedentedly contentious period in Anchorage politics, in which Mayor Dave Bronson won a narrow victory as an outsider candidate by mobilizing a coalition of conservatives and activists angry at the municipality’s response to the coronavirus and spending related to homelessness.
But that coalition was not able to flip the Assembly toward a more Bronson-friendly composition, nor was it able to oust school board members who have supported more progressive education policies and a cautious approach to the coronavirus.
In the weeks since election day, campaign observers, elected officials and local pundits have mulled a similar set of questions: Why didn’t the forces that carried Bronson into office prevail this time around? Has Anchorage’s electorate moved irreversibly to the left in the last couple of years? And was this cycle’s record spending, organization and venom the new normal in municipal politics?
$38.82 per vote
The sky was crystal clear Tuesday at the Kuparuk oil field when Randy Sulte answered his phone during a work trip to the North Slope, where he handles operations for a company tasked with infrastructure maintenance.
“It’s 9 degrees but feels warmer,” said Sulte, the one conservative challenger who won a seat this cycle, earning 756 votes more than South Anchorage incumbent John Weddleton, according to the latest figures from the clerk’s office.
Sulte was part of a raft of conservatives who shared tactics, messaging, volunteers and donors in an effort to win the five Assembly seats up for grabs this year. They appeared jointly at fundraisers, and alongside Bronson and members of his administration, who actively campaigned on their behalf. Four of those five candidates spent vast sums of their campaign donations on the same services, including opposition research, polling and ads handled by subsidiaries of Axiom Strategies, a Republican political firm based in Missouri that also handled Bronson’s successful mayoral run last year.
In the end, all that money and coordination flipped just one of the targeted positions.
“In my opinion, it’s a giant waste of money. I wish there were a cheaper way to do it,” said Sulte, whose campaign raised $165,777.
Though that money bought signs, campaign literature and ads, Sulte thinks what nudged him to victory were the things that didn’t cost money: lots of door-knocking, his roots in South Anchorage after raising a family and having business ties there, as well as some hostile sentiments toward sitting Assembly members like Weddleton.
“A negative towards him was that he was associated with the majority for the last six years,” Sulte said.
At just over 40%, South Anchorage had the highest voter turnout of any district in the city.
The race for the East Anchorage seat was the most expensive this cycle, as incumbent Forrest Dunbar and challenger Stephanie Taylor raised a combined $464,312 in campaign donations.
“A 27% voter turnout is unfortunate,” Taylor said of the district’s returns. “Mail-in elections were supposed to improve voter turnout, but the difference has been negligible.”
With 11,963 votes cast by east side residents, that breaks down to $38.81 a vote.
Not included in that sum are the tens of thousands of dollars more from union groups and outside financiers that were spent through independent expenditure groups. Local chapters of the AFL-CIO and IBEW, for example, chipped in $12,000 on digital ads in support of Dunbar, which were handled by a D.C.-based progressive political firm. On the other side, William J. Yung III, president of the Kentucky-based firm Columbia Sussex, which owns five hotels in Anchorage, spent nearly $20,000 on radio ads produced by an Alaska-based consultant in support of three conservative candidates.
“It was a disappointment,” Taylor said of the results. “Going against an incumbent is always tough. He had much better name recognition.”
“I think these results are primarily driven by the unpopularity of the mayor and his approach,” said Dunbar. “People want him to moderate, to drop his extreme politics, and to work with the Assembly.”
Dunbar lost to Bronson in last year’s mayoral runoff election by 1,193 votes. He remains an outspoken progressive on the Assembly and frequent target of attack from conservatives. It was assumed the East Anchorage race would be close, but Dunbar won by a comfortable margin of 13 percentage points.
He attributes that to campaigning clearly and critically against Bronson administration actions and policies, among them plans for a large homeless shelter around Elmore and Tudor roads in Dunbar’s district.
“Those areas turned very strongly against the mayor,” Dunbar said.
‘I have no evidence of cheating, I’ll give you that’
After throwing a lot of resources into this year’s municipal elections and having relatively little to show for it, conservative activists and donors are now wondering what comes next.
“What are we to do with Anchorage as it is?” asked a short post by Joel Davidson, editor of the website Alaska Watchman, which writes from the perspective of the Christian right.
“In the end, politics is not the end-all, be-all for conservatives,” wrote Davidson, who lives in Palmer.
He suggested two paths forward. First, abandoning efforts at institutional change and instead prioritizing family, church communities, “vastly expanded homeschooling, and strengthening networks of friends and neighbors who share common values.”
Alternatively, Davidson said, “It might also mean taking back the institutions that have been commandeered by the left — business coalitions, youth programs and civic and cultural organizations.”
The postmortem offered by a veteran Alaska campaign consultant was brief and blunt.
“My take on the municipal races is that the incumbents simply ran better campaigns,” said Art Hackney, who oversaw radio ads for some of the conservative candidates on behalf of an independent expenditure group.
After 40 years of running his own communications firm, Hackney worked for a time with Axiom, including on the Bronson campaign. He has since left the company.
“You could reasonably have expected that, with the right strategy/messaging, challengers would have done well in both School Board and Assembly. The fact that they didn’t must have a lot of contributors asking for answers,” Hackney said in an email.
Others on the right were less measured.
“It is possible Anchorage has gone communist,” far-right talk radio host Dan Fagan said the morning after the election results came in.
Fagan and other conservative allies of Bronson have also sown distrust in Anchorage’s mail-in election system, echoing national rhetoric that proliferated during the last presidential election surrounding false claims that it was stolen.
“If in fact these Marxists designed the mail-in balloting system with the specified purpose of making it easier to cheat, would they then not also cheat?” said Fagan, who broadcasts from Louisiana. “I have no evidence of cheating, I’ll give you that.”
Fagan did not say why he thinks supporters of mail-based elections are Marxists.
Since 2018, Anchorage has conducted its municipal elections through mail-in balloting, which has slightly increased overall turnout compared to the old in-person system. It has been consistently attacked by conservatives — though for several election cycles before the switch to vote-by-mail, moderate and progressive candidates were already consistently beating conservative opponents in local Assembly and school board.
“I think the people should start looking at a referendum,” said Jamie Allard, who represents Eagle River/Chugiak on the Assembly, referring to a possible citizen effort to scrap the vote-by-mail system.
Even if claims of fraud or widespread disenfranchisement under the current mail-based system are not substantiated, Allard said the perception of such problems may be suppressing conservative turnout.
“I would venture to say a lot has to do with the lack of trust with mail-in ballots,” she said of the election results.
Allard has been a close ally of Bronson’s and the most consistent member of the Assembly to vote against other members on hot-button issues like mask requirements, homelessness and executive appointments. She also actively campaigned against many of the same incumbents she’ll continue to sit beside on the dais and during Assembly meetings.
While many conservatives are disappointed by the election results, Allard said remaking the Assembly is a yearslong process that will require sustained, steady engagement from residents.
“It’s only been really 12 months,” Allard said, referring to conservatives helping sweep the Bronson administration into City Hall. “We were able to elect another individual that does not align with the supermajority, with progressives.”
‘Being a nuts-and-bolts guy is pretty drab’
As it stands, Anchorage voters opted to stick with the status quo in local governance.
“It’s largely a vote of confidence in the Assembly,” said Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance, who represents South Anchorage.
The Assembly’s informal bloc of moderates and progressives still has eight members, enough to override mayoral vetoes even if conservatives Allard, Sulte and Eagle River’s newly elected Kevin Cross do not join them. They will likely get another like-minded ally this summer when the downtown district, which covers some of the most liberal parts of the city, gets another seat in the chamber.
“I’ll continue to invite the administration to collaborate,” said LaFrance, who has not decided whether she’ll run for a third term next year. “Most of us are in our seats because we want the best for our community and recognize that there needs to be compromise. You need to be pragmatic and work together. I hope the mayor has that view as well.”
In response to an interview request, the mayor’s communications director, Corey Allen Young, said Bronson was unavailable owing to ongoing projects.
“The mayor’s priorities remain the same: securing funding to rebuild the Port of Alaska and resolving the homelessness crisis in Anchorage. The mayor looks forward to working with the Assembly to solve these issues,” Young said in a statement.
For his part, Weddleton is not overly upset to not be returning for a third term.
“I’m not grieving that,” he said. “I have a big, full life.”
He is disappointed that local politics reached a point where flash and conflict can yield more success than his pragmatic and technical approach.
“The skills it takes to do the work well aren’t the skills to get elected,” Weddleton said. “Being a nuts-and-bolts guy is pretty drab. I’m not flamboyant, I just do the work.”
This story has been updated to include comments from Stephanie Taylor.
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