State Sen. Jesse Kiehl of Juneau, right, and lifelong Juneau resident Andrea Ebona Michel monitor election returns Tuesday night at a watch party hosted by U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola’a campaign at McGivney’s Sports Bar Grill downtown. Kiehl, a Democrat, was the lone state senator who was unopposed in his race. Both of Juneau’s Democratic state House representatives also won reelection. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

State Sen. Jesse Kiehl of Juneau, right, and lifelong Juneau resident Andrea Ebona Michel monitor election returns Tuesday night at a watch party hosted by U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola’a campaign at McGivney’s Sports Bar Grill downtown. Kiehl, a Democrat, was the lone state senator who was unopposed in his race. Both of Juneau’s Democratic state House representatives also won reelection. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Alaskans embrace red, blue and wait

Voters lean both left and right, with a lot to be decided in two weeks, in ranked choice election

Alaskans across the political spectrum can claim victory (or defeat) the day after the state’s first ranked choice general election, with Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy likely winning a second term more easily than many expected, a constitutional convention favored by many conservatives losing in a landslide, and the state House and Senate seemingly moving in opposite directions in the degree of their partisan makeup.

Uncertainty is also a common factor, especially in the outcome of the two congressional races, as Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola appear positioned to win reelection when the full ranked choice tally takes place in two weeks, although their main challengers still have at least some cause for hope.

But while there were no “waves” of a red, blue or another hue, there is a uniting element all Alaskans can celebrate.

“The ads are over,” Peltola told supporters at her election night party in Anchorage. “The text messages are over. The phone calls are over.”

Unofficial results from 400 the state’s 402 precincts (99.5%), representing about 36.2% of registered voters, were published by the Division of Elections as of Wednesday afternoon. The remaining ballots are generally from remote communities that tend to be more favorable to liberal-leaning candidates, which may slightly benefit Peltola and Murkowski against their more conservative opponents, as well as uncounted early and absentee ballots.

Additional results from first-choice ballots are expected to be released next week, with elections officials scheduled to do a final tally on Nov. 23 when second- and third-choice votes will be added for all races where no candidate has a first-choice majority.

The following is the status of the gubernatorial, congressional, constitutional convention, statewide legislative and local candidate races as of Wednesday:

Governor

While Republicans nationwide fell short of expectations Tuesday, the opposite was true for Dunleavy as he appears likely to win a majority of first-choice ballots and thus avoid the “instant runoff” of ranked choice voting.

“We’re the only red state left on the entire West Coast because of you people,” Dunleavy told a crowd of supporters at his election night party in Anchorage.

The incumbent has 52.06% of the vote as of Wednesday, followed by 23.07% for Democrat Les Gara, 20.09% for independent former Gov. Bill Walker and 4.55% for Republican Charlie Pierce. Polls leading up to the election showed Dunleavy in the low- to mid-40s and Pierce with roughly 7%, making the combined total of the two Republican nearly even with the combined total of Walker and Gara as the latter two combined their campaigns in opposition to the incumbent.

Dunleavy’s higher first-choice total — and Pierce’s below-polls finish — may have been affected by the latter facing a sexual harassment suit filed two weeks before the election from a executive assistant to Pierce when he was the mayor of Kenai. He resigned as mayor in August, and the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly subsequently revealed a credible harassment complaint against him was made in July.

But Gara, in an interview Wednesday, said he believes another new element to this year’s election — unlimited campaign contributions resulting from an Alaska Public Offices Commission decision this spring — played a decisive role on what the concedes is a likely majority win by Dunleavy on first-choice ballots. Donations in the state’s major races were generally triple or more the totals raised four years ago.

Compared to other races in which moderate Republicans and Democrats performed well, Gara said “the difference was the $100,000 and $200,000 donations sent to Mike Dunleavy and one of my other opponents that we just did not get.”

Such contributions to Walker, who raised the most of the three leading gubernatorial candidates, didn’t prevent his third-place finish. He embraced policies during the campaign that were controversial during his term in office, notably reducing Permanent Fund dividends to redirect earnings to the state’s budget, but wasn’t ready to concede the race Tuesday night.

“I think we always had a headwind in this race and we knew it,” Heidi Drygas, Walker’s running mate, said during the campaign’s election night gathering. “It doesn’t really matter who comes in second or third if Dunleavy gets over 50%.”

U.S. Senate

There seems to be a strong likelihood Murkowski will win another six-year term despite currently trailing a challenger favored by state party leaders.

Murkowski has 42.79% of first-choice ballots as of Wednesday, while Republican challenger Kelly Tshibaka has 44.26%. It’s possible the incumbent might close that gap with the remaining uncounted ballots, but the far more likely path to victor is the 9.52% percent of first-choice votes for Democrat Pat Chesbro. Virtually all of the latter’s supporters are expected to rank Murkowski second if they express a preference, while Tshibaka’s second-choice support likely to be mostly the 2.93% of first-choice voters for Buzz Kelley, who suspended his campaign and endorsed Tshibaka weeks ago.

Both of the leading Republican candidates found reasons to express cautious optimism after the initial Election Night results came in.

“As we’re looking to the lay of the land and what is still out there to be counted, we feel very strongly about how they’re going to move and where they’re going to move us to,” Murkowski told supporters at her election night party in Anchorage.

Tshibaka, who saw a 6% lead when the first results were released at about 9:30 p.m. shrink to less than half that during subsequent updates, said she’s hoping to prevail despite the ranked choice process many of her supporters objected to bitterly.

“But it’s way too early to take this as any indication of anything, so we’re still going to have to wait out the night,” she told Alaska Public Media. “I know a lot of Alaskans I talked to were confused and upset about the process, but I think that we did enough voter education that we got good voter turnout. At least that’s what I’m hopeful for.”

U.S. House

Peltola became the first Democrat elected to Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat in nearly 50 years among other historic firsts during a special election in mid-August by getting a near-majority of first-choice ballots, then prevailing when the second-choice votes were tallied at the end of the month. There’s a strong probability the same scenario will elect her to a full term.

The incumbent has 47.22% of the vote as of Wednesday, with Republican former Gov. Sarah Palin at 26.59%, Republican Nick Begich III at 24.21% and Libertarian Chris Bye at 1.73%. While the combined total of the Republicans would be enough to defeat Peltola during ranked choice tallying, Palin’s high unfavorability ratings among voters resulted in many Begich supporters either ranking Peltola second or not declaring a second choice during the special election.

But Palin and Begich, who attacked each other bitterly during the special election and early in the fall campaign, did make a greater effort during the latter to urge voters to “rank the Red.” Palin, talking to reporters in Anchorage on Tuesday, said she swallowed her pride in doing so since it went against her previous message to “rage against the machine.”

“We have to ask others to support the other Republicans, even though it kind of goes against any competitive bone anybody would have in their body,” she said.

Peltola, as with the special election, said she’s taking a wait-and-see approach despite her lead and the prediction of many pundits who expect her to prevail.

“It’s like being an Alaskan traveler,” Peltola told reporters during a press briefing Tuesday night. “You go to the airport, knowing full well it could be a five-hour delay before you actually are wheels up.”

Constitutional convention

Some observers thought the outcome might be closer than the lopsided rejections that have occurred during nearly all of the once-a-decade votes on the issue since statehood. The observers were wrong.

The lone ballot measure was rejected by 69.85% of voters, with 30.15% in favor, as of Wednesday. It has failed by roughly a 2-1 margin in most previous decades, but some proponents this year thought the national political turmoil, issues such as being able to restrict abortion access after the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and the frustration in recent years of reduced PFDs due to Walker’s actions might win over residents.

But a broad coalition of political entities opposing a convention spent the campaign warning about potentially dire and expensive consequences — and had a dominant amount of cash to spread that message as a “dark money” group donated millions to the effort while proponents had a relative pittance.

“Early polling this summer showed it was a more even proposition,” Matt Shuckerow, a spokesperson for the opposition group Defend Our Constitution, said in an interview Wednesday. “What our polling showed was as Alaskans became more informed about what a convention might mean, it began to move against.”

While he said opponents of a convention expected the state’s allowing unlimited donations meant “this arguably is going to be one of Alaska’s most expensive cycles,” he doesn’t believe a convention would have been approved if spending limits were still in place.

Alaska State Legislature

It’s possible the Alaska State Legislature will again have one chamber led by a bipartisan coalition and one led by a Republican coalition — except the House and Senate will trade places.

Results as of Wednesday show Democrats leading in eight of the 19 Senate races on the ballot, a potential gain of two seats, while moderate Republicans winning other races against more conservative opponents means the upper chamber may opt for the bipartisan leadership arrangement the House implemented during recent sessions.

Most of the state’s lawmakers, including Juneau state Sen. Jesse Kiehl following his reelection win, were in Anchorage on Wednesday to discuss coalition possibilities and related issues even though numerous races remain too close to call before ranked choice ballots are counted.

“I think there were very productive talks and more talks are to come,” the Democrat said Wednesday afternoon. “Nothing is settled until we shake hands.”

The uncertainty in the remaining races may keep some lawmakers from being willing to commit to a coalition, but Kiehl said such efforts have succeeded before despite seats remaining open and “part of my pitch is we can do that.”

Republicans appear likely to take control of the state House, as Republicans led 21 of the 40 races as of Wednesday and may gain more when ranked choice ballots are tallied. Both of Juneau’s Democratic House members — Andi Story and Sara Hannan — were in Anchorage as members discuss the fate of the lower chamber.

“There are still absentee ballots to count, but the legislative discussions begin in earnest,” Hannan wrote on her Facebook page.

Local candidates

The only contested local race was House District 4, represented by Hannan won a third term with 4,214 votes (79%), while undeclared challenger Darrell Harmon got 1,033 votes (19.79%) and there were 63 write-in votes (1.21%).

Harmon, who was largely invisible during the campaign and acknowledged his primary reason for running was to give voters a choice, said he was satisfied with the outcome.

“I don’t think I was out to change a lot of hearts and minds,” he said. “I just wanted to be available in case people wanted to vote and make a change.”

He said he envisions being more active as a citizen in state legislative politics during the next couple of years and possibly attempting another more serious run for office.

“Had I been elected, I would look to lead by example,” he said. “This House of Representatives position needs to be somebody who can communicate. I think with enough community support and enough time that could have happened.”

Kiehl, the only unopposed state Senate candidate, got 9,705 votes (95.7%) while 435 write-ins (4.3%) were cast. Story, representing House District 3, got 4,981 votes (95.38%) while 241 (4.62%) were write-ins.

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

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