FAIRBANKS — In what is shaping up to be one of the biggest primary races in the Interior, Republican primary candidates for Senate Seat C took part in a friendly forum Tuesday night.
Candidates Click Bishop, David Eastman and Ralph Seekins answered questions ranging from their broad legislative priorities to their stance on oil taxes, natural gas projects, the state’s pension program and abortion, but one of the most critical issues come election time will be their stance on the bipartisan coalition that has ruled the Senate for years.
The coalition of Democratic and Republican senators working together has long be a thorn in the side of Alaska GOP leadership, who, among many criticisms, blame the working group for stalling Gov. Sean Parnell’s oil tax plan. The most recent round of redistricting has offered openings, mainly in Anchorage and the Mat-Su area, for the GOP to chip away at the 10-10 Republican Democrat split in the Senate.
The newly redrawn and vacant Senate Seat C, which groups Chena Ridge and Salcha with the Richardson Corridor, Delta and Valdez, is one of those opportunities Republicans have been eyeing to tilt power back into their hands.
“It’s one of the key reasons that I’m running today,” said Seekins, a former state senator. “We have to break that coalition.”
While candidates largely agreed on the need to reduce oil taxes, control state spending, oppose abortion and find a solution to home heating woes, their opinions on the working group differed in small, but important, ways.
None of the candidates were outright opposed to a coalition, but Seekins and Eastman thought it would be better if power rested in the hands of Republicans, not Democrats. Currently, there’s a rough split of leadership roles between the political parties.
“If it’s a bipartisan coalition with a majority of Republicans, I’m all for it,” said Eastman, a self-described “limited government conservative.” “But if it’s anything else, you can count me out every time.”
Seekins said the coalition, in its current form, has produced years of bad and hurtful policy for the state.
“I could never join that under any circumstances, whatsoever,” he said. “If they want to join a Republican-led coalition, where they put Republicans in those key positions and where we can help the governor with some of the things he’s trying to do, I’d let them.”
Bishop, the state’s former labor commissioner, offered a different perspective on the split, saying he’ll do what’s best for his district.
“My priority is to caucus with the Republican Party,” he said. “But there’s not one person who can guarantee how this election is going to turn out, and this district is bigger than me and the Republican Party. At the end of the day when the fuel hose pulls up to your house, it’s stupid. It doesn’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat; it’s still $4 a gallon going into that fuel tank. I want to be in a position to help the residents of this district get lower energy cost in their fuel tank.
“Look at the numbers,” he said. “Republicans are going to take control of this Senate. … Does that mean I’d join a coalition? Maybe. If it was the right coalition.”
Other issues to come up during the forum included the state’s pension program and whether candidates supported a return to a defined benefit program instead of the current defined contribution program.
Bishop was the only clear-cut supporter of the move, saying he felt it could be done better than it had been done in years past and could be revenue neutral to the state.
When asked about their other priorities, affordable energy and oil tax reform ranked high on everyone’s list, as well as reeling in spending.
“Our budget is going underwater right now,” Seekins said. “We need to get that under control, or we’re facing deficit spending.”
Both Bishop and Seekins were strong supporters of a large in-state natural gas pipeline.
“The lowest tariff rate is going to be gas through a 48-inch pipeline,” Bishop said. “The more volume you can move the cheaper the rate.”
Other issues, such as gun rights, individual liberty and the repeal or reversal of indefinite detention under the federal National Defense Authorization Act, also came up, of which each candidate was largely in support. However, Eastman, who spent most of his time talking about limiting government, outdid the others in his support of the Second Amendment.
“I could not be happier if just about everybody in this room was carrying a weapon right now,” Eastman said. “I’d feel much safer.”
While the boxing gloves stayed on for the entire forum and most candidates signaled nearly across-the-board agreement with their opponents, the candidates are expected to take part in more head-to-head debates closer to the Aug. 28 primary election.
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544 or follow him on Twitter at @FDNMpolitics.