ANCHORAGE, Alaska - The Alaska state Senate faced the potential of a major power shift, with Republicans seizing a majority in the chamber on Tuesday.
Coming into the elections, the Senate had 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans. The GOP won at least 11 seats Tuesday night, and Republican party chairman Randy Ruedrich expected that number to rise to 14 when the results were finalized.
"That's going to be a Republican organization that can work with the House, work with the governor, and I am pleased," he said early Wednesday morning.
An organizational meeting was planned for later Wednesday. Ruedrich said it was possible that Republicans could join with the Democrats in a group but he didn't know why they would.
On Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Joe Thomas lost to Senate Minority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, and Joe Paskvan of Fairbanks trailed challenger Pete Kelly. Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, was in a close race with Republican Bob Bell, leading with all precincts reporting, but Ruedrich said the outstanding absentees favored Bell.
Democrats had hoped to take or hold on to at least four Anchorage Senate seats, in hopes of keeping a coalition, similar to what exists today, intact, and keeping at least one of the Fairbanks seats. Sen. Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage, was upset by Rep. Anna Fairclough, R-Eagle River.
Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, won his race, as did Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage. Rep. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, won Senate District H against Republican Don Smith.
The Senate currently is ruled by a bipartisan coalition, which includes all 10 Senate Democrats and six Republicans. The coalition has been in power since 2007. But some GOP leaders, including Gov. Sean Parnell, wanted to break up the group, which they consider obstructionist on issues including changes to Alaska's oil tax structure.
On Tuesday, Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, defeated Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon; redistricting forced the two incumbents and coalition members into the same district in southeast Alaska. Stedman has been a leader in the coalition, as has Ellis.
Control of the Alaska Senate has been a hot topic for months, with 16 of the Senate's 20 seats up for grabs in Tuesday's elections. Of the four seats either uncontested or decided, two belonged to incumbent Democrats - Sens. Lyman Hoffman and Dennis Egan - and two to Republicans who unseated GOP coalition members in the August primary, Mike Dunleavy and Peter Micciche.
The coalition last year refused to follow the House and pass Parnell's oil tax-cut plan, which critics called a massive corporate giveaway with no guarantees it would mean additional investment here. Coalition leaders at the time said they didn't have the information needed to make a sound policy call.
This year, an overhaul of the tax structure stalled in the coalition caucus, but the Senate approved a narrower plan, intended to encourage oil production from new fields, late in the regular session. That died in the House. Lawmakers in both parties and chambers lambasted a Parnell tax-cut plan proposed during a special session and eventually pulled.
Boosting oil production is a top economic priority for Parnell, who sees changing Alaska's oil tax system as a way to do that. Alaska relies heavily on oil taxes to run, but production has been declining.
No one in the Legislature has argued with the desire to increase production; the debate lies in how best to do that.
Redistricting shook up a number of districts, throwing four incumbents together on the Senate side and eight in the House.
Senate District A featured Thomas against Republican Senate Minority Leader John Coghill of North Pole. French faced Bob Bell, in an expensive and sometime contentious campaign.
On the House side, Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, the House majority whip, won in a three-way race that included Rep. Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan. Johansen, a former House majority leader, ran as an unaffiliated candidate in House District 33, after skipping a crowded GOP primary in August. He finished a distant third, behind Democrat Matt Olsen.
Republican Rep. Lance Pruitt held a lead over Democratic Rep. Pete Petersen in District 25 in Anchorage, and was confident the outstanding absentee ballots favored him; Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, led Rep. Bob Miller, D-Fairbanks, in District 2, with all precincts reporting and Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, was leading Rep. Alan Dick, R-Nenana, in early results in District 38, with non-affiliated candidate Dorothy Shockley in third.
Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, faced a possible upset against political newcomer Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, who led with all precincts reporting.