Updated to correct year to 2012 in seventh graf
FAIRBANKS — The Tuesday elections made for a good day for Fairbanks Republicans, who defended two seats, kept an uncontested one and picked up four more, shifting the balance of legislative power squarely into the hands of the GOP.
It was a result that left Democrats wondering what went wrong — record spending by outside groups, redistricting efforts or something else — as years of increasing Democratic representation were reversed in one fell swoop.
A Fairbanks Daily News-Miner analysis of voting records show incumbent Democrats, particularly Democratic senators, faced a less-friendly electorate compared to the ones they had been elected by, thanks, in part, to recent redistricting efforts.
The political breakdown of the Interior can be broken down, in the simplest of terms, along an east-west divide. Republicans dominate in the east, in North Pole and the Badger Road area, and Democrats in the west, near the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Goldstream Valley and Ester.
The once-per-decade redistricting process had faced a tough legal opposition that has yet to play out fully, but the maps that were decided on for this election generally shifted most districts eastward compared to their previous counterparts.
That was particularly clear in Senate District B, which was held by Sen. Joe Paskvan. Redistricting added the precincts from the typically conservative Badger Road and Richardson areas.
Comparing registration statistics from the 2008 election, when Paskvan was first elected, to the 2012 election, shows Democrats lost ground while Republicans gained in the district.
The Democratic population dropped by nearly 7 percent from 4,404 to 4,099. Republicans grew by 18.5 percent from 6,014 to 7,126 registered voters.
While a relatively small change in the population of 25,499 voters — overall Democrats accounted for about 2.5 percent less of the vote and Republicans accounted for about 2.5 percent more — it could have been a significant enough change to account for a 517-vote margin that Paskvan trails Republican opponent Pete Kelly, Alaska Democratic Party Chairman Don Gray said.
“Fairbanks was affected more than any other single area in the state,” he said. “That district (Senate District B) was changed so that much of this area of Fairbanks actually goes all the way to the city limits of North Pole.”
The shift in demographics was even more dramatic when considering the change in districts for Sen. Joe Thomas. There were 40 percent fewer Democrats in the new district in which Thomas lives and 43 percent more Republicans.
However, Senate District A is a far cry from the old district. Instead of the addition of a few Republican-leaning precincts to a generally similar Senate district, Senate District A was an entirely new district. Instead of containing Ester, Goldstream and UAF, Thomas was running for a district that contained the Republican stronghold of North Pole.
The victor of that race, Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, saw demographics similar to those he had faced in 2010.
Alaska Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich, who is retiring from the helm of the party, downplayed the role of redistricting. He said the new maps, while clearly more friendly for Republicans, better represent the area’s population. The previous maps, Ruedrich argued, were flawed.
“The east side of Fairbanks was very poorly represented by virtue of districts being severely overpopulated,” he said. “When you bring all that back to Fairbanks, it looks much different and it’s more Republican in voting.”
He said the previous plan was flawed because it consolidated all strong Republican precincts into one district. Parcelling out those growing precincts, like Badger Road and Richardson, into a neighboring district is better, he argued.
Coghill called the districts “more representative of Alaska” on election night. But Ruedrich said he believed Republicans swept into power in the Interior because they had better candidates this year.
“I’m fairly confident that we had better candidates and the Democrats had more money,” he said. “I think Republicans ran campaigns that connected with their voters, which made a lot of the other spending ineffective.”
Union money came in strong to defend candidates, as had outside Republican money.
Reflecting the Democratic Party’s odds of retaking the Interior, Gray said it will take some time to look at the races and see what could have been done better.
“We’re still looking at it,” he said. “We’re too close to the election to get the perspective that’s necessary to really analyze it.”
He said he had hoped that ongoing legal battles about the redistricting plans could make some of the districts more competitive, but is doubtful because the politically appointed Alaska Redistricting Board remains in charge.
“We’re stuck with this amended version, and something else will come out of it,” he said, “but what, I don’t know, because it’s going back to the same group that has come up with two different (previous) plans.”
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544 or follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.