Alaska: Where Politics Is Still Local

Republicans Donald Trump and Lisa Murkowski both notched 15% wins in Alaska, but Murkowski‘s winning coalition more closely resembled Democrat Hillary Clinton’s than her own party’s nominee. Here’s what went down in perhaps the most idiosyncratic state of 2016

The darker the blue, the bigger a Clinton win. The darker the red, the bigger a Trump win

President Donald Trump carried Alaska with 51.3% of the vote — a 14.8% margin over Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton. Buoyed by his strength in suburban/exurban Anchorage, Trump was able to overcome easy Clinton wins in vast, rural expanses largely inhabited by Native Alaskans as well as comfortable leads in urban precincts in Anchorage and Juneau.

Yellow means a win for another candidate — in most cases Joe Miller (L), but Margaret Stock (I) won 7 precincts and Ray Metcalfe (D) won 1 (out of 441 statewide precincts)

Trump’s fellow Republican Lisa Murkowski won her 3rd consecutive Senate election — by a similarly comfortable 15.2% margin (44.4%, ahead of Libertarian Joe Miller’s 29.2%, independent Margaret Stock’s 13.2%, and Democrat Ray Metcalfe’s 11.6%). But Murkowski relied on a remarkably different coalition than her party’s presidential nominee — she rung up large margins in the same rural precincts that went heavily for Hillary Clinton (these areas are mostly populated by Native Alaskans) and suffered big losses in Trump’s best precincts in places like exurban Anchorage and Wasilla. Remarkably, Trump and Murkowski’s vote-shares were *negatively* correlated at the precinct level, while Clinton’s and Murkowski’s had a positive correlation.

Numbers are correlation coefficients of vote-shares by precinct weighted to total votes in each precinct.
Trump’s vote-share plotted against Murkowski’s vote-share — markers weighted to total votes in each precinct.

To show just how wild that is, the county correlation between Donald Trump and Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson’s vote share (used here for Georgia’s large number of counties) was .995, despite Isakson running significantly ahead of Trump in the Atlanta area (precinct results may result in a smaller correlation, but we simply don’t see such widespread split-ticket voting in many other places).

But to consider this too much of a surprise is ignoring historical context. In 2010, Murkowski was narrowly defeated in the GOP primary by none other than Joe Miller. Murkowski even explored the possibility of running for her seat as the Libertarian nominee, a possibility the LP was not interested in exploring. Instead, Murkowski ran a write-in campaign for her old seat. Boosted by financial and organizational support from police, firefighters, teachers, and Alaska Native organizations, Murkowski was able to become just the second person to win a write-in campaign for the US Senate.

After initially declining to challenge Murkowski in the GOP primary, Joe Miller decided to give it another go and became the Libertarian Party’s nominee in 2016 — flipping the script from what could have been in 2010. The Democratic primary was won by real estate agent Ray Metcalfe, a perennial candidate and former Republican state legislator. Metcalfe frequently railed against what he called corrupt Democrats during his campaign, angering many party leaders and causing former Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK), a frequent target of Metcalfe’s missives, to briefly consider his own write-in campaign before offering his endorsement to independent candidate Margaret Stock, who ultimately finished in 3rd place

Murkowski’s map against Miller in 2010 is quite similar to her map in 2016’s re-match. However, Murkowski lost some ground in Alaska Native strongholds (but still put up big margins) and cut into Miller’s advantage in non-Native small towns and Anchorage exurbs — ultimately building her margin of victory significantly from 2010’s 39.5%-35.5% win. She managed to move right enough to scare off GOP primary challengers, yet was able to keep a significant share of Democrats in her column, perhaps thanks to a weak and divided left. It’s easy to wonder if Begich should have taken the dive and run a write-in campaign — despite narrowly falling to Dan Sullivan in 2014, Begich rung up large margins in Alaska Native strongholds and urban Anchorage precincts. It’s not hard to imagine a very close 3-way race between Begich, Murkowski, and Miller.

A Declining Republican Advantage

Alaska has become less Republican-leaning relative the country overall since George W. Bush’s impressive 31% victory while losing the popular vote by less than 1%. Bush won handily across the state, even winning areas with Alaska Natives with relative ease. He repeated the feat in 2004, albeit with narrower margins. And despite Obama’s relative strength in states that tend to vote similarly to Alaska (i.e. Montana), he lost the state by over 21% to John McCain, perhaps due in part to former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s presence on the ballot.

In fact, Bush and McCain actually won over Alaska Natives on their way to victory. But in 2012, the script flipped and Obama rung up large margins over Mitt Romney in these sparsely populated regions. Clinton repeated the feat, albeit with slightly lower margins — yet was unable to garner enough support in more densely populated suburbs and exurbs to make the state a true battleground.

Democrats Unexpectedly Take the Alaska House of Representatives

Democrats surprisingly emerged as the party in control of the Alaska House of Representatives after 2 incumbent Republicans were defeated and 3 Republican representatives decided to caucus with the Democrats to become the majority party in the 40 member legislature. Justin Parish, a middle school teacher and first time candidate knocked off incumbent Republican Cathy Munoz 51–49 in Alaska’s 34th district, which backed Clinton 45%-42%. Independent Jason Grenn defeated incumbent Republican Liz Vasquez in suburban Anchorage’s 22nd district by a narrow 46–44 margin in a district Trump won 50–39. Additionally, state representatives Gabrielle LeDoux (won 68–32 in the 15th district, which went 51–37 Trump), Paul Seaton (won unopposed in the 31st district, which went 55–34 Trump), and Louise Stutes (won 43–40 over an Independent in Alaska’s 32nd, which went 50–36 Trump) all switched sides to give Democrats control of the chamber.

Newly elected independent Grenn campaigned on the state GOP’s failure to handle the state budget crisis — sounding notes similar to Independent Bill Walker’s successful gubernatorial campaign in 2014. It makes sense that Alaska politics would turn more on local issues — the state is far removed from the rest of the country in many ways. And it makes sense that Republicans would be penalized for taking up national/ideological GOP issues in a state where local politics still rules.