Political Profiles of the United States #3: Alaska
Today’s state political profile takes us in a much different direction from the populous swing states of Florida and Virginia, across the tundras of Canada to the frigid, icy climate of Alaska. One of the two non-contiguous states of the country and the 49th state of the union (the other non-contiguous and 50th state of the union being Hawaii), the faraway land of Alaska has some rather peculiar politics in some respects. Perhaps this is in part due to its distance from the mainland.
Granted, Alaska isn’t exactly a major player in national politics — at least, not often. But that doesn’t make the state’s politics boring or unimportant.
A Very Brief History of Alaska
Prior to being a U.S. territory, Alaska was once part of Russia. In 1867, then Secretary of State William Seward reached an agreement to purchase the land for $7.2 million. At the time, this was a highly unpopular decision, with critics believing there was nothing Alaska had that would be valuable enough to purchase it. Thus, it was dubbed “Seward’s Folly” by detractors.
Congress, however, apparently agreed with Seward’s purchase, at least in 1867. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty Seward negotiated and signed by a decisive 37 to 2 vote, while the U.S. House appropriated money for the official purchase in 1868 by a 113 to 43 vote.¹
The Klondike Gold Rush
Criticism of the purchase, however, abated with the discovery of gold in the state. The Klondike Gold Rush kicked off in 1897 and ran through 1900. Over 100,000 prospectors traveled to Alaska in search of fortune. In the same time frame, legislation in 1898 allowed pioneers to go to Alaska to stake a claim in public land for development as homesteads.²
Although it had spent a long time under U.S. control, Alaska was still a territory heading into the 1950s. There had been frustrations of many Alaskans regarding issues in the territory that had not been sufficiently addressed, missing things such as adequate roads, airfields, tuberculosis hospitals, dependable shipping at reasonable costs, the settlement of aboriginal rights, and homesteaders being able to legally acquire land from the federal government.³
A campaign led by the appointed governor Ernest Gruening, delegate to Congress (a non-voting position) Bob Bartlett, and the Alaska Statehood Association reasoned that the only to get Alaska’s issues resolved was to lobby for statehood. After a series of efforts, Congress approved of Alaska’s statehood, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the declaration on January 3, 1959 — making it the 49th state in the country.³
The Electoral College Vote
One of the least populous states, Alaska is only worth three Electoral College votes. In presidential elections, Alaska has voted Republican almost every single time, and most times it hasn’t even been close. The only time that Alaska went to a Democratic presidential candidate was in 1964, when Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson defeated Republican Barry Goldwater.⁴ It was only the second presidential election in which Alaska was a state. Alaska has gone red (meaning it was won by Republicans) in every election then, along with seven other states: Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming.⁵
Alaska’s Congressional Delegation
Both U.S. Senators of the state are Republican. Daniel Sullivan was first elected in 2014, meaning he will be up for re-election in 2020. Prior to his assumption of the office, it was controlled by Democrat Mark Begich (the same one who lost the general election for governor in 2018).
The other U.S. Senator from Alaska is Lisa Murkowski. Murkowski has been in the seat since being appointed in 2002. Prior to her appointment, the seat had been controlled by her father, Frank Murkowski. Lisa Murkowski’s 2010 election was a rather unusual one. She lost the Republican Primary, but came back as a write-in candidate general election and won. She was the first U.S. Senator to win an election as a write-in candidate since 1954.⁶
If you are reading this and were born on March 6, 1973 or later, there has only been one U.S. House Representative from Alaska in your lifetime. That’s right: Don Young has been Alaska’s representative for almost five decades. In the time he has served, nine different Speakers of the House and nine presidents have assumed those respective roles. Perhaps surprisingly, he did not become the longest-tenured member of the U.S. House until December of 2017, when John Conyers of Michigan resigned amid sexual harassment claims.⁷
The State Government
The Executive Branch
There are only two elected state executive positions in Alaska: Governor and lieutenant governor. Both are controlled by Republicans, but that only just changed in the 2018 election. Last term, the governor’s office was held by Independent Bill Walker, a former Republican who teamed up with Democrat Byron Mallott to form the Unity Party ticket that won in 2014. Walker defeated previous Governor Sean Parnell — who had also served as lieutenant governor to Sarah Palin and ascended to the office when she resigned — in Parnell’s bid for re-election.
In part due to the presence of both a Republican, Mike Dunleavy, and a Democrat, Mark Begich, running for the governor’s office, Walker decided not to seek re-election. Dunleavy won the general election fairly comfortably, 51.4% to Begich’s 44.4%.⁸ Kevin Meyer serves as Dunleavy’s lieutenant governor.
There are 13 other state executive positions: the Alaska Regulatory Commission (5 seats), comptroller, attorney general, commissioner of labor and workforce development, commissioner of natural resources, director of insurance, commissioner of the department of revenue, commissioner of education, and director of agriculture.⁹
The Legislative Branch
State House: The Alaska State House has 40 total members. As of this writing, 23 are Republicans, 15 are Democrats, 1 is Nonpartisan, and 1 is Undeclared (more on what an “Undeclared” is in The Electorate section of this post).¹⁰
It will seem strange, then, that Republicans are not the controlling party, despite the numerical advantage. Why is that? After the 2016 election, Republicans also had a majority, but a coalition of 17 Democrats, 3 Republicans, and 2 independents gave effective control to the Democrats. The coalition still existed after the 2018 election, with 15 Democrats, 4 Republicans, 1 Independent, and 1 Undeclared, but this time the parties split control of the state house.¹¹ That Undeclared is State House Speaker Bryce Edgmon. The majority leader is Charles Kopp (R).¹⁰
State Senate: Control of the state senate, however, is much more clear-cut, with Republicans in control. There are 20 total seats in the chamber, with 13 belonging to Republicans and 7 belonging to Democrats. The Senate President is Catherine A. Giessel, the majority leader is Mia Costello (R), and the minority leader is Tom Begich (D).¹²
The Judicial Branch
The Alaska Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, is made up of five justices appointed by the governor. Following that is the Alaska Court of Appeals, Alaska Superior Court, and Alaska District Court. Given the size of the Native American population in Alaska, there are also around 40 Native American tribal courts.¹³
The electorate is also a curious aspect of Alaskan politics. While Republicans outnumber Democrats by almost 2-to-1, but Republicans aren’t even close to the largest plurality. NPAs make up more of the electorate than Democrats but are still much fewer than Republicans. So what is the biggest group?
If you remember a small note I made when talking about the state house, there is another label: Undeclared. Undeclared is a distinct group from NPA. Undeclared voters mean they have not made any declaration whatsoever about what they want to be labeled as — not a particular party, but not particularly no-party either. Undeclared voters are by far the most numerous group. The following is the latest registration numbers for each group from the Alaska Department of Elections website, and is up-to-date as of February 7, 2019.¹⁴
There are only two other officially recognized parties in Alaska: the Alaskan Independence Party and the Libertarian Party. There are four political groups which have applied for party status but have not yet met qualifications to be a recognized political party, and two of them are considered official parties in some other states: Constitution, Green, Twelve Visions, and Veterans Party. There are several other voter “party” designations (some totally unique to Alaska), but are not official parties nor have they applied for such status.¹⁴
Other reports of voter registration statistics for the state:
By Age, Gender, and Party (2016 General Election)
By Age, Gender, and Party (as of 2/4/19)
The Future of Alaskan Politics
Alaska is a decidedly Republican state but Democrats have found some success in some areas. It wasn’t all that long ago they held a U.S. Senate seat, they controlled the state house last term (albeit through a coalition that included a few Republicans), and they split control of the state house with Republicans this term. It’s hard to say how long such will continue, but the state legislature isn’t quite as lopsided as the Republican-to-Democrat voter ratio might suggest.
Apart from that, it is a clearly Republican state. The state seemed to not be enthusiastic in its support for Trump when he won the presidency in 2016, although not everyone involved in politics in the state agreed with that notion.¹⁵ Some polls did suggest a much closer race than expected.⁵ ¹⁵ Still, despite this and Trump finishing a distant second in the 2016 Republican Primary (U.S. Senator from Texas Ted Cruz captured the state), Trump still won the state handily. It’s very unlikely Trump will have any trouble winning the state again in 2020, no matter what happens overall in the general election. While Democrats have been able to find some success winning elections, it’s hard to see them become a dominant force any time in the near future.
- Library of Congress. “Treaty with Russia for the Purchase of Alaska.” https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/alaska.html (accessed February 21, 2019).
- Alaska Public Lands Information Centers. “Alaska’s History.” https://www.alaskacenters.gov/explore/culture/history (accessed February 21, 2019).
- American Studies at the University of Virginia. “The 49th State.” http://xroads.virginia.edu/~cap/bartlett/49state.html (accessed February 21, 2019).
- 270towin. “Alaska Presidential Election Voting History.” https://www.270towin.com/states/Alaska (accessed February 21, 2019).
- Anchorage Daily News. “Alaska has a long history of voting Republican for president. Will it continue?” https://www.adn.com/politics/2016/11/05/alaska-has-a-long-history-of-voting-republican-in-presidential-elections-will-it-continue-this-year/ (accessed February 21, 2019).
- Ballotpedia. “Lisa Murkowski.” https://ballotpedia.org/Lisa_Murkowski (accessed February 21, 2019).
- Anchorage Daily News. “Don Young honored as longest-serving member of the U.S. House of Representatives.” https://www.adn.com/politics/2018/01/10/don-young-honored-as-longest-serving-member-of-u-s-house-of-representatives/ (accessed February 21, 2019).
- Ballotpedia. “Alaska gubernatorial and lieutenant gubernatorial election, 2018.” https://ballotpedia.org/Alaska_gubernatorial_and_lieutenant_gubernatorial_election,_2018 (accessed February 20, 2019).
- Ballotpedia. “Alaska state executive offices.” https://ballotpedia.org/Alaska_state_executive_offices (accessed February 20, 2019).
- Ballotpedia. “Alaska House of Representatives.” https://ballotpedia.org/Alaska_House_of_Representatives (accessed February 20, 2019).
- Ballotpedia. “Alaska House of Representatives elections, 2018.” https://ballotpedia.org/Alaska_House_of_Representatives_elections,_2018 (accessed February 20, 2019).
- Ballotpedia. “Alaska State Senate.” https://ballotpedia.org/Alaska_State_Senate (accessed February 20, 2019).
- Ballotpedia. “Courts in Alaska.” https://ballotpedia.org/Courts_in_Alaska (accessed February 20, 2019).
- Alaska Division of Elections. “Alaska Voter Registration by Party/Precinct.” http://www.elections.alaska.gov/statistics/2019/FEB/VOTERS%20BY%20PARTY%20AND%20PRECINCT.htm (accessed February 21, 2019).
- Anchorage Daily News. “Why the Trump movement never really took off in red-state Alaska.” https://www.adn.com/politics/2016/10/30/why-the-donald-trump-movement-never-really-took-off-in-red-state-alaska/ (accessed February 21, 2019).