In “An Open Letter to the Lower Peninsula Community” sent out last week, District 31 Republican Party leaders fired the latest salvo in a battle to deny Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, party support.
“We believe in holding our elected representatives accountable for what they do and how they represent the people,” the letter reads. “That’s why the Alaska Republican party took the unprecedented step of denying Representative Paul Seaton access to the primary ballot as a Republican in this year’s legislative election.”
Signed by new District 31 party chair Nona Safra and other officers, the letter asserts that the party has “the legal authority — backed by precedent — to prevent Seaton from running as a Republican.”
However, as it stands now, legally the party can’t do that. According to a letter last December from Division of Elections Director Josie Bahnke to Alaska Republican Party Chairman Tuckerman Babcock in response to a party rule that Seaton and two other Republican legislators can’t run as Republicans, Bahnke said “Alaska law currently allows any registered Republican to run in the Republican primary.”
In a phone interview outside his legislative office hours, and speaking as a candidate, Seaton slammed the attempt by the state Republican Party leadership to dictate who can run in the primary.
“They’re choosing a model of democracy that is similar to Iran or Hong Kong in China,” Seaton said. “… There’s a central committee that chooses the candidate, and yes, you let the people vote on that, but you can only vote on the approved candidate. That’s what they’re trying to establish here.”
The Republican Party’s displeasure with Seaton and two other Republican legislators stems from their decision last year to join Democrats and Independents in forming a House majority caucus. The party also wants to exclude Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, and Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, from the primary ballot.
Babcock said that’s a betrayal of what Seaton campaigned on.
“He shouldn’t pretend he’s a Republican,” he said. “That’s the line the state party is concerned about.”
Seaton said he joined the majority caucus to address Alaska’s fiscal crisis, where declining income and a dwindling Constitutional Budget Reserve won’t be able to fund government without drastic cuts or new revenues.
“Really, the situation wasn’t that we walked away from the Republicans,” Seaton said. “It was the Republicans who walked away from any fiscal responsibility.”
Safra said the District 31 leadership wrote the letter as a call to Seaton “to let him know we’re supporting the Alaska Republican Party position that he should run as what he is, and that’s not a Republican. He needs to be what he is and not what he’s not.”
Republican Party Vice-Chair Jon Faulkner of Homer said he thinks a recent court decision by Juneau Superior Court Judge Phillip Pallenberg allows Republicans to exclude candidates from a primary. Pallenberg ruled that Independents could run in the Alaska Democratic Party primary and, if they win, run under the Democratic Party ticket in the general election. Pallenberg’s decision disagrees with Alaska statutes saying who can appear on a party’s ballot. The state of Alaska has appealed Pallenberg’s decision to the Alaska Supreme Court.
“That ruling in our view overrules the legislation,” Faulkner said.
He said other court rulings support the right to free association — who people can organize with politically — and that right includes the right to exclude people.
In the Pallenberg decision, Democrats extended their principle of an open ballot to candidates, Seaton said. In Alaska’s primary, any voter may choose the Democratic Party ballot, but only Republicans, undeclared or non-partisan voters can choose the Republican Party primary ballot.
“They’re (Democrats) saying if we let people who are nonpartisan and undeclared vote, we can let people who are nonpartisan and undeclared run in our primary,” he said.
Even if the Republicans can’t legally exclude Seaton from running in the primary, there’s a matter of principle, Safra said.
“If he’s (Seaton) going to run, the moral and ethical decision should be for him to declare what he is,” she said.
“I frame it this way,” Faulkner said. “Legalities aside, he’s not wanted. Why would he possibly feel that the Republican Party is where he wants to reside?”
Even if Seaton should win the Republican primary, Republicans won’t back him in the general election, Babcock said in a phone interview on Wednesday.
“We will look for an Independent to support against Paul Seaton,” Babcock said.
To run as an Independent, a candidate would have to file by June 1 and collect a small number of signatures. If the Pallenberg decision is upheld, a candidate also could run as an Independent on the Democratic Party ballot, raising the possibility of a conservative, pro-Republican Independent running on that ballot, winning and then facing Seaton.
“I could see a scenario where we support an Independent candidate who’s really a Republican,” Babcock said.
If Seaton won re-election and a majority of Republicans returned to the Alaska House of Representatives, Seaton would not be welcome in that majority, Babcock said.
“The only majority Seaton will be in the future is a Democrat one,” he said.
Seaton said he has been a Republican since age 18.
“I’m a moderate Republican. I’m fiscally conservative. It seems like the establishment has totally abandoned any fiscally conservative principles,” he said.
In the eight elections he’s run, Seaton has won every race and has fought back conservative challengers, including Faulkner and, in 2016, former Homer Mayor Beth Wythe and Anchor Point business owner John Cox. Cox has already filed to run again in this year’s election. Seaton and Sarah Vance have filed letters of intent to run, meaning they can collect campaign money, although Seaton is prohibited from taking donations during the Legislature. Vance served as spokesperson for Heartbeat of Homer, the citizen group that organized the unsuccessful recall of Homer City Council members Donna Aderhold, David Lewis and Catriona Reynolds. Vance also ran for city council, coming in third behind Rachel Lord and Carolyn Venuti.
Faulkner said the people he knows shared his political and business outlook. “He (Seaton) had nothing in common with them,” he said.
Seaton gets Republican votes because he’s a Republican, Faulkner added. “They would not vote for him if he were registered another way. … They’re deceived. The question is, ‘Why does he fear shedding a label and running as an Independent?’ That’s the question. The answer isn’t, ‘I really believe I’m a Republican and can prove it to the world.’ The answer is he thinks he will lose.”
Seaton said he has received little criticism from voters for joining the majority caucus.
“Other than the two dozen or so establishment politicians, some of which ran against me in the past primaries, I have received basically no feedback from Republicans that say they’re disappointed in the way we’re conducting business,” Seaton said.
If donations are any sign, Seaton has strong support going into the primary. Faulkner said most of those donations come from Democrats, but Alaska Public Offices Commission reports don’t show party affiliation from donors. Seaton has a war chest of $32,760 as of Feb. 15, compared to $2,948 for Cox. Most of Seaton’s donations are $100 or less, though he has $1,000 donations from union political action committees.
In the letter, the District 31 officers wrote that “the views expressed here are not those of every Republican, but they do speak for the majority and are the result of leadership votes at every level.”
Safra said she hoped that as district chair her focus would “be less on the whole thing about Seaton and that issue, and finding the right candidate to run who can defeat him. … We have to give the people something they can be excited about and that’s not controversial.”
In the end, party labels might matter. Seaton noted that independents and non-declares outnumber Republicans and Democrats.
“In think people in District 31 generally want solutions. They generally don’t say a particular party has all the solutions,” he said. “… I think the Kenai Peninsula is pretty independent.”
Reach Michael Armstrong at firstname.lastname@example.org.