After a resounding win Tuesday in the Republican Party Primary for the House District 31 seat, Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, looked ahead to the challenge of the next session.
“We’ve got a big problem to solve. Our biggest concern is making sure we solve this fiscal problem in a way that’s sustainable over time. I think we can get there,” Seaton said in a phone interview on Wednesday.
Running for an eighth term against Anchor Point business owner John Cox and Homer Mayor Mary E. “Beth” Wythe, Seaton won by 47 percent, 18 points up on Cox, who took second with 29 percent. Wythe trailed with 25 percent. Percentages have been rounded up to whole numbers.
With no other candidates running in the general election, barring a write-in campaign, Seaton will be elected to an eighth term in the Alaska House of Representatives.
Seaton’s win came despite a well-funded, negative campaign by political action committees against him,
In unofficial election results with nine out of nine precincts reporting, Seaton had 1,280 votes, Cox 787 votes and Wythe 681 votes. That tally includes some early votes cast before the election. Absentee ballots remain to be counted but are unlikely to make a difference.
“I wish Paul Seaton the best of luck and we will be watching every move he makes and we will hold him accountable,” Cox said.
Wythe also congratulated Seaton and expressed thanks to her supporters. “I want to thank them for their time, energy and funding. Sorry we couldn’t make a change.”
Wythe and Cox tried to defeat Seaton by challenging his party credentials. Alaska Republican Party Chairman Tuckerman Babcock on Wednesday described Seaton as a liberal Republican, but also said, “We have no issue with that.”
One political action committee, Alaska Republican Assembly, tried to win votes by pegging Seaton as the “tax man” and urging people to vote for Cox.
Seaton took what could be a contrary position to winning in Alaska politics: running on a platform of adding new taxes and cutting the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend. In the last session, Seaton introduced a bill that would set a state income tax of 15-percent of the federal income tax and reduce by half the amount now appropriated to the dividends. The other half would go to the general fund.
That would balance the state budget and make up shortfalls from oil and In his campaign, he did not back down from his fiscal plan.
“That could get us out of the hole. It’s doable,” Seaton said.
Seaton said he thought the campaign waged by political action committees against him turned off a lot of voters. Wythe is Right! Seaton Must Be Beaten, an independent expenditure effort backed by The Accountability Project, spent more than $30,000 advocating for Wythe and against Seaton. Alaska Republican Assembly, backed by the Alaska Right to Life Committee, sent out last-minute mailers challenging Seaton’s record on taxes and gun rights.
Babcock said despite its name, Alaska Republican Assembly is not associated with the Republican Party.
“A lot of people have been disgusted with the negative campaign that took place on her behalf,” Seaton said. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen a campaign with so much wrong information on the lower peninsula.”
Many of Seaton’s supporters echoed Seaton’s comment about negative campaigning. Homer fisherman and writer Hannah Heimbuch cited a mailer sent out on Monday by the Alaska Republican Assembly that featured a woman cowering before a man with a knife and the words, “When seconds count, Paul Seaton wants to leave you defenseless!”
“Why would that convince anyone to vote for the other person?” Heimbuch asked. “It was the wrong message for Homer.”
“People were turned off by the trickle-down negative campaign,” said Seaton supporter Candy Rohrer. “Locally, it doesn’t go very well here. That’s what turned the tide.”
Fisherman and 60-year Homer resident Lee Martin praised Seaton for his bipartisan efforts to address Alaska’s fiscal gap.
“That is a very big plus,” he said.
Wythe said she believed the Wythe is Right! Seaton Must be Beaten group stayed consistent with information available through legislative records in its campaign.
“I don’t think they made a statement that they could not trace back to either the way that the incumbent voted or an action that was taken,” Wythe said.
Seaton said he took Wythe at her word that she had nothing to do with the PAC campaigns. Seaton did note a connection between Wythe and Dan Gardner, a deputy treasurer of Wythe is Right! Seaton Must be Beaten. Gardner is Wythe’s husband, John Wythe’s, boss at Homer Public Works.
Wythe said her loss to Seaton was disappointing, but not as disappointing as if Anchor Point businessman John Cox had won the race. Wythe claimed the Republican Party encouraged Cox’s race for the seat.
“All indicators were that the party wanted to replace the seat and it was disappointing that they threw him (Cox) on top of that,” Wythe said.
The Alaska Republican Party took no position in the District 31 primary, both local and state officials said.
According to District 31 Republican Party chairman Jesse Clutts, the party was neutral on the candidates in the primary.
“There are certain individuals who have been disappointed with Representative Seaton and certain positions he has taken that haven’t been in line with the party,” Clutts said. “That’s outside of any official position of the party.”
Babock, chairman of the Alaska Republican Party, said rules do allow the party to endorse a candidate in a primary if district officials agree. The state leadership also can endorse a candidate. That happened in the District 9 representative race between George Rauscher and incumbent Rep. Jim Colver, R-Hatcher Pass, where the party backed Rauscher. Colver lost to Rauscher, 48 to 52 percent.
In the District 31 GOP primary, the party leadership took no stand.
“We totally trust the Republican Party voter to pick the winner,” Babcock said of that race.
Cox said Randy Ruderich, then-Alaska Republican Party chair asked him to run for Seaton’s seat about four-and-a-half years ago. After receiving support from other organizations more recently, Cox switched gears from running against U.S. Representative Don Young to throw his hat in the ring in the race against Seaton. Cox also hypothesized he would have beaten Seaton if Wythe had dropped out of the race based on the 106 fewer votes Wythe received.
“If she had dropped out, I would have won. If I had dropped out, she would have lost,” Cox said.
Seaton challenged the idea that he isn’t Republican enough.
“People looking at the Republican Party right now have to say, ‘Who’s the real Republican?’ Is it Trump? Is it Cruz?” he asked. “Some people seem to have a very narrow view, that their philosophy within the party is the real Republican. It’s a very small tent instead of a larger tent.”
Despite his disappointment over losing, Cox said he accepts the outcome because he is not a sore loser. He predicted that the climate will change in his favor over the next year, however, as Alaska continues to struggle through its financial issues.
“Attitudes are going to change and people are going to say, ‘Maybe I should have voted for John,’” Cox said.
With her mayoral term coming to an end with the municipal election in October, Wythe said, she’s not sure what’s next.
“I think for every time there is a season and my season for the city of Homer is done. … I consider it public service, not politics, because when politics get involved you get the ugly stuff in there,” she said.
Wythe said she would finish her mayoral duties, take a vacation and then “see if there’s something political for me.”
Wythe supporter Dawson Slaughter of Anchor Point said the election results were what he expected. Without Cox in the race, Wythe’s numbers would have been better, but maybe not enough to beat Seaton.
“I like what she had to say, what she stood for. If she had won, maybe we would have had some change in the state,” said Slaughter.
Wythe’s campaign manager Duane Parlow said he was proud of Wythe for staying true to her values throughout her campaign.
“I feel comfortable in the fact that Beth remained truthful and without exaggeration throughout the campaign,” Parlow said. “I certainly do appreciate the folks that did vote for Beth because I feel those folks supported a strong conservative values system. … She did not compromise the principles by which she lives. I am proud of her for taking an anti-marijuana stance and understand that the majority of the voters got their wish.”
Overall, 2,748 votes were cast in District 31, with a total of 787 votes placed at downtown Homer precincts. The voter turnout of 18.5 percent was slightly below average, said city clerk Jo Johnson. There are 4,594 registered voters in Homer, according to the unofficial election results.
“I think it was a little bit less than what our city elections are,” Johnson said. “It did seem like a steady stream of voters throughout the day, but the numbers speak for themselves.”
The precinct at Homer City Hall marked a first: the use of a city-owned, handicap-accessible touchscreen voting machine. Visually impaired voter Rick Malley had filed a Human Rights Commission complaint claiming his voter rights were denied when there was not a touchscreen voting machine at the 2015 Kenai Peninsula Borough and city election. In response to Malley’s complaint, the city purchased a touchscreen voting machine and formed an Americans With Disabilities Act Compliance Committee.
Malley voted in Tuesday’s election.