Alaska – of all places – shows what a bipartisan coalition could look like
Ranked choice voting has pulled off a small miracle – moderate Republicans and Democrats co-governing
Something weird and wonderful is happening in Alaska. In a state known for extreme winters, petro economics and great natural beauty, and for its fierce conservatism that saw Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by nearly 15 points and Joe Biden by 10 points, Alaska state Republicans and Democrats are actually cooperating.
Not only are they cooperating, but they are actually forming a governing coalition together. A bipartisan coalition. That’s pretty peculiar in the US context, kind of like seeing someone wearing an Inuit parka at the equator. We usually associate coalition governments with places like Germany and Sweden, where parliamentary governments and multi-party elections typically result in no single political party winning a majority of the legislative seats.
But now here comes the Last Frontier State with its 663,000 square miles, two and a half times bigger than Texas, showing a European-style coalition government. Just after Alaska’s first election using ranked choice voting – which we’ve always said would lead to more coalition-building as candidates adapt their mind frames to attract second and third rankings from the supporters of other candidates – suddenly we see that same coalition-friendly attitude extending into the governing process itself.
Bipartisan coalition in the Senate
Recently some leaders in the Alaska Senate, whose 20 members are elected by RCV, announced they are forming a new bipartisan majority caucus that consists of 17 of the members. The new caucus includes nine Democrats and eight of the 11 Republicans. The only legislators who are not in this governing coalition are three right-wing Republicans who will form a lonely minority.
Moderate Republicans, who have been getting pushed around by right wing extremists like Donald Trump and Sarah Palin for a number of years, are finally striking back. Not only are they starting to use RCV in party primaries, so that the winner must earn majority support which excludes extremists, but now key Republicans in Alaska are embracing the “RCV mentality” as part of the governing process itself.
GOP Senator Gary Stevens, who will likely serve as the Senate president, says, "This is a new era in the Alaska Senate. It is an opportunity to build relationships with members across the aisle, the other body, and the Governor so we can work together to resolve the issues Alaskans face in education, the economy, and high energy costs."
His across-the-aisle counterpart, Democratic Senator Jesse Kiehl, agreed, concluding that the state's open primaries and ranked choice voting were key factors in the creation of the new caucus.
"Together those things mean more influence for the majority of Alaska voters and less for the fringe right or left," Kiehl said. "It turns out most Alaska voters don't mind their electeds working across party lines as much as party hardliners do."
This is not as surprising as it might seem. While Alaska is certainly a conservative state, what’s really unique about its politics is that 60% of its registered voters have chosen "Non-Partisan," "Undeclared" or some other category of independent as their political affiliation. Fewer than 25% of registered voters in Alaska are Republicans, which is less than the percentage of Republicans in heavily-blue California. Those independents tend to be no-nonsense self-reliant types, with low tolerance for Washington DC games and former governor-turned-Lower 48 celebrities like Palin.
Moreover, in recent years, the GOP’s Senate majority has been bitterly split over a range of issues, primarily over fiscal policy, government spending and the size of the Permanent Fund (the Permanent Fund provides an annual payment to all Alaskans that allows them to share in a portion of the State’s petroleum and minerals wealth). A number of more moderate Republicans have grown exasperated with their far right counterparts.
Senator Scott Kawasaki from Fairbanks says, “We’ve had many, many years of just divisive infighting based on party politics. I think this coalition is going to be different than that.” Senator Cathy Giessel, a Republican who will represent Anchorage and who defeated an incumbent Republican in Alaska’s top four primary with RCV, was elected despite the disapproval of local party officials who preferred her GOP opponent.
"We are a very diverse group politically and geographically, just like the people of our state," Giessel says. "This team of Senators is responding to Alaskans' loud and clear message to work together to solve our state's challenges."
Current GOP Senate Majority Leader Shelley Hughes is now one of the three senators relegated to a small minority rump. She had proposed forming a Republican-controlled majority and reached out to all her Republican colleagues, but she found little interest. Hughes said she believes that since a majority of Alaskans voted for a Republican candidate, then Alaska should have “a right-of-center majority.”
But members of the newly formed coalition said they heard a different message from voters.
“All the members of this caucus are responding to what we heard from Alaskans,” says Senator-elect Giessel, who will serve as majority leader. “The one message that came through loud and clear is that Alaskans are looking for people in the Legislature who will work together to get something done — to get those important things done that Alaskans are waiting to have accomplished.”
Presumptive Senate president Stevens says, “Like past bipartisan organizations, we will be working in the middle — not the far-left or the far-right issues. Nothing will happen without 11 members of this caucus agreeing.”
Which means that, even if all Democrats or all Republicans in the 17-member caucus agree on a single issue, it would not advance without support from some members of the other party. “So we really have to work together to get anything done,” says Stevens.
Alaska House still rife with division
In the meantime, the Alaska House of 40 elected members is still deeply divided, so no majority caucus has formed in that chamber. But by holding 21 of those House seats, the GOP is in the pole position. Nevertheless, it might not be so easy for House Republicans either because of similar divisions between the moderate and right wings of their party.
Rep. David Eastman, Republican from Wasilla, where Sarah Palin once was mayor, has alienated fellow Republicans by consistently blocking their legislation that he considers to be too liberal. Also, Eastman faces a legal challenge over his eligibility for office because last year a leaked list showed that Eastman was a “lifetime member” of the Oath Keepers, a conservative group whose members participated in the Jan. 6 attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. The group’s leader, Stewart Rhodes, was convicted recently of seditious conspiracy. One of Eastman’s constituents sued to challenge Eastman’s eligibility to serve in the House, since there is a provision in the Alaska Constitution that bars from public office anyone who “advocates, or who aids or belongs to any party or association which advocates the overthrow by force or violence of the United States.”
The outcome of the Eastman challenge won’t be known for a while following the December 12 trial, further complicating Republicans’ efforts to form a House majority. If the obstructionist Eastman is allowed to finish his term, the GOP may have limited ability to persuade more moderate members of their party to caucus with him. Meanwhile, thirteen Democrats and six independent house members are waiting in the wings to see if they can replicate the Senate’s coalition bipartisanship.
Positive impacts of RCV – change in political culture
Not all of this bipartisanship and coalition-making can be attributed to ranked choice voting. RCV was only used in Alaska for the first time this year, but there have been previous cross-partisan coalitions in the Alaskan state legislature. In this year’s elections, only 10 legislative races came down to a ranked-choice tabulation in which the leading candidate garnered less than the 50% threshold needed to win outright. And while some tight races requiring the application of the RCV tally were won by Democrats, several seats went narrowly in favor of Republicans.
But a number of observers have noted how quickly the Alaska political culture has changed. In a strongly conservative state, Democrat Mary Peltola decisively defeated Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich on the strength of votes from conservative but independent, i.e. non-Republican voters. Peltola crossed party lines and endorsed Senate incumbent and Republican moderate Lisa Murkowski. In the same election, Alaska voters selected Peltola, Murkowski and strong conservative Republican Mike Dunleavy as governor. Three very different flavor of politicians, all winning statewide elections in the same year from the same voter pool. Ticket-splitting in Alaska seems to have resurfaced from its historical demise.
Bruce Botelho, former Alaska attorney general and current chair of Alaskans for Better Elections, says ranked choice voting is already showing positive results. His organization released a press release stating that “by requiring candidates to earn majority support, Alaska’s election system paves the way for more civil discourse about the state’s most pressing issues and supports elected officials in finding common ground and focusing on solutions.” Says Botelho, “Not only do Alaska’s reforms change how we elect our officials but, as we can see here, it changes their incentives once they’re elected.”
Nevertheless, anti-RCV grumblings have been prevalent post-election among some Republicans. A handful have announced their intent to repeal ranked choice voting. But the bipartisan caucus in the Senate may stand in their way. Future senate president Stevens indicated that he was inclined to keep the new voting laws. “Most people I talk to are reasonably happy with how ranked choice voting worked. It made a big difference — I think it will lead to a little more moderation. I think it has led to a little more moderation in the Senate.”
Indeed, opinion surveys have consistently shown that most voters who have used ranked choice voting in the 50+ cities and two states where it has been deployed both understand and support it.
Could Alaska’s bipartisanship be a model for the US House of Representatives?
Alaska’s bipartisan model may soon get a trial at the federal level. In November’s elections, the Republicans barely won control of the US House of Representatives, 222 to 213 seats. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy now is madly trying to whip up votes to support his intra-party campaign to become Speaker of the House. And he’s running into obstruction from right-wing Republican representatives.
Several House Republicans are threatening to derail McCarthy’s bid. He will need to secure support from at least half – 218 – of the 435 House members voting during January’s floor vote. So far five far-right Republicans have already said or strongly indicated they will oppose McCarthy, and more may be joining them. Given the GOP’s slim majority, these defections put McCarthy’s Speaker bid on thin ice.
So the Democrat’s House Majority Whip James Clyburn has suggested an Alaska-like solution to McCarthy’s dilemma. “I would advise him to go and look on the other side of the aisle,” said Clyburn, “and see whether or not there are some deals over there to be made as well.”
He said McCarthy and Democrats’ House leader in waiting, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, should sit down and discuss potential areas of bipartisan cooperation.
“You bring votes to the table. We bring votes to the table. Let’s see what we can do about fashioning a bipartisan approach to making this country’s greatness accessible and affordable for all of its citizens.”
After six years of partisan toxicity and obstruction which culminated in the January 6 insurrection and its bitter aftermath, a new era of bipartisanship would no doubt be a welcome relief to most Americans.
Steven Hill @StevenHill1776
Thanks for reading DemocracySOS! Your digital portal for the pro-democracy movement. Subscribe for only $5 per month to receive full benefits and to support our work.