Primary sends unclear message about general election

Posted: Wednesday, August 23, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaska's new two-ballot primary system sent confusing messages about what to expect in November.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision forced the state to abandon its blanket primary, which listed all candidates on a single ballot. Instead, voters had to choose between a Republican ballot and a ballot listing candidates from other parties. The GOP ballot was open only to Republicans, nonpartisan and undeclared voters.

While the old system offered a preview of the general election, Tuesday's results under the two-ballot method seem less informative.

''It's hard to read this with the two ballots and the low turnout,'' said Dave Dittman, an Anchorage pollster and political consultant.

With 99 percent of precincts counted, turnout was 15.7 percent. That number was expected to increase as absentee and questioned ballots are counted, but will likely not reach 20 percent, said Virginia Breeze, a spokeswoman for the division.

''It's the lowest turnout in our recorded history,'' Breeze said.

Dozens of unopposed candidates combined with the low turnout and the two-ballot system to produce some puzzling results.

For instance, Republican incumbent Sen. Gary Wilken of Fairbanks got 912 votes as he ran unopposed in the GOP primary. Democrat Dave Veazey, a Fairbanks North Star Borough assemblyman who was unopposed on the other ballot, got 1,331 votes. Under the old system, that result would be a preview of a tough challenge in the fall.

But the combined turnout in both primaries was just 12 percent of registered voters. And voters in the district had no contested Republican primaries to draw them to the closed GOP ballot.

The primary also offered mixed messages about some of the state's hot-button issues.

The only losing incumbent was Anchorage Rep. Jerry Sanders, who quit the House's Republican-led majority last year to protest the plan to balance the budget with earnings from the Permanent Fund and attempts to pass a constitutional amendment allowing a rural subsistence priority.

''He kind of de-incumbented himself when he withdrew from the majority,'' Dittman said.

Anchorage Assemblyman Kevin Meyer, who had strong backing from prominent Republicans and a significant advantage in campaign money, defeated Sanders. Meyer, an employee of Phillips Alaska Petroleum, is sometimes confused with Kevin Meyers, the company's president.

But Sen. Robin Taylor, R-Wrangell, who stakes out positions similar to Sanders', handily fended off a well-funded challenge by former Wrangell Mayor Bill Privett.

Taylor said Privett's attempts to capitalize on his opposition to a subsistence amendment backfired.

''The issue that came to the fore was the Permanent Fund,'' Taylor said. ''He had made several statements that he would have gone along with the raid on the Permanent Fund last year.''

Of the three other House Republicans who quit the majority, Scott Ogan of Palmer won a four-way race in the GOP primary, while John Coghill of North Pole and Vic Kohring of Wasilla had no primary opponents.

The primary does set up some interesting races for the fall.

Meyer will take on Democrat Patti Higgins, who mounted strong challenges against Sanders in the past two elections. But the moderate Meyer may prove a tougher foe for Higgins than the combative Sanders.

In Senate District E, incumbent Republican Jerry Ward takes on former Sen. Mike Szymanski, who cruised to victory in the Democratic primary. Szymanski still faces a legal challenge to his residency in the district, which stretches from south Anchorage to the northern part of the Kenai Peninsula.

In Senate District K in Anchorage, former GOP Rep. Terry Martin trounced former lawmaker Marco Pignalberi in the primary with 1,460 votes. He'll take on former Rep. Bettye Davis, who won the Democratic nomination easily with 1,891 votes, for retiring GOP Sen. Tim Kelly's seat.

Tim June of Haines won the crowded Democratic primary in Senate District C, which includes Kodiak and the rural parts of Southeast Alaska, with 910 votes. But the Haines Borough Assemblyman faces an uphill battle in the race to replace retiring Senate Majority Leader Jerry Mackie, R-Craig. The Republican nominee is Rep. Alan Austerman, who represents the Kodiak House district that contains about half of the district's voters. Austerman got 1,176 votes running unopposed in the GOP primary.

In the House, a handful of open seats offer the most intriguing races.

In Anchorage's District 17. Republican newcomer Lesil McGuire takes on former GOP Rep. Ray Metcalfe, the founder of the fledgling Republican Moderate party, for the seat vacated by Republican Rep. John Cowdery's bid for the Senate.

Retiring Democrat Allen Kemplen's District 16 seat will be contested by Democrat Gretchen Guess, who easily defeated Regina Manteufel in the primary, and Republican Randy Smith, who was unopposed.

On the Kenai Peninsula, Soldotna Mayor Ken Lancaster emerges from a crowded Republican primary to take on Kenai Borough Assemblyman Pete Sprague for the seat vacated by GOP Rep. Gary Davis' retirement.

The race for the Homer-area seat vacated by GOP Rep. Gail Phillips will feature Drew Scalzi, a fisherman who won the Republican primary, and Amy Bollenbach, a teach who was unopposed for the Democratic nomination.

In Southeast Alaska, Peggy Wilson of Wrangell won the Republican nomination in the seat that covers Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell. She'll face Sitka Mayor Stan Filler, a Democrat, in the race to succeed retiring Rep. Ben Grussendorf, D-Sitka.

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