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Better GOP organization gets credit for victories

Posted: Monday, November 18, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- It was 7 p.m. on election night. The polls wouldn't close for another hour. But in a littered back-room office at Frank Murkowski's campaign headquarters, Alaska State Republican Party chairman Randy Ruedrich could smell victory.

In the hall outside, upbeat Murkowski supporters were eating shrimp and uncorking red wine. They were confident of winning the governor's race. But Ruedrich was focused on the smaller battles, the legislative races, where victory would mean continued Republican dominance of the Legislature.

''It will be very close,'' he said, referring to the Fairbanks state Senate race between conservative Republican Ralph Seekins and five-term Democratic state Rep. John Davies.

As the votes poured in, Ruedrich proved correct. Seekins defeated Davies. Meanwhile, three other close legislative races went Republican and GOP candidates nearly unseated Democrats in five other races.

By midnight, Democrats' hopes for more seats and influence in Juneau were buried. Murkowski's 15-point win over Democrat Fran Ulmer for governor capped the victory.

Not since Wally Hickel took office in 1966 has a Republican governor in Alaska held majorities in both the House and Senate.

''I'm not a bit surprised,'' Ruedrich said the next day.

The Republicans' success is due to a cluster of reasons, observers say, including Murkowski's strong campaign and heavy advertising from anonymous pro-Republican soft money groups.

But an undeniable factor is Ruedrich's party.

Ruedrich, a retired Arco oil engineer, took over as party boss in June 2000. The Texas native dabbled in politics through his career. A former libertarian, he hails from the far right wing of the party. One of his goals, he says, is the most conservative possible Republican for each district.

In comparison with the disastrous Republican campaign for governor in 1998, many people feel Ruedrich brought discipline and organization to the party this year. He led the party's efforts in newly drawn legislative districts widely viewed by Republicans as Democrat-friendly. During the campaign, the party supported Murkowski while simultaneously pressing strong Republican campaigns in at least a dozen legislative races.

Ruedrich is not without detractors.

He has been known to criticize moderate Republicans, such as Anchorage Rep. Andrew Halcro. In pressing the party's agenda, Ruedrich has encouraged a trend toward negative politics in the state, Democrats say.

''It's the best-organized machinery I've seen in the 10 years I've been in the Legislature,'' said Rep. Pete Kott of Eagle River, the new Republican House speaker. ''Everybody recognized that with Murkowski as governor we had a great opportunity and we went for it.''

From the time he announced last year that he wanted to be governor, Murkowski was considered the front-runner.

But continued Republican control of the Legislature, where Republicans have held more than two-thirds majorities in both Houses, seemed far less certain. After a Republican-controlled board redrew legislative districts in the early 1990s, a bipartisan panel produced new boundaries this year.

Democratic leaders said they hoped to gain as many as three Senate seats and five House slots. That could have led to bipartisan coalitions in the Legislature, a boost to Democratic power and a check on a Republican governor.

The Republican mission, Ruedrich said, ''was to fight back, to offset the disadvantage of the new districts and stay as close as we could.''

Party fund raising began almost two years ago and all Republicans in contested races got at least a few thousand dollars from the party, Ruedrich said.

In especially tight contests, such as the Fairbanks race between Republican Seekins and Democrat Davies, the party dumped in the maximum $15,000.

The Davies-Seekins race offered a special opportunity, Ruedrich said. Davies, a leading Democratic House member, was running for Senate in one of the redrawn Senate seats in Fairbanks. Strong in his university-area House district, Davies would be vulnerable in the new, more conservative Senate district, Ruedrich predicted. Also, Seekins, who owns a Fairbanks car dealership, had the instant name recognition to run a strong race, he said.

If the Republicans were to keep firm control of the Senate, the race would be important, Ruedrich said.

Aside from giving Seekins cash, they went on the offensive against Davies with advertisements attacking Davies' support at one time for using Permanent Fund earnings for state government. They followed up with ads questioning Davies' votes against a resolution to ban flag burning and against a bill explicitly criminalizing the spread of AIDS.

The onslaught caught Davies by surprise, he said. He had gotten only $250 from his party. He expected to be attacked on his pro-tax stance but not on the AIDS vote and flag burning, he said. Davies claims the ads distorted his positions, suggesting he supported the spread of AIDS and was unpatriotic.

''They completely twisted it around, and they knew it was untrue,'' Davies said. ''If he had beat me on the issues, I'd congratulate him. I don't have a lot of respect for (Seekins) right now.''

Both Seekins and Ruedrich said Davies' votes as a legislator are fair game. Seekins took more than 52 percent of the vote, winning by more than 1,000 votes.

The Republicans mounted similar concentrated efforts in four other Senate races. The Republicans gave at least several thousand dollars to candidates.

''Party money made the difference in a lot of these races,'' said Kott, the House majority leader.

About two weeks before Election Day, the Republican Party also took a direct role in Murkowski's race for governor by attacking Ulmer on television and through the mail. Ulmer's campaign manager, Jim Nordland, said the party money hurt.

''Where we got swamped was the Republican Party spending,'' he said.

Ashley Reed, a Democratic lobbyist who supported Murkowski, said that the Republican Party efforts were successful because they dovetailed with other currents in the election.

The message from the party and the candidates all echoed the same pro-development, anti-tax themes.

''This was a star-studded headline for the Republican Party,'' Reed said. ''They played their cards well.''



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