Why Do Alaska’s Legislators Sell Out to Democrats After Every Election? The Answer is Simple.

(Published November 10, 2020; Revised and expanded November 13, 2020)

The last time Alaskans elected a Democrat majority in the Alaska State Senate was in the 1970’s, more than four decades ago.

The last time Alaskans elected a Democrat majority in the State House was in the early 90’s, nearly three decades ago.

The last time Republican legislators allowed Democrat legislators to control the State House was…just this year (and the year before that…and the year before that…and the year before that).

Alaskans keep electing Republicans to the legislature in clear majorities (Republicans hold roughly 58% of seats in the State House today), but no matter. Once elected, they immediately put Democrat legislators in power. Despite that 58% majority, the Alaska State House is run today by a lifelong Democrat legislator from Dillingham.

Likewise. Republicans currently hold 65% of seats in the Alaska State Senate, but you wouldn’t know it. Republicans in the Senate are led by a Senate Majority Leader who is a lifelong Democrat.

Why do Republican legislators keep selling out to Democrats? Simple. Because, somewhere along the way, they lost respect for the voters who elected them. There—I said it.

Once that respect is lost, the Binding Caucus steps in and provides ample incentives (both rewards and punishments) for them to abandon whatever allegiance they may have had to the voters of their political party. Over the years, a belief has arisen among legislators that when they are in Juneau they can get away with putting loyalty to their fellow legislators above loyalty to the voters who elected them. That is, until now.

August 2020—A massacre at the ballot box
On August 18th, the corruption of the Binding Caucus was put on trial, and Alaskan voters issued their verdict in the Republican Primary. In both the house and the senate, the verdict was the same; legislators who advocated for maintaining the Binding Caucus experienced a cataclysmic defeat.

As the counting of absentee ballots begins today, Republicans in the Alaska Legislature will have already lost more than 100 years of cumulative legislative experience when they return to Juneau in January. In other words, even if every Republican beats every Democrat today (which is unlikely), the leadership of the binding caucus in the legislature has already suffered a massacre. And it took place entirely within the Republican Party.

Twelve Republican legislators will not be coming back to Juneau next year, most after unsuccessfully running for re-election earlier this year. When you consider that Alaska has the smallest state house, and the smallest state senate, of any state in the country, that is an astonishing statistic. The most senior Republican members of the State House and Senate were each unsuccessful in convincing voters to return them to office. More than that, the two most powerful Republican legislators in the House, and the two most powerful Republican legislators in the Senate, were also unsuccessful at the ballot box. More than 100 years of experience in the legislature—gone. And any Democrat victories this week will only add to that number.

One would think that any surviving Republican legislators would be on notice to avoid the mistakes of their peers. Unfortunately, that’s not the way this game works. Of those that remain, the most senior Republicans in the House, as well as in the Senate, are already pushing to reconstitute the same corrupt Binding Caucus system to which they have grown so accustomed. Some are declaring publicly that they will even refuse to collaborate with their fellow Republican legislators without it.

Elections have the ability to change out legislators, but elections alone can’t replace a legislative culture that has gone off the rails. To accomplish that, you need men and women of courage in the legislature who are willing to insist on a better way.

What is wrong with the Binding Caucus Culture?
The practice of extorting votes from fellow Republican legislators is based on a lie. That lie may be obvious to members of the public, but it is no longer obvious to some of those I serve with in the legislature today, so let me explain.

Either the people of Alaska are deserving of respect from those in the legislature, or they are not. The lie says they are not.

Either legislators, as elected representatives of the people, are deserving of that same respect from their fellow legislators, or they are not. Again, the lie says they are not.

And if they are not, then it is perfectly acceptable to coerce, extort, threaten, bully and punish your fellow Republicans serving in the legislature if they are an obstacle to your personal political agenda.

The lie was expressed quite candidly by one of my Republican colleagues earlier this year:

“As a Republican legislator, you represent the caucus, you represent us, you are accountable to us.”

And there you have it. No mention of representing the people of one’s district. To some, the only people that matter are the ones in Juneau.  

Another Republican legislator was even more curt: “I can go to the leadership of the Democrat-led Caucus and have you expelled from the legislature whenever I want.”

Let that sink in for a moment. In the mind of some Republican legislators today, your ability to serve your constituents as an elected legislator is predicated first on your willingness to support that legislator’s personal political agenda. And if you aren’t supporting the personal agendas of your fellow legislators with sufficient enthusiasm, they can simply invalidate your election and then feel completely justified in having you replaced with someone who will be more accommodating.

And this is how Republican legislators treat one another in Juneau.

The idea of respecting the will of voters: gone. 

The idea of legislators first loyalty being to those they represent: gone.

The idea of Republican legislators being loyal to Republican principles and values: gone.

The idea of legislators acting in accordance with their conscience and campaign promises: gone.

The idea of legislators honoring state law: gone.

If you think I exaggerate on that last bullet, reflect a moment on what happened in the senate last year. In July, the governor called legislators to Wasilla to authorize last year’s PFD. According to state law, the governor was entirely within his legal authority to designate the location for the meeting. More than one-third of legislators answered that call and traveled to Wasilla. The remainder attempted to designate their own location, but failed to garner enough votes to do so legally. After trying to secure the votes and coming up short, they decided to take a novel approach. They simply declared that they didn’t need to follow the law, and flew down to Juneau anyway. What’s more, Republicans in the senate then publicly declared that they would punish any of their fellow Republican legislators who had followed the law and assembled in Wasilla with the governor.

Simply for following state law and attending the meeting in Wasilla, they stripped the Senate Majority Leader (Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage) of her position. Let that sink in a moment. Simply for following the law, and for no other reason, they stripped the third most powerful Republican legislator of her position, and her fellow Republicans in the senate selected a Democrat legislator to serve as their Senate Majority Leader in her place.

In the eyes of a majority of her Republican senate colleagues, she didn’t represent her constituents or herself when she chose to honor the law, she represented them. And if they chose not to follow the law, they were justified in punishing her for her decision to follow it.

Welcome to being a Republican in the Alaska legislature in 2020. I know, you’re probably saying “where can I sign up, right?”

The main battle in the Alaska legislature today isn’t between Republicans and Democrats. Actually, it is being fought entirely within the Republican camp. On the one side you have a handful of conservative legislators who have been fighting for the right to represent their constituents without first obtaining permission from other legislators to do so. On the other side, you have Republican legislators for whom the give and take of compromise and negotiation with their fellow legislators is an entirely foreign concept, and the only solution is the consolidation of power in the hands of a small few (usually them).

I have been on the front lines of this fight each year that I have been in office.

Over those four years, no small amount of time has been spent discussing whether or not a handful of legislators will decide for us how we will vote on important votes, what bad legislation we will be permitted to critique, and which rules or laws we must break (or allow to be broken). Of course, each time conservatives assert the right to fairly represent their districts, we hear the threat—sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle—that if we won’t agree in advance to vote how we are told, some of those same legislators can and will put Democrats in power who will be willing to do so.

This arrangement turns the concept of representative government on its head. The legislators whose votes are not for sale suffer the worst treatment, while those legislators willing to bind their votes to their fellow legislators get to auction those votes off to the highest bidder. Republican legislators willing to facilitate the consolidation of power in the hands of just a few legislators are rewarded handsomely for doing so, while those who insist on representing their district are treated worse than Democrats by many of their Republican peers.

In the end, this arrangement leaves voters with the least amount of power (it really doesn’t matter who the people elect if they are just going to vote how they are told when they arrive in Juneau), and it leaves lobbyists with the greatest amount of power (how much easier is it for a lobbyist to only have to convince 5-6 legislators to adopt a policy than to have to try and convince all 60 legislators to do so?).

Despite repeated punishments of various kinds, and public opposition from some of my Pro-Binding Caucus colleagues at election time, I have let it be known that my loyalty will remain to the Alaskans I represent in the Mat-Su, and to my own conscience which guides me in voting on their behalf. My vote is not for sale to a small group of legislators in Juneau, and neither is my loyalty. Needless to say, this hasn’t won me any favors in a legislature that relies on the Binding Caucus to achieve consensus and silence dissent.

And those are the battle lines going into today’s ballot count. Will legislators represent the values of those that elected them, or will they instead be coerced into representing the values of a small group of legislators? Of course, if the latter prevails, it removes the people of Alaska from the equation entirely.

What if we eliminate the Binding Caucus?
Some mistakenly believe that if we simply eliminate the binding caucus, all will be well again. Unfortunately, it is not so easy.

The Binding Caucus is a symptom of a problem that runs much deeper. Instead of facilitating the ability of legislators to represent their constituents, much of the machinery of the legislative branch of government has been repurposed to prevent that very thing from taking place. Today, Republican legislators are faced with the very real threat that if they won’t agree in advance to vote how they are told under a binding caucus, some of their fellow Republican legislators will put Democrats in power who will be willing to do so. In either scenario, the caucus consolidates power at the expense of the people who lose their right to meaningful representation in the halls of government.

The relationship between a voter and their elected representative was once held to be a sacred component of our constitutional system of government. No longer. A third party, the caucus, has inserted itself into that relationship and demanded first claim to the loyalty of legislators. And armed with the power of the legislative branch of government, the caucus has ample tools with which to coerce desired behavior on the part of legislators. Yes, a few still resist, but most legislators have learned to accommodate this third party. The real victim of course is the people, who stand to lose the loyalty of the very representatives sent to Juneau on their behalf. 

The lie that a legislator’s role in Juneau is to represent their fellow legislators has grown so strong today that it extends beyond those in the formal binding caucus to any member of the legislature, whether in a binding caucus or not. The constituents I represent would never tolerate my disenfranchising them by joining a binding caucus. And so I never have. But that has not stopped the threats from some of my fellow Republican legislators.

One point of great contention this year was the minting of 5,000,000 $1 copper coins for circulation here in Alaska. It was an exceedingly liberal proposal that my district did not support, and I did everything in my power to kill it. But my fellow Republican legislators joined Democrats in supporting it, and I was told by Republican legislators that it was wrong of me to publicly try to kill a policy that they were supporting. When asked by the ADN, why my fellow Republican legislators chose to side with Democrats to publicly punish me earlier this year, this was the first reason they cited. And what’s more, many of my fellow Republican legislators believed themselves completely justified in treating a fellow Republican legislator worse than a Democrat for maintaining and publicly advocating for a position that accurately reflects my conservative, Republican district. This is the power the lie holds in Juneau today. Again, ‘your first loyalty isn’t to voters, your first loyalty is to “us”. And if you oppose “us”, we can punish you and the people you represent.’

The process of sanctioning legislators has now been weaponized and used against conservatives
The corruption of the caucus system has turned the entire process of sanctioning legislators on its head today. Procedures that were meant to address issues like public drunkenness, bribery and election fraud, are now instead used to threaten and punish legislators for being too conservative, refusing to lie, or refusing to break the law.

This isn’t about the give and take of compromise over policies. This is about an ultimatum: “Get in line, or be punished.”

Of course, such punishments never stop at the legislator themselves. When the caucus punishes a legislator they also punish the Alaskans that legislator represents.

This past year, the caucus made this explicit. In issuing its punishment of a legislator, it explicitly communicated to voters in one region of the state that it disapproved of who they had elected, and publicly advised them to elect someone more to the liking of legislators in Juneau. As they had not done so, it removed that region’s voice on a key committee. Incredibly, the caucus explained to the public that the Mat-Su should not be concerned over this because it would be looking out for their interests by selecting a legislator from another part of the state who would look after the interests of the Mat-Su just as carefully as the legislator the people had elected to look after their own interests.

It would be difficult indeed to find a more glaring example of the contempt that some legislators have for the people of Alaska today.

How can a system of free and fair elections exist, when the government assumes the right to weigh in on whether the people have chosen the “right kind” of legislators? When the government assumes the right to punish the people for the choices they made at the ballot box? When the government uses taxpayer resources to publicly declare to each voter in the state its position that the people of one part of the state should not re-elect a particular legislator, and just to ensure they get the message, it moves at the same time to deprive those same Alaskans of their voice on a key committee. 

In the conflict between a lie and the truth, only one can prevail. Either legislators are justified in their recent decisions to punish legislators and the Alaskans they represent, or they are not. Either they have an obligation under our constitutional system to respect the will of the people following an election, or they may continue to hold voters in contempt for their choices, use various punishments to coerce voter behavior, and use taxpayer resources to communicate the preferences of those in Juneau when it comes to who should and shouldn’t be re-elected on Election Day. 

One thing is for certain. The culture that has prevailed among Republicans legislators up ’til now has given incredible power to the small group of Republican legislators who issue the threats, while disenfranchising each and every Alaskan voter who turned up to vote thinking they were voting for a Republican agenda. What is needed today, more than ever, are men and women of courage in the legislature who will insist on a better way. If they do not, legislators may never recover the respect for voters that has been lost, the temptation to sell out to Democrats will continue to be too powerful for some Republicans to withstand, and a Republican agenda will always remain just out of reach.