What just happened? Takeaways from the August 18 Primary Election

Through a pandemic and unprecedented economic hardship, Alaska voters picked party nominees for November’s general election, setting up the clashes that will determine the shape of the state’s politics over the next two years, and beyond. Their choices make it crystal clear about what is on the electorate’s minds, and what the two parties share: Alaska voters want change.

As the General Election approaches, here are the lessons we learned from the 2020 primary season:

Voters are unhappy with incumbents
It’s no secret that Juneau has not operated smoothly over the past couple of years, with difficulties organizing, extended special sessions, budget stalemates, and continual sniping between the House, Senate, and governor. Voters are over the dysfunction, and defeated several notable longtime incumbent legislators who are respected by their peers.

The Permanent Fund Dividend still matters
There’s been a growing sense (and some polling to prove) that perhaps the PFD is not the “third rail of Alaska politics” that it used to be. The primary results show that for partisan voters, at least, the PFD remains a flashpoint. Legislators who supported smaller Dividend payments to balance the budget fell hard on election night. Whether that sentiment is shared by the much larger, more diverse group of voters in the General Election remains to be seen.

Partisan voters expect candidates to tow the line
Voters who align with a political party expect their legislators to stick with the party platform. Legislators who compromised with lawmakers on the other side of the aisle paid the price on election night, with accusations of betrayal flying in paid media and on social media. It remains true that legislators facing a legitimate primary challenger cannot afford to alienate their base.

Predictions for November:
Based on what we saw in August, Alaska voters appear to be in a foul mood. Whether the stress from living through months of a global pandemic is playing itself out at the ballot box is hard to tell without scientific research, but it’s safe to say Alaska voters are ready to shake things up and take chances on new, untested legislators. Regardless, the upcoming legislative session will feature many new faces, many of whom don’t yet know the inner workings of how Juneau functions. We will see whether these freshmen lawmakers are able to force the change so many of their voters demanded on August 18.

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