We use charts not only to do analysis and help explain our position to others, we also use them to help organize our own thoughts as we think through issues.
In that vein, we have started developing a chart for the upcoming special congressional election to help us sort through our thoughts on the various candidates. In addition to our activities at the state level, Alaskans for Sustainable Budgets is also engaged at the federal level through our involvement with federally focused fiscal groups Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and the Concord Coalition. Our chart reflects our experiences at that level.
As are the campaigns, the chart is in the early stages, largely based on first impressions. But we have to start somewhere. We are building it to focus on what we think the important factors are in deciding among the candidates.
The first cut, of course, is which of the candidates have a chance of placing in the top four in the special primary election. In our initial sort, we have identified 13 candidates that have some statewide name recognition based on previous public service, corporate positions or, in the case of Santa Claus, name alone.
Using this criteria for the initial sort no doubt overlooks some candidates who, by strength of position or force of personality potentially could rise to the top four. But with only 70 days from filing to the date of the special primary, the initial advantage certainly rests with those who already are at least somewhat known to voters. If there are others who are able to overcome this initial disadvantage as the campaign develops, we certainly will add them to the list.
Once we have identified those who have a chance of placing in the top four, we have started sorting further based on various criteria. Red means “not” or doesn’t meet the criteria, green means “yes” or does meet the criteria, yellow in any category means on the fence. Blanks in any of the rows means “to be determined” as we hear and read more during the campaign.
Our first sort in these categories is based on how well candidates are positioned to “advance Alaska’s interests” in Congress.
In an earlier draft we titled that column “bring home the bacon.” But some thought we were talking only about money. To be clear, we mean that in much more than the monetary sense.
Because 60 percent of Alaska land and all of the offshore beyond three miles is owned by the federal government, and because Alaska is heavily dependent on an industry – resource development – that even on state and private lands is heavily regulated by the federal government, ensuring that the federal government remains responsive to Alaska’s concerns is a critical role played by all three members of the state’s congressional delegation
In our initial look we use three criteria to evaluate a candidate’s ability to “advance Alaska’s interests” in this larger sense – their ability to build seniority, the ability to work across the aisle and whether they are “their own person” or, instead, someone likely to be drawn into one or another segment of the partisan factionalism that characterizes the current U.S. House.
Because the House allocates power in significant part based on seniority, we view an Alaska candidate’s ability (and commitment) to building and maintaining seniority as critical. While other states with multiple representatives can rely on various members with varying levels of seniority serving on a variety of committees or in a variety of caucuses to advance their interests, Alaska has only one member. Building power through seniority is, realistically, the only road open for Alaska to have any real voice in the House on federal matters.
While a candidate’s ability to build seniority over a 10 to 15 year period and thereafter maintain it is tied in significant part to their age, that is not the only criteria. Seniority is based on time served in Congress. Some may be more “senior” in that sense than others by only a matter of weeks, or even days.
With the anticipation that the upcoming November election will result in the election of a number of new Republican representatives to Congress, Alaska’s special election provides an important opportunity to make Alaska’s representative more “senior” than others in the pack by a few months. Those candidates proposing only to serve out the remaining term of former Congressman Don Young effectively are suggesting that Alaska forego that opportunity. We shouldn’t and discount those candidates taking that position.
The second and third criteria are somewhat related. With the House periodically rotating between Democratic and Republican control, Alaska’s representative needs to be positioned to pursue Alaska’s interests – be positioned to “bring home the bacon” – regardless of which party is in control. This means developing the ability to work across the aisle and avoiding becoming trapped in hyper-partisan factions – on either side – that make building those relationships more difficult.
It also means forging and maintaining positions that best serve Alaska’s interests, avoiding the usual “go along to get along” push of either political party’s leadership.
There are ample opportunities to achieve those objectives. The House already has a bi-partisan Problem Solvers Caucus, composed of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, that focus on developing working relationships among the members across the aisle. Others, as did Congressman Young, use their committee positions to forge such relationships.
Regardless of how they are achieved, however, keeping Alaska’s overall interests first and avoiding falling into a hyper-partisan clique or a “go along to get along” approach is critical.
While Texas with its bi-partisan 38 member delegation, New York with its 29, Georgia and Michigan with their 16, North Carolina with its 15, Arizona and Massachusetts with their 11, Minnesota with its 10 and even Colorado with its 9 can afford to have one or two focused more on hyper-partisan activities than legislating, Alaska with its one cannot.
Our next criteria is odd to some, but we believe it is as important as any other. If they have taken one, we focus on what the candidate’s position is on the PFD.
Some are quick to argue that, because it involves a purely state matter without a federal analogue, a candidate’s position on the PFD should be irrelevant. Others argue that it is unfair, because while current legislators have been forced to take a position on it, candidates with other backgrounds, or who may have served in the Legislature during earlier times, have not.
While both of the factual predicates are true, we nevertheless believe that, where they have taken a public position on the PFD, it’s relevant to our evaluation of their qualifications.
To us, the PFD is a clear cut, “special interests” versus overall Alaska interests issue. As we’ve discussed in previous columns, using PFD cuts to fund government has the “largest adverse impact” of all of the revenue options on 80% of Alaska families and the overall Alaska economy. The only beneficiaries are the top 20%.
If a candidate has chosen the side of the top 20% against the remaining 80% of Alaska families at the state level, they likely will be inclined to do the same at the federal level. With so many other candidates to choose from, why go with one that already has demonstrated the inclination to side against 80% of Alaska families.
Once beyond those categories, we intend to look at the candidates from the perspective of whether they separately are “conservative,” “centrist” or “progressive” on two general sets of issues: “fiscal,” and “social/cultural.” The reason we separate those is because, like Senator Joe Manchin (D – West Virginia) and others, some can be “fiscally conservative,” while being “socially centrist” or even “socially progressive.”
Evaluating the two separately helps identify those who, for example, claim to be a capital C, “Conservative” based on their social policy positions alone, masking that their fiscal policy positions are more centrist or, indeed, progressive.
Also, while it may not prove to be practical to implement, our initial chart leaves room in each category for gradations of “conservative,” “centrist” or “progressive,” to capture subtle differences in the candidates’ positions. The chart uses an “X” to identify where the candidate falls on the spectrum separately on the two general sets of issues.
While we have initially placed “X’s” within the spectrum for most candidates on the two sets of issues, they are largely based on first impressions based on their past votes, if current or former legislators, or where they are not, statements or, in the few cases where the candidate has already posted, the positions set forth on its website. They will be updated as the campaigns develop and the candidates outline more definitive positions.
While we do not anticipate updating this chart weekly as we do some others, we will do so as new information about the candidates become available or, as the issues unfold, we believe our criteria should be updated. We will post those updates on our Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn pages for readers interested in following along.
Brad Keithley is the Managing Director of Alaskans for Sustainable Budgets, a project focused on developing and advocating for economically robust and durable state fiscal policies. You can follow the work of the project on its website, at @AK4SB on Twitter, on its Facebook page or by subscribing to its weekly podcast on Substack.