Massive progressive win in Wisconsin, plus Alaska politics (transcript)
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Hello and welcome. I’m David Beard, contributing editor for Daily Kos Elections.
And I’m David Nir, political director of Daily Kos. “The Downballot” is a weekly podcast dedicated to the many elections that take place below the presidency, from Senate to city council. Please subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcasts and leave us a five-star rating and review.
The spring elections happened, and we did it.
We did it. Today on the Downballot we are of course, going to recap the extraordinary progressive victory for the Wisconsin Supreme Court race. There was also another awesome progressive victory in the race for mayor of Chicago. On a down note, there was a maddening party switch in North Carolina that just gave Republicans a supermajority in the state legislature. And then our guest this week is a fascinating former state Representative from Alaska, Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, who is going to tell us all about the unusual politics and cross-party coalitions in America’s last frontier. We have an awesome episode on tap for you. So let’s get rolling.
Beard, we finally did it. I cannot believe it. It has been so long in coming, but we finally won a majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Tuesday night. Can you believe it?
At long last; it feels like there’ve been so many of these elections over the years.
Oh my God. Well, this is the first progressive majority on the court since 2008. And boy oh boy, our candidate did it in fine fashion. Judge Janet Protasiewicz, you’ve heard us talk about her on this show many, many times. She defeated conservative Dan Kelly, by 11 points. That is a massive, massive blowout in a state that often sees close elections statewide. And Dan Kelly really showed us why he’s now managed to lose not one but two elections for state Supreme Court by double digits. He is such a prick. This is what he said last night. He said, “I wish that in a circumstance like this, I would be able to concede to a worthy opponent, but I do not have a worthy opponent to which I can concede.” I mean, what a bitter piece of crap this guy is. He then went on, he said, “I wish Wisconsin the best of luck because I think it’s going to need it.”
Well, what Wisconsin definitely does not need more of, is Dan Kelly—and Republicans should feel really, really worried about what the results showed last night. We talk sometimes about their bedrock stronghold in the Milwaukee suburbs, the so-called WOW counties. That’s Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington.
These are rock-ribbed, suburban Republican counties that have really formed the basis of every big win statewide for Republicans, for decades and decades. And Kelly still won them, but he only won them by an 18-point margin, which was half of what George W. Bush, for instance, won this group of counties by, two decades ago. And it just shows the further erosion in suburban support for Republican and conservative candidates nationwide, and especially in Wisconsin.
And what really should be troubling for Republicans is that as these more affluent, better-educated areas move toward Democrats, as we’ve mentioned before on this show, these are high propensity voters. These are the kind of people who show up when you have an election in April of an odd-numbered year, and losing that base of support means you’re going to be relying on voters who simply show up with much less frequency. And I really think that’s a huge problem for Republicans. And boy, you really hate to see it.
And these WOW counties are really the difference to when you think back to Wisconsin, when it was sort of seemingly dominated by Scott Walker, when Democrats tried to beat him on a recall, and they couldn’t seem to beat him, up until 2018, when he finally narrowly, narrowly lost. To a state like Michigan or Minnesota, which shares a lot of characteristics with Wisconsin, is that these very populous suburban counties had remained blood-red—while we’ve seen in a state like Michigan, Oakland County had been moving to the left and becoming bluer and bluer, really throughout this century.
And so, Wisconsin’s Republican base has really centered around these counties. There’s not any other huge population areas in the rest of the state. Obviously, there are a number of counties that are very Republican and some of them have a fair number of people, small to mid-size cities or towns, but there’s nothing like these big suburban counties that have provided, in the past, such a huge amount of the Republican vote in the state to balance out Madison and Milwaukee.
With Republicans starting to weaken there, and particularly in Ozaukee, where we’ve seen some really narrow Republican victories, only by a few points, you really then start to have the Republicans in a tough spot, where they have to either claw these suburban, well-educated voters back into the fold. Or have to get into these southern type numbers in rural areas where in the south, Republicans win these rural white voters 90-10 or more sometimes, and they don’t do that in the upper Midwest. And, if they’re going to stay competitive, they’re either going to have to really rack up those rural votes or they’re going to have to find a way to claw back these suburbs. And so it’s a real question, going forward, how they’re going to tackle that.
We can’t just talk about what happened. We have to talk about why it matters. Why we have spent so much time talking about this race. So Protasiewicz is going to be seated on Aug. 1, and that will give progressives a four-to-three majority on the court. And there are at the very least, two enormous, enormous issues that the court is going to confront sooner rather than later.
One is abortion. The state currently bans all abortions. It’s the only state that Biden won in the entire country where there is a total ban on abortion. And that is due to this zombie law from 1849 that got reanimated after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade last year.
That law, that 1849 Wisconsin law, is currently being challenged by the Democratic Attorney General, Josh Kaul, and eventually, that case is going to come before the state Supreme Court. Protasiewicz was very careful on the campaign trail, not to say how she would rule in that case, but she was also unusually explicit in emphasizing her support for abortion rights.
And I really think that we are in a new era of judicial races, where candidates are more comfortable sharing what their values are. And it’s obvious, it’s very obvious, that abortion was a central reason for her dominant win. She ran ads heavily on the topic. She also did well in these once-Republican suburban areas. And there is real reason to be optimistic that abortion rights will be restored in Wisconsin once the Supreme Court finally gets its say.
The other area is just as big in a different way, and that is gerrymandering. Last year, the state Supreme Court stepped into the gap when the Republicans in the legislature and Democratic governor, Tony Evers, had an impasse over new redistricting maps. And the court took over the process and said, any new maps should be changed as little as possible from the old maps, only enough to account for changes in population. Those old maps were extreme Republican gerrymanders. So the conservative majority on the court said, we’re essentially going to come up with this made-up rule that allows these gerrymanders to stay in place.
Protasiewicz was also very critical of those maps. She said that they were “rigged,” that is her exact word. And the other liberals on the Supreme Court dissented very bitterly from that conservative opinion that locked in those GOP gerrymanders. So a progressive group has already said that as soon as Protasiewicz is sworn in, that they will bring a new challenge to those maps. And there’s very good reason to think that those maps will get overturned and replaced with much fairer maps.
And Wisconsin is a swing state that, more often than not, leans a little bit Democratic. If Democrats can retake the legislature, it’s amazing what could happen next. We have tremendous models from states neighboring Wisconsin to the east and the west, in Michigan and Minnesota. These are both states where Democrats took back power last year, full control over state government in both of those states. And there has just been a tremendous renaissance in democracy in both of those states. And really anything is possible now that the Supreme Court in Wisconsin is in the hands of fair-minded jurists who have democracy and the voters at heart.
Yeah, and I’ll just add, there was a lot of complaining from the other side about the forthrightness with which Protasiewicz talked about the gerrymandering, as you said, she said it was rigged and the fact that abortion was such a big issue, and I frankly, don’t give a shit. That’s where I am at this point. We’ve seen the Republican Party weaponize the judiciary. Obviously, that became clear nationwide with the Dobbs decision.
We’re in a place where either you can have appointed judges by Donald Trump decide things for you, or you can elect judges who will do the things that the American people want. And it’s very clear that the people of Wisconsin want abortion to be legal and they want fair maps. And if the way that they have to do that is to elect a progressive judiciary and a progressive Supreme Court that will rule in that favor, then that is the way democracy has to work in Wisconsin right now.
I couldn’t agree more. Honestly, I find the parade of Supreme Court candidates going before the U.S. Senate, lying through their teeth about their respect for precedent and pretending that they don’t want to overturn abortion rights. That’s all such bullshit. It’s so insulting. So at least, be forthright with us and have respect for the voters. And I think that’s what Protasiewicz really had. She had respect for the voters to make up their minds, and that’s exactly what they did.
Look, I think electing judges is a terrible system. I think having politicians appoint them is also a pretty terrible system. We probably should have some sort of independent commission appointing judges in the way that we’ve seen independent redistricting be a success in a number of states. But in the meantime, since that’s not what we’re going to have, yeah, let’s elect the good guys to the bench. And that’s exactly what happened on Tuesday night in Wisconsin.
One race did not go our way in Wisconsin, unfortunately. That was the special election for the 8th State Senate district in the Northern Milwaukee suburbs. This was conservative turf that became vacant after a Republican senator resigned late last year. Republican Dan Knodl beat Jodi Habush Sinykin, but it wound up being quite close. It was just a 51-49 margin. And this was a rather conservative district that again, Republicans had gerrymandered. Donald Trump would’ve carried it by five points. So that represented a pretty strong overperformance by Habush Sinykin and Knodl is almost certainly going to be vulnerable in the future, especially if the Supreme Court overturns those gerrymandered maps, like we were just saying. So he should not get too comfortable.
Back to better news, was the results for the Chicago mayoral runoff, which also took place on Tuesday night, where progressive Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, narrowly defeated conservative Democrat and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas. Now this of course, was a race where Vallas had placed first in the first round, but Johnson was able to consolidate the progressive vote and the African American vote, to end up with a close victory. He won with 51-49. The AP has called the race in his favor, and this was really an impressive victory for progressives in Chicago.
I think the talking heads very much believed that Vallas was going to win this race. They looked at the Eric Adams victory in New York City, who was definitely the more conservative of the options. And the work of a lot of progressive groups, a lot of unions, came together and was able to really elect one of the most progressive, if not the most progressive mayor Chicago will have ever seen, is a great victory. And I’m really excited to see what he’s going to do for that city.
One other reason why I’m glad, of course, it’s a much smaller reason, but you know that the pundits and talking heads and reporters were all ready to publish stories or start talking about how the tough on crime message of a guy like Paul Vallas had progressives back on their heels, yet another failure, Democrats in disarray, et cetera, et cetera.
Well, those are going to have to gather dust for at least a little while longer. Those hot takes were all proven quite wrong. And something else to point out, Vallas and his allies widely outspent Johnson, but Johnson was able to make the case that Vallas really was quite conservative and out of step with Chicago, which of course is a dark blue city, and now he has four years to really make his mark and show Chicago exactly what they voted for.
And we’ve seen that tough on crime messaging that Republicans are so in love with has really not been terribly successful. It wasn’t terribly successful in 2022 where it was used. It didn’t work in Wisconsin. There was also something Kelly tried to do. It didn’t work for Vallas. There’s really not a lot of evidence that voters are going and voting for a more conservative option because of the crime issue, no matter how much opinion writers in various papers want that to be the case.
Now, to end on really an infuriating note, we have to talk about what happened in the North Carolina State House where in a complete surprise, Democratic state Representative Tricia Cotham switched parties this week, handing North Carolina Republicans the supermajority that they need in the chamber to override Democratic Governor Roy Cooper’s vetoes. And the Senate, of course, already had the necessary supermajority. So, this gives the GOP caucus free rein to pass any legislation that they want as long as they’re unified behind it.
Now, party switches happen from time to time, particularly we’ve seen in the past few decades in the South where very conservative Democrats have moved to the GOP. Now, is that what happened here? Was this an extremely conservative Democrat sort of out of step with the party? No, she’s generally been seen as a pretty moderate Democrat, pro-choice, pro-LGBT rights. Is she maybe in a deep red district, and she just was trying to save herself for reelection, something like that? No. Biden won her Charlotte district by 23 points, so there was no sort of need here for her to switch parties. It wasn’t seemingly an ideological thing.
No, this was a personality conflict, I’d guess you’d say. What I’d call it is extreme, extreme pettiness. By all accounts, including her own, Cotham switched parties and handed North Carolina Republicans this power, because people were mean to her after she missed a veto override vote that allowed a loosening of gun regulations in North Carolina.
Now, there were a couple Democrats who missed this vote that allowed the veto override the pass. She was one of them. There was understandably a lot of blowback because people were upset that Democrats could have stopped this bill and prevented from becoming law, and this very small number of Democrats didn’t show up, didn’t vote, and as a result it became law, particularly in the wake of course of the Nashville shooting. People were upset.
I’m sure some people sent her some mean tweets. I bet people emailed her mean things. And you know what happens when you’re a public official? People say mean things to you sometimes, and you’re supposed to be an adult and be mature enough to get over it. And the fact that her response to people being mean to her is to switch parties and to hand a massive amount of power to the dead-enders in the GOP to affect the lives of millions of people in North Carolina is just incalculable. It doesn’t make any sense. I cannot believe somebody would be this petty to do this and to just blame the other Democrats for not being nice enough to her to keep her around.
You’re not supposed to be a Democrat because people are nice to you. You’re supposed to be a Democrat because you want to make things better for the citizens of North Carolina. And so, if your point in being a political official is to just your own self-aggrandizement, then at least we know now and we can go and defeat her in 2024, but it is just infuriating that she has gone and done this out of personal pique.
I co-sign everything that you said. That was quite the rant and a very justified one. That does it for our weekly hits. Coming up, we are going to be talking with former state Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, who had the privilege of representing one of the most interesting and unusual states in the Union, Alaska. We’re going to be talking about Alaska politics with him. So, please stay with us.
Joining us today is Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, who is a former Alaska state Representative, and political activist, and someone I personally have known for many years. Jonathan, it is fantastic to have you on the show.
Thank you. It’s wonderful to be here. I guess Nir and Beard, if I am getting the best way to address both of you.
You have it exactly right, or the Davids collectively. So, Jonathan, you got involved in politics at an extremely young age, which is in fact how we met, and that was during the grassroots organizing for the Howard Dean presidential campaign all the way back in 2003. And you ultimately became the Alaska chair of the campaign. So, tell us how you got involved and what that whole journey was like.
Yeah. I got sort of politically obsessed at a very unusually young age. I think I was 13, and I basically … I discovered electoral politics and basically wholesale transferred my sort of obsessive interest in baseball and sports statistics to electoral politics. I think I’m not the only person who sort of had that sort of sports to electoral politics like transition of interest.
I was really young and I’m following the races closely and learning about the political geography of the country and all of that. And that was right around the time, 2002 midterms, that the presidential primary cycle was starting to ramp up. I sort of assiduously researched all the different candidates or at that time prospective candidates from Dick Gephardt, to Tom Daschle, Wesley Clark, all these people who I actually haven’t really talked about or thought about much for the last 10 to 15 years—and came Howard Dean.
And I had then, as I think I still kind of have, a very practical electability-first sort of framework to evaluate candidates. And Howard as the four-term governor of Vermont just checked all the boxes that I thought would make the most formidable candidate to defeat George W. Bush for his reelection. And that basically came down to three things. He was against the Iraq War, which I was opposed to and also ultimately thought was going to be a political albatross for those who had initially supported the war.
He was fiscally conservative. I think most Americans actually don’t know Howard was an incredibly stingy governor of Vermont—and the Progressive Party in Vermont. I think owes partly its origins to being of a pushback on Dean’s tenure as governor. But I thought that sort of fiscal conservatism would play well electorally. And then he was socially liberal at the time
So, got very involved and it was the first real internet campaign, and so it was just like an email address and a name, and I seriously didn’t disclose my age, and ended up getting really involved in the heart of the campaign at a very early time.
Yeah. That really was an amazing time. We were, I guess, on the vanguard of digital organizing. We were using Yahoo Groups to communicate. There were various groups, New York for Dean, Wisconsin for Dean, obviously, Alaska for Dean. Folks rallied around Dean in large part because of his very vocal opposition to the Iraq War. But many, many months before that issue really took center stage the prior year; in fact, there was this article I remember, and I wonder if you remember it too, in the American Prospect called “The Darkest Horse.”
And one thing that really stood out about Dean was that he was vocally opposed to the Bush tax cuts. At the time, I thought the Bush tax cuts were completely insane and yet Democrats really weren’t speaking out against them in the way that Howard Dean was. And I found that very attractive. I had a friend who was from Vermont, and I remember so well, he said this to me. “Howard Dean can look a Republican in the eye and spit.” And I thought that’s the kind of backbone that we need, because you mentioned Dick Gephardt, he was there standing behind Bush for the signing ceremony for the Iraq War, and Howard Dean was saying, “No, we need Democrats with spine.”
Yeah. I think there was a part, a constituent to the Democratic Party that didn’t feel like that they had a leader or a voice in that 2002 through early 2004 period of time. And I’ve actually not really convinced in retrospect John Kerry was that person, either. This sort of incidental series of events and Kerry ended up being the nominee. But I think if you were to sort of Monte Carlo simulate that primary 10 different times, I’m not sure Kerry would end up being the nominee all 10 of those times.
But Dean definitely spoke to that part of the party base, and it was a tremendous coming-of-age experience, politically speaking, to be a part of that campaign and the sort of unadulterated idealism and enthusiasm was a completely infectious way to get involved in electoral politics.
And I have to credit Howard Dean’s campaign for really getting my start, too, because he really fueled the rise of the blogosphere, or I guess I should say that they were both part and parcel of the same movement. I was in my mid-20s, just really turning on to politics and downballot politics, really electoral politics. And he was a seminal figure at the time, and I think really was inspirational for so many of us back then.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I kind of feel that campaign in some ways is looking like the alumni of Bill Belichick, the Patriots. I think there’s a Wikipedia page dedicated to this; where are all his former assistant coaches and offensive, defensive coordinators. I’m sorry, I’m actually not really a football fan, but know enough to know that he’s this seminal figure who has dozens of acolytes who themselves I’m sure have gone on to do all sorts of impressive things.
I feel like all the people involved in the Dean campaign, from a lot of electeds across the country right now, to other people behind the scenes who are making good things happen. I mean, it’s just like an incredible alumni network. I mean, there’s been a reunion or two. I actually think there should maybe be another sort of get-together here as we approach the 20-year mark. That would be really fun.
Now, while you two were getting involved with the Howard Dean campaign, I was an impressionable young North Carolina Democrat, so I supported John Edwards. And so, I’m going to move us along path from 2004. I’m going to move us to 2012 when you were just wrapping up your junior year of college, and there was a state Representative seat that had sort of been redistricted and had changed some, and there was a Republican incumbent in your hometown in Alaska, and there wasn’t a Democrat running. So, you going into your senior year, decided to jump into that race. So, tell us about that race and how you ended up getting elected.
Yeah. At that point, I had been pretty deeply immersed in politics for about 10 years. I started the Dean campaign when I was 13. It was like December 2002 is when I first dipped my toes in those waters. And this was May 2012, so almost exactly 10 years later.
I was in college, I was not thinking about running for office. Frankly, I’ve never really had any plans or ambitions to run for office really at any point in my life. I always thought I would be sort of a behind-the-scenes policy staffer, campaign manager, strategist, something like that. But it’s just as you’re describing, Beard, that there was sort of this vacuum, nobody was stepping up to running as this person. I myself wasn’t thinking about running as this person, but two different people called me coincidentally on the same day. Neither of them knew the other person was calling, saying like, “Hey, we know you’ve been really politically involved. I’ve been working with Alaska Democratic Party Recruitment Committee over the years, the previous I’d say four or six years, and you have a pulse and you live in this district. What do you think about running?”
The pulse part wasn’t stated, but I think it was kind of implicit in that this incumbent had been winning by a large margin, so I don’t think anybody seriously thought that the seat was flippable or winnable. And I had kind of been getting antsy. I was getting ready to sort of move on from college despite still having at least a little ways to go.
And after talking over some friends and taking a really hard look at the data of the district and concluding that this incumbent, despite winning by large margins, actually had a lot of soft support. The district was more fundamentally competitive than his previous margins would feed an observer to believe. Ultimately decided to go for it.
And I ended up faxing in, it may have actually been the last fax I’ve sent in in my life, my campaign registration paperwork on my way from New Haven to Alaska, which is through New York, from the FedEx Kinko’s in Times Square before, it was the day of the final deadline, and then caught a flight back to Alaska that very next day on. So I faxed it in on June 1st and flew home on June 2nd, and then just threw myself at the campaign like I had nothing to lose, which I absolutely had nothing to lose.
And then the campaign ended up being extremely competitive in the end, and it took a few days, or maybe even weeks, I’m not sure for you to actually end up being the winner. Right? It was one of the closest races of the year.
Yeah, it was 34 votes in the first tally. There was a statutorily required recount, and it had been 32 votes in the final tally. It took just about a month, recount included, for the race to be definitively decided. I mean, really it was the first couple. On election night and the week subsequent I was actually behind for large chunks of time. And for a while it looked mathematically notwithstanding a final batch of ballots that included a lot of college students and a number of voters from a very small community called Port Alexander. That sort of threw the race in my favor. And so for a while I thought I actually had lost the race, which was an interesting place to be in psychologically to sort of reflect back on leaving college, giving this thing my all for the last six months of my life. And I actually distinctly remember being very grateful that I decided to throw everything out the window and just go for it. Even though at the time I thought I had lost, it was one of the best life experiences I could have hoped for at that age.
I’m super curious to know, you win this race really unexpectedly. You are still in college, and you show up the state legislature. How did your colleagues react to you and your youth?
I think there was a lot of curiosity. So the legislator I ran against and he had been the co-chair of the Finance Committee for the previous two or maybe four years in Juneau. And so at least I’ll ask, although I think in many states Finance, or probes or whatever the name of the committee might be, is a powerful committee. It’s a sought-after position and the chair, co-chair of that committee is a pretty influential figure within the halls of certainly the Alaska capital. So I think there was an added layer of intrigue within the capital, Sir Bill Thomas, the gentleman I ran against. I mean, first of all, he was an incumbent and he lost, so that was kind of a surprise. But he also just had a big reputation within Juneau. So there’s like, who is this pipsqueak kid from Sitka who left college who’s taking Bill Thomas’s place?
I also look young, I think I looked even younger than a 23-year-old at the time. So I think there’s a additional confusion there. I was mistaken for a page or an intern multiple times in the first weeks of session for sure. But I mostly just sort of settled in and just focused on listening, and learning, and just trying to sponge in the process and get to know people and not try to make a big impression, or a big splash, or get ahead of myself. And so those first couple of years, and even really maybe over the course of all 10 years, tried to take a “listen before talk” approach and really focus on relationships and just sort of focus on the fundamentals of legislating, if you will.
So now something really unusual also happened when you joined the legislature and that was, even though Republicans had won an ostensible majority of seats in the state House, a coalition of Democrats, independents, and even a few Republicans came together to create a majority coalition. And this is not something we’ve often seen in the U.S., of course. These kinds of coalitions are very common in parliamentary democracies, but not here. And I am really curious to hear the inside story on how this alliance came about. And in particular, did you have any inkling while you were running that something like this could even happen?
And just to clarify in the chronology, so my first two terms, or first four years, we were actually in a traditional minority, the Democrats in the House. And not just a normal minority, we were completely dominated by the Republican majority. But in 2016, after a series of positive election results in the intermediate cycles, things sort of coalesced to lead to this multi-partisan coalition that you just described, of these moderate Republicans. And then also a small-but-growing faction of independents, which is now larger than ever in the Alaska House. And a lot of it is personality-based. I mean, the Alaska… I often think about how replicable this is what we have in Alaska to other states. And there’s certainly many reasons to think it’s not that replicable. There’s a lot of idiosyncratic political culture in Alaska.
Just a couple of factors that I think allow this to happen in Alaska allowed this the last six years to exist in the House include that Alaska’s the smallest bicameral legislature in the country at 40 and 20. No state has a smaller bicameral. I mean, the unicameral in Nebraska’s smaller, but that’s kind of its own creature. Another factor is, and actually just to unpack that last one, I think because it’s so small, people spend proportionally more time with each other. If it’s 100-member chamber versus a 40-member chamber, you’re going to have, what’s the math on that, 2.5 times more opportunity to get to know each of your colleagues than you would in 100-member chamber, for instance. And you really do get to know everybody. You get to know how they take their coffee, and what their spouse does, and how old their kids are, and what they do professionally.
And so I think that is something that helps contribute, or it’s at least a somewhat unique factor in Alaska. Another factor is you’re in Juneau, and you’re really isolated. Juneau is, as you may know, is the only roadless capital. You have to fly in or ferry in. And while it’s not technically an island, it’s basically cut off by glaciers and mountains, and you can’t truck to Juneau, even if you could have trucked to Juneau, it would be about a 20-hour drive through Canada to get to a place like Anchorage. So the point is when you get to Juneau, you’re really there. People rent apartments, they’re there all week, they’re going out at night. So people get to know each other and it allows for these cross-partisan relationships I think to exist, perhaps in a way that is not quite the same in other states. Where maybe you have a large portion of legislators who are driving from Hartford to New Haven at the end of the day to sleep in their own bed and see their family, or something like that.
So that’s another Alaska-specific factor. And there’s one last factor—not to diminish, I think, the significance and how exciting this coalition is and hopefully how it can be a model for other legislative chambers around the country. But one last Alaska-specific factor then, because it’s sort of helpful to speak to and also may just be of interest in terms of Alaska politics, just kind of being an interesting subject, is the rural-urban divide in Alaska. And we hear a lot about rural-urban divide in American politics certainly. And generally rural areas are like blood red, almost without exception at this point anywhere in the country. In Alaska, the rural-urban divide is quite a bit different. If you look at a sort of blue-red map of Alaska presidential results, you actually notice there’s more blue than red in Alaska, which is highly unusual for most American states.
And a lot of the rural areas in Alaska, there’s a lot of Alaska Native population in rural Alaska, which isn’t a lock, stock, and barrel Democratic constituency, but certainly leans Democratic, although it varies on what part of the state you’re talking about or what Native group you’re talking about. And then a lot of the rural white populations, there’s certainly liberals, Democrats, progressives there. There’s also a lot of conservatives, but these conservatives, I think rural Alaska’s so isolated and remote, there’s a lot of dependency on state services. And so there’s sort of more of a pro-government orientation, if you will, in rural Alaska, even among Republicans. So there’s all these factors. And if just all to say in 2016 when coalition came together, the moderate Republicans, especially moderate Republicans from rural Alaska joined together with independence and Democrats. And even though Democrats are numeric minority we’re able to form a governing majority, and that helped for the last six years up until this January.
So one tactic that I know you pursued with a fair bit of success that I would love to hear more about is in some of these more conservative districts, you succeeded in helping independent candidates beat Republicans in part by ensuring that there was no Democrat on the ballot. And we’ve seen Democrats try to recreate these circumstances in some other races in Utah last year in particular, the Democratic party there endorsed Evan McMullin. And even though he lost to Mike Lee, it was the closest Senate race that Utah had seen in quite some time. So I would love to hear more about how you actually managed to make this kind of thing happen. I mean, making sure that no Democrat files for a race, that’s not necessarily so easy to do.
Yeah. Oh my gosh. It’s quite a subject. And I think it’s fair to speak a little bit more freely now, with the passage of open primaries and ranked-choice voting, because fortunately this sort of very delicate balancing act is moot under our new system and hopefully will stay that way going forward. Although there is a repeal afoot that we’re going to have to confront in the 2024 cycle. But the short answer is it’s very tricky and difficult and we didn’t always succeed. I think of my friend and colleague, Dan Ortiz, who represents the district that was just south of the district that I represented. So it’s a very southern southeast Alaska. It’s about as close to Seattle and as close to coastal British Columbia as you can get in Alaska. And Dan’s district, I can’t remember the exact numbers off the top of my head, but it’s probably a Republican +20 district, certainly Republican +15. It’s the reddest district not represented by a Republican in Alaska, actually by quite a long shot.
And Dan was first elected in 2014, two years after I was, and we’re both from the same region. He actually coached his Ketchikan High School cross-country team and debate team when I was a student at Sitka High School. And we knew each other as sort of a student/coach in these regional meets. And I knew his daughters who were my age growing up in the same region. So Dan ran 2014 for an open seat and he barely won, I guess, against a Republican as an independent. The Democrats didn’t field a candidate that cycle, I think in a large part because it was just like “Ketchikan, we’re not going to win there. Who really cares? This Dan Ortiz guy. He seems very earnest, just let’s see what happens.” So that was sort of a bye. But in every subsequent election afterwards, 2016, 2018, and 2020, there’s always this sort of balancing act of like, oh my gosh, is there going to be a Democratic spoiler who files?
And there was at least one, probably more, and Dan would know, instance, where there was this very sort of idealistic Democrat where Dan doesn’t have a D next to his name, even though Dan I think is incredibly reasonable and shares many of the values that I have and votes that way as well. Just an incredibly decent, hardworking individual and just the kind of legislator you would hope to have in office. But he doesn’t sort of pass that litmus test of having the right letter next to his name. Or maybe he’s not liberal enough or progressive enough on issue X or issue Y. But remember, this is the Alaska Republican+10 state, and I don’t think you can have the luxury of ideological purity in these kinds of geographies. And so Democrats would get riled up and talk about putting somebody up.
And I distinctly remember when there was one person who was really thinking about running. It was just many long conversations just trying to script reason with the person and talk them down and ultimately you don’t control that destiny. If there was a Democrat who was just dead set on filing, you couldn’t do anything about it and that person would file and they would win the primary, because there wasn’t any other Democrat running. Then, that person would be on the general election ballot and effectively play the role of spoiler.
This is not a theoretical concern because there are many instances. I can think of one, two, three, just off the top of my head where there was a very strong independent candidate in a purple or red district and there was a Democrat who ended up filing that nobody really wanted to file or have on the ballot.
They basically, if you look at the math, played spoiler and the independent narrowly lost to the Republican with the Democrat taking 6%, 8%, 10% of the vote or whatever. Even if just a fraction of that spoiler percentage had gone to the Independent, the Independent would’ve prevailed and beaten the Republican. There wasn’t a perfect formula other than just persuasion and asking, “Pretty please,” and just hoping it worked out.
Now we can’t talk about Alaska without bringing up Mary Peltola’s incredible pair of election victories in the special election for Alaska’s House seat last year and then for the regular election of course in November. Tell us how it was being on the ground during those campaigns and when the belief started to percolate among Democrats this was really something that she could pull off.
There was a lot of talk of war I would say in the beginning of that special election cycle because, as you might remember, there’s something like 48 or 50 candidates who filed for that special election. I mean it was the dampers. There’s just all these pent-up electoral interest and ambition for Ds and Rs and others across Alaska.
Mary was, I think this is fair to say, just maybe not a face in the crowd because she had held elected office before. She’d been a state Rep. I think a decade-plus prior. I mean Mary was out of the legislature by the time I got there, but I mean there were a lot of other former legislators. I think a lot of people of course were paying attention to Republicans especially because our plus-10 state, and Don Young was a Republican.
It was just a presumption that whoever won would probably be a Republican, but a number of things started to happen. I mean she retained a really excellent campaign consultancy in Alaska called Ship Creek Group and just scrapped her way to raising early money, working closely with Ship Creek Group to do that.
Then, they put out a couple of media pieces and helped introduce her to Alaska at large in a way that I think cut through the noise with these dozens upon dozens of candidates. I think especially on the left, among Democrats, excitement started to bubble. Then, as the summer progressed and Mary ended up being one of the top four candidates, she was the fourth of the top four candidates.
As summer progressed, it became really clear that the damage to the race with Nick Begich and Sarah Palin going at each other scorched-earth style, that it would potentially leave a lane for Mary to win. As many of your listeners may know, Al Gross dropped out going into that final special election. It was just Mary, Nick Begich, and Sarah Palin and then there was I think a poll or two that started circulating that showed it very close that Mary could potentially win.
I think by July and certainly by August, there was a real palpable sense of opportunity and that this could be one of the big upsets of the year nationally, which ended up coming to pass. I should also say Mary is incredibly charismatic as well, which I think is something that especially politicos in Alaska saw early and thought that she had just tremendous upside potential as a statewide candidate. Her story is amazing too. I mean her family knew Don Young.
She used to campaign for Don Young with her dad who was a friend of Don Young. She represented rural Alaska, first Alaska Native statewide elected official. Just all these aspects of her candidacy I think really excited people and she’s just a smart, charismatic, thoughtful person. She just had so much going in her favor that ultimately put her over the top.
Speaking as an outsider, it certainly seemed to me that what you were talking about earlier, these more moderate Republicans really seemed to call to her. You mentioned her relationship with Don Young of course, the former Congressman whose death led to this special election, and his family and also his aides as well. That was remarkable because in other special elections certainly you don’t typically see Republicans, especially those who work in Congress for the deceased congressman, decide to come out and support the Democrat.
It was a totally fascinating dynamic and I think a lot of that emerged after the special election and before the November general election when Mary was serving that interim term for really just a matter of months that you saw a lot of alumni of the Don Young office coalesce behind Mary. There’s reason for that. I mean Sarah Palin doesn’t have, I think, a great reputation nationally. I think her reputation might be even more negative in Alaska.
There’s a lot of people for whom, in Alaska, Sarah Palin was a non-starter. Just as an aside, Sarah is a fascinating political personality and there’s many different Sarah Palins through history. I mean that’s a whole digression and sidebar conversation because, at one point, she of course was this incredibly popular governor, most popular governor in America.
It’s almost a different person that we’re talking about, the Sarah Palin of 2006, 2007, but certainly Sarah Palin of 2022 and the Sarah Palin who was running as a candidate for the special election, not super popular. Then, there’s Nick Begich and that was the other Republican in the special election and ultimately in the general election. I think this has been publicly reported.
I’m not speaking out of school or gossiping or anything like that, but I don’t think this is well-known nationally. Nick Begich had positioned himself as a mentee of Don Young’s and he was Don Young’s campaign co-chair, I can’t remember exactly, in 2020. Then, he actually worked as an intern in the Don Young office in Washington DC I think that subsequent year in 2021 all learning from the dean of the House and this person who’s an institution in Alaska politics.
I think Nick and there’s probably an understanding that Nick was ultimately interested in running for Congress whenever that seat may have opened up when Don then retired or moved on or whatever, but he is very much a close supporter and ally of Don Young’s. Then, he basically back stabbed Don Young and the faith and investment that Young had personally placed in Nick.
This is at least as it’s been reported to me and I’ve never heard Nick Begich public or otherwise contradict this. He filed to run against Don Young. You’re chairing the campaign of somebody one cycle and then you go work for him at DC as an intern. That was I think bespoke; the Young office created this position for Nick Begich to fill so he could get some experience in D.C.—and then you just turn around and run against him.
You can imagine that Don Young staff didn’t feel very warmly towards Nick Begich. In fact, I think they would use much more charged language for basically how he treated their former boss. Nick Begich was a non-starter for a lot of these Republicans as well just for arguably a lack of character. Both of the Republicans on the ticket were not really viable options.
Mary who is a pretty moderate person, who had this relationship with Don Young, who’s from rural Alaska, and Don Young, as many Alaskans know, is also from rural Alaska, from Fort Yukon. He was a tugboat captain on the Yukon, I think is how he started his career. I mean he just had all these commonalities. I think it was an acceptable alternative to a lot of people in this Don Young world, but there’s no way Nick Begich was going to garner any of these Don Young staffers’ support.
Jonathan, you decided not to run for reelection last year and you are now a former state Representative at still a very young age. What is next for you? You’ve been involved in a number of projects outside of politics. Could you imagine running for office again in the future?
I’m just enjoying being private. I mean this sounds crazy to say, but it’s literally the first time in my adult life because it was college right into the campaign and the legislature and then that’s been the last 10 years. I haven’t really had the opportunity to just exist as a normal person and be up for reelection every other year and raising money and being called back to Juneau for special sessions, just everything else that comes with the job.
To be clear, I feel so grateful for these last 10 years and I can’t imagine a better way to spend one’s 20s. You just learn a tremendous amount, but I mean I do have a couple of nonpolitical projects. There’s a higher education organization I’ve been involved in starting and a fellowship program as well. I’ve also been doing some federal policy work around the CHIPS and Science Act, which maybe isn’t that well-known.
It’s this policy that passed Congress in August that’s looking at semiconductor policy and industrial policy in the U.S. and how we as a country maintain maximum global competitiveness around these different critical technologies that are going to shape the future, which has just been a long running passionate interest of mine. I don’t think I’ll be a stranger to politics in the future.
I just don’t know in what capacity or when or how or anything like that. It could be running for office. It could be working for somebody else or behind the scenes, but I mean I love Alaska and I’ve also greatly enjoyed getting to know the DC scene a little bit more as I work on this federal policy and CHIPS and Science Act work. I’ll be in the mix in some form or fashion in the future, I think.
I am very glad to hear that. Before we let you go, Jonathan, where can folks follow you and learn about your work?
Gosh, I don’t have a turnkey apparatus for updates, but I mean I guess I periodically Tweet. It’s like emphasis on periodic. I’ve got a personal website, JayKaytee.com, spelled out as the letters, J-A-Y-K-A-Y-T-E-E. I try to just myself have a more organized, coherent sense of the different projects I’m working on and track stuff there as well. I guess those are probably the two best places.
We have been talking with Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, former Alaska state Representative. Jonathan, thank you so much for joining us on today’s show.
Thanks so much for having me. It was wonderful to be on.
That’s all from us this week. Thanks to Jonathan Kreiss-Tompkins for joining us. “The Downballot” comes out every Thursday everywhere you listen to podcasts. You can reach out to us by emailing TheDownballot@DailyKos.com. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcast and leave us a five-star rating and review. Thanks to our producer, Walter Einenkel, and editor, Trevor Jones. We’ll be back next week with a new episode.