Weddleton’s loss breaks South’s moderate streak

South Anchorage isn’t as conservative as we think. Can Save Anchorage crowd out moderate voters and lock in two allies on the Assembly?

Going into the 2022 Anchorage municipal election, everybody knew John Weddleton’s race against Republican Randy Sulte would be tough for Weddleton. South is home to some of the reddest pockets of the state, particularly Huffman and Rabbit Creek. The district usually joins Eagle River-Chugiak in voting against any candidate that is left-of-center, including voting for Trump +3.7% and Bronson +9.5%.

And yet, on the municipal and state level, South tends to elect relatively moderate, reasonable candidates to represent them. Most recently, South elected two moderates that often joined the liberal wing of the Assembly, particularly in checking Mayor Bronson’s controversial executive appointments and projects. John Weddleton (elected 2016) and current Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance (elected 2017) have been targeted by Save Anchorage, a right-wing organization that helped fuel Bronson’s victory. Bronson endorsed Sulte, a powerful nod in a district where a significant number of Save Anchorage’s members are engaged.

Prior to John and Suzanne, South elected many other moderate conservatives. Bill Evans (2014), who ran for mayor in 2021 on being the moderate in the middle of the field, was a strong and steady voice on the Assembly for one term. Jennifer Johnston (2007, 2010, 2013), who joined the Democratic-led House Majority Coalition while in the Alaska Legislature, took moderate positions while on the Assembly. Before his passing in 2019, Chris Birch (2005, 2008, 2011) was well known for prioritizing stability and reasonable governance both as an assemblyperson and state senator in the Legislature.

Recently, Southside moderates have won their elections over party-aligned Republicans by increasingly close margins. Political polarization is a large contributing factor: voters are less likely to cross party lines or opt for non-partisan candidates over more ideological campaigns. Additionally, more partisan conservatives have moved to the Huffman area over the past 10 years. The most conservative Huffman precinct grew 43% between 2010-2020, some of the largest population growth in the municipality.

As a consequence, moderates are fighting close battles with more partisan voters in the district. LaFrance won re-election in 2020 by just 2%; more votes were cast for Weddleton’s two challengers in 2016; and had Bill Evans had just one challenger instead of two, he likely would have lost to a far-right conservative.

Why is the Southside conservative tent so divided? On one hand, you have more traditional conservatives in Huffman and Rabbit Creek who are the bedrock of support for far-right candidates and give by far the biggest electoral margins to Republicans. On the other, you have richer and more educated Republicans in the Hillside and Oceanview who tend to value balanced leadership and are less militant about social issues. The only truly liberal strongholds in the district are the communities of Turnagain Arm and Girdwood; without their votes, the district would have voted for Trump +9.5% (a shift to the right of nearly 6 points) and Bronson +11.7% (a shift of over 2 points).

Weddleton vs Sulte

In a large contrast to his 2016 election (he ran unopposed in 2019), Weddleton only won 4 precincts against Sulte. Those won were the areas most likely to support Weddleton, and all precincts Suzanne LaFrance won in 2020: Southport, East Hillside, Indian, and Girdwood.

Southport, in the Bayshore-Klatt area south of West Dimond, is home to a lot of young business professionals from college-educated backgrounds. Consistent priorities often include strong public schools and quality municipal services. Weddleton campaigned hard on “doing the work”-type messaging, which prioritizes incremental approaches to governance. Weddleton set himself apart from his more liberal colleagues, which may have worked better here than more partisan voters in the heart of Southside.

O’Malley No. 4, or rather East Hillside, is a common defector in the Hillside and broader South area. For instance, East Hillside was the only precinct off of O’Malley that voted for Dunbar in 2021. The East Hillside appears whiter and richer than broader Hillside and many parts of South, and is more rural with greater access to skiing and outdoor recreation. I’m not certain what makes this part of the community more relatively moderate.

Weddleton underperforms LaFrance

Finally, Sulte broke the coalition that has given moderates close political victories for over a decade now. What collapsed in Weddleton’s coalition that lost him re-election? Let’s look at Weddleton’s performance compared to Suzanne LaFrance’s 2020 re-election, a close victory over the far more conservative candidate Rick Castillo. Full disclosure: I worked as Field Director on LaFrance’s campaign.

Weddleton only improved on LaFrance’s performance in Indian off of Turnagain Arm as well as a slice of lower Huffman. Weddleton’s marginal underperformance all across the district added up to a solid win for Sulte.

Turnout

What happened to Weddleton’s support? Did certain voters show up and give Randy a boost in any particular part of the district? A look at turnout gives us a clue:

The Hillside area disproportionately increased their turnout. Collectively, Hillside voted for LaFrance by 191 votes while Sulte flipped it and won by 20 votes. This tells us that either turnout was up overall but Weddleton still lost a lot of moderate voters (less likely) or more partisan Republicans and conservatives turned out for Sulte (more likely).

Implications for the Anchorage Assembly

Save Anchorage’s strongest base of support is in Eagle River-Chugiak and deeply conservative parts of South. These areas turned out to elect Bronson, largely thanks to Save Anchorage for animating the conservative base. They appear to have turned out the Bronson coalition and unseated someone who they saw as not providing enough of a check on the mayor.

But can Save Anchorage continue to turn out partisan conservatives and flip both seats, making the entirety of Eagle River and South’s delegation Bronson-endorsed? Is Sulte’s win the beginning of a 8-4 Assembly (remember, we’ll have a 12th member by then)? It’s possible, but they have a tough battle ahead of them.

For starters, when Sulte runs for re-election in 2025, he will be running under the new districts adopted by the Anchorage Assembly this year. The new districts, which had to be redrawn to accomodate the new 12th downtown seat approved overwhelmingly by voters in 2020, place Sulte into West’s district. He would lose a majority of his constituents and have to run in a far more liberal district than the one he defeated Weddleton in. Save Anchorage would be starting fresh in an open seat.

Save Anchorage’s next shot at electing an ally to Bronson would be flipping LaFrances seat when she runs for re-election. LaFrance has performed better in both elections compared to John and has a strong base of support, and would be tougher to unseat if she runs for re-election. If she steps aside and leaves the seat open, Save Anchorage could be well-placed to elect a fresh-faced and staunch conservative without having to take down a competent and well-funded moderate incumbent.

Bronson administration to propose conservative leaning Assembly map

A new map submitted on behalf of the Mayor cracks cohesive communities and drags Westside into South’s district

On Saturday, February 5th, District 6 Assembly members Suzanne LaFrance and John Weddleton hosted a South Anchorage constituent meeting on the topic of Anchorage reapportionment. During the meeting, Deputy Chief of Staff for the Bronson administration Brice Wilkins revealed a map proposal on behalf of the Mayor.

It has not been officially published by the Reapportionment Committee, nor is the attribution to the Mayor’s office official; this is just what was said and presented during the meeting.

By all accounts, the map has the strongest partisan effect of all of the proposed maps. It could possibly lead to the Westside district flipping one or both of its seats to a conservative Assembly candidate.

To understand why, it’s helpful to know what the current Assembly map’s partisanship looks like to determine what’s being done to new maps being proposed.

Anchorage Presidential ’20 (Biden +2)

Anchorage Mayoral Runoff ’21 (Bronson +1.3)

The current map features one solidly Democratic district (Downtown), one solidly Republican district (Eagle River-Chugiak), one safely leaning Republican district (South-Girdwood), and 3 Democratic leaning districts (West, East, and Midtown).

DistrictAreaPres ’20, Runoff ’21, *Composite ’16-’20
1DowntownBiden +31.6, Dunbar +45, Composite D+ 31
2Eagle River-ChugiakTrump +25, Bronson +32, Composite R+ 30
3WestBiden +12, Dunbar +7.6, Composite D+ 7
4MidtownBiden +10, Dunbar +10, Composite D +8
5EastBiden +8, Dunbar +5, Composite D+ 4.5
6South-GirdwoodTrump +4, Bronson +9.5, Composite R+ 9
*Composite Average of 2016 presidential, 2018 gubernatorial race, 2020 senator, and 2020 presidential

Before we look at the Mayor’s map, it’s only fair to look at what other map proposals do to change partisanship numbers in each district. Since none of the muni-made maps have gained traction during the process, we’ll focus on publicly-submitted maps.

Composite = Composite Average of 2016 presidential, 2018 gubernatorial race, 2020 senator, and 2020 presidential elections

Some numbers stand out, but the most important changes are to the East, West, and Midtown districts. Because of their deep partisanship, changes even in the double digits to Downtown and Eagle River-Chugiak will not change the outcome of those seats. But the 3 Democratic-leaning swing seats in Anchorage can be more competitive for local conservatives.

In 2020, Christine Hill, who later became famous after crafting the Star of David symbols that became a focal point of the 2021 mask mandate debates in the Assembly, nearly unseated progressive Midtown member Felix Rivera. Hill came within less than 200 votes, which would have put a far-right conservative on the Assembly.

Most of the maps push Midtown south into places like Independence Park and areas south of Dimond/Abbott, which could make the district just competitive enough to swing to a Republican in a red wave year. I think this is unlikely, but it’s certainly possible.

Additionally, East’s district votes Democratic by just 4-5 points. Slight changes could have big political impacts.

West has trended left recently, but there are a lot of conservative areas in the south part of the district (Jewel & Sand Lakes), as well as conservative areas south of Campbell Lake that are currently part of District 6. A new map could capitalize on those areas to change the politics of West’s district dramatically.

It’s only fair to mention that the map drawn by Alaskans for Fair Redistricting uniquely advantages liberal-leaning Assembly districts by shoring up Democratic votes in all 3 Democratic-leaning districts. It also protects their incumbents by leaving them in the districts they currently belong to, preventing them from having to run against each other in another election.

The remaining maps have a rather innocuous effect on the broader partisanship of these maps. As of now, this is the first map submitted by a conservative-leaning source.

Now, let’s look at the map submitted on behalf of the Bronson administration.

Brice Wilbanks (Bronson Map)

Map traced by Denny Wells

A look at the map shows that Brice pushes Downtown into West Anchorage and Turnagain, forcing West to be pushed southward into the Bayshore/Klatt and Oceanview areas that currently belong to District 6 (South-Girdwood). These areas may not be as deep red as Huffman or Eagle River, but they are clearly conservative and suspiciously placed into West’s District as opposed to South where they belong.

On the presidential level, the Mayor’s new map makes every single district redder compared to the current map. Denny Wells’ Map B does this as well, but not in any way that is different from other maps: Midtown typically gets redder because Downtown must expand, pushing Midtown south making them more competitive for conservatives. But the Mayor’s map stands out in targeting West’s district.

Table of shift in partisanship from current map to Mayor’s map
Map of presidential shift in mayor’s map (made in QGIS)

Under the Mayor’s map, West would go from voting Biden +12 to Biden +4. More importantly, it would move West from a 2016-2020 Composite Average of D +7 to R +0.6. The district still slightly favors a moderate-to-liberal Assembly candidate, but without as much voting power in deep-blue Westside and a solidly-Republican voting block in the south, conservatives could pull off a flip.

Thanks to the passage of Prop 12, there will soon be 12 Assembly members as soon as Downtown elects a second member of the district— which will overwhelmingly likely to be another progressive. Once that happens, lets assume the majority on the Assembly is now 10-2. If you managed to unseat both Austin Quinn-Davidson and Kameron Perez-Verdia in a red wave year, the Assembly would go to 8-4— barely enough for a veto-proof majority assuming every single Southside representative votes with progressive members of the Assembly.

Arguably, the map also carves out some odd areas of Midtown that seemingly cut down on liberal-leaning margins in the current District 4. It removed nearly 700 voters from Abbott near Service High, which give huge margins to liberal-leaning candidates, including voting against Assemblywoman Meg Zaletel’s recall by 250 votes. It also splits up the deep-blue Spenard area, diluting their voting power and taking more liberal-leaning voters out of Midtown.

Abbott split
Spenard slit

The new maps stay in effect until population changes trigger the need for reapportionment again, which won’t be evaluated until the next Census in 10 years. Whatever will be decided will be consequential for Anchorage’s municipal elections for at least a decade.

On a February 4th episode of the conservative talk-radio show The Dan Fagan Show, ER-Chugiak Assemblywoman Jamie Allard said she was working with another person (or group?) to submit a map of their own.

Read more about the reapportionment process here. The next action to be taken is an Assembly meeting on February 15th, where a final map will be introduced to the Assembly for deliberation. Public hearings and work sessions follow, concluding with a final meeting to adopt the plan on March 1st.