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.