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.

Weddleton Assembly map moves forward in unanimous vote

Weddleton’s map is now subject to amendments by members of the Assembly, which will be viewable by the public on March 14th

In an Assembly meeting on March 1st, the body voted unanimously to move forward Southside Assembly member John Weddleton’s map forward for consideration.

The vote followed months of public process led by the Anchorage Reapportionment Committee, Chaired by Downtown Assemblyman Chris Constant. Ultimately, 4 maps were produced by the redistricting contractor RDI while 12 maps were produced by members of the public for a total of 16 maps up for consideration — more than any other reapportionment cycle in Anchorage’s history. Opportunities for public input on these maps included 10 public committee meetings, and 3 open town halls, and 2 chances to testify at Assembly meetings.

Though all 16 maps were thoroughly debated, the Reapportionment Committee has been slowly eliminating maps as the process has gone on. Weddleton’s map moved on from a final field of 4 maps, which included:

  • Map 6 Version 2 by Anchorage Action (drawn from feedback from dozens of members of the group)
  • Map 7 Version 2 by Robert Hockema (me)
  • Map 11 Version 2 by John Weddleton (drawn by Denny Wells, whose 3 maps submitted under their own name were rejected by the committee earlier in the process)
  • Map 12 by Eagle River-Chugiak Assemblywoman Jamie Allard and Mayor Dave Bronson (previously rejected due to failure to submit a properly formatted shapefile which illegally divided U.S. Census Blocks)

Following the vote to move Weddleton’s map forward, Assembly members had until March 7th to offer amendments to the map. These amendments will be published on the reapportionment website on Monday, March 14th, just one day before the last public hearing on March 15th.

A quick look at the map

Weddleton’s map looks a bit like a compromise map. Assembly members have voiced specific concerns about what areas go where on the map. For instance, Both members from Eagle River-Chugiak as well as South-Girdwood ruled out maps that paired the ER-Chugiak district with an area of Hillside.

Additionally, Midtown members Felix Rivera and Meg Zaletel expressed concern that core areas of Midtown were left out in almost all of the maps, especially Rogers Park and Airport Heights. Weddleton’s map unites all of Rogers Park, but leaves Airport Heights in the newly expanded Downtown district.

In order to accommodate these concerns, Weddleton’s map does a few things:

  • Downtown pushes East to take in all of North/South Mountain View, while moving south into Airport Heights, as well as south into areas of Fireweed and Spenard. It even takes in the Forest Park neighborhood, which includes West High School.
  • Midtown loses the Dimond area but pushes west to the border of Minnesota.
  • Most notable change is West’s district, which now pushes south of Campbell Lake to include over 7,000 people in Bayshore and Southport
Bayshore/Southport area south of the yellow line
  • Eagle River-Chugiak’s district was left underpopulated by 1,472 people, a deviation of -3.03%. It is by far the most under/overpopulated district in Weddleton’s map.
  • South’s district remains largely the same while taking in about 1,500 people from the Dimond area.
Partisanship impacts

Note: Politics are off limits during Committee and Assembly discussions of reapportionment, so it’s important to note that the following considerations are purely for analysis.

Weddleton’s map has an especially strong impact on West’s district because of the Bayshore-Southport pairing. Note, this is a less dramatic reach into Southside than the Allard/Bronson map (originally proposed by Deputy Chief of Staff for the Bronson administration Brice Wilkins).

2020: Trump +9.5, Composite 2016-2020: 11.9, Runoff 2021: Bronson +11.2

The new area drawn into Weddleton’s map votes solidly Republican, having voted for Trump by +9.5% in 2020. These communities are high turnout too, which means its guaranteed to influence the results of West’s Assembly races.

What does this do to the district as a whole? Not only does West’s district take in solidly conservative turf to the south, but it loses a precinct in West Anchorage that voted for Dunbar by +34%.

For context, West’s current district voted for Biden by +12% in 2020. Under the new map, West would have voted for Biden by +7%.

Likewise, West’s current district voted for Dunbar in Anchorage’s 2021 mayoral runoff by +7.5%. Under the new map, it would have voted for Dunbar by roughly+4.7%.

How will this impact the makeup of the Assembly? This would give conservatives a better shot at flipping the Assembly. The effect is that West would go from being as safely democratic as Midtown’s district (Biden +9.6, Dunbar +10) to a solidly democratic district such as East (Biden +7, Dunbar +5). In other words, West would still be an uphill battle for a far-right Save Anchorage-type conservative to win, but a strong candidate could flip a seat or two well before the next reapportionment cycle.

The process going forward

Assembly members submitted their amendments before March 7th, which will be posted for the public to view on Monday, March 14th. There are areas in Weddleton’s map that are likely to change based on the priorities Assembly members have for their districts. Wests members Austin Quinn-Davidson and Kameron Perez-Verdia may take issue with putting Forest Park and West High into Downtown; Midtown members Meg Zaletel and Felix Rivera have voiced the Airport Heights Community Council’s concern of being completely cut out of Midtown’s district. Though unlikely, the Bayshore/Southport pairing with West could be amended too.

3/14Amendments (if any) to proposed maps will be posted
3/15Public Hearing #3 at Regular Assembly Meeting, 6pm at Assembly
Chambers at Loussac Library
3/18Assembly Worksession on Reapportionment, 1-3pm at City Hall, Suite
155
3/23Special Assembly meeting re: Reapportionment and process for filling
new Assembly seat, 6pm at Assembly Chambers at Loussac Library
3/24Reapportionment Committee meeting (if needed), TBD at City Hall,
Suite 155
Remaining Assembly reapportionment timeline