More than three months after the election, a deadlock in the Alaska House of Representatives finally broke when a Democratic-led alliance elected moderate Republican Louise Stutes as the chamber’s new speaker by a 21-19 margin.
For the prior four years, deep divisions in the GOP caucus had allowed Democrats to assemble what they called the Majority Coalition, which included independents and a handful Republican pragmatists. But that arrangement appeared threatened after conservative purists ousted several coalition members in primaries last year, and even more so when Republicans emerged from Nov. 3 with a nominal majority of 21 seats.
But the House’s 15 Democrats and three allied independents were able to woo a fourth independent to their side, and Stutes, who’d been part of the Majority Coalition from the start, remained in the fold. That left the House evenly divided between the coalition and GOP hardliners.
After the legislature convened last month, Republicans unsuccessfully tried to elect a speaker from their own ranks several times but each vote failed in a 20-20 tie. That stalemate finally ended when sophomore Republican Kelly Merrick sided with the coalition to elevate Stutes to the top job. The Midnight Sun’s Matt Acuña Buxton described Merrick’s switch as a “surprise” but noted that she’s been “quietly labor-friendly during her time in office.”
Another key factor may have been Alaska’s adoption of a novel “top-four” primary, which greatly reduces the chances for hard-right ideologues to punish Republicans like Merrick and Stutes. In fact, suggests Buxton, now that the logjam has at last been busted open, other Republicans might yet defect to the Majority Coalition, lured by the possibility of plum committee assignments or leadership posts. Merrick, however, emphasized that she was not joining the coalition but said she’d acted so that lawmakers could finally begin their substantive work.
Most importantly for Democrats and their allies, with the state Senate in GOP hands, this development ensures the House can continue to serve as a bulwark against Republican Gov. Matt Dunleavy, whose ongoing efforts to make draconian cuts to the state budget have played a key role in uniting his diverse array of opponents.
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