Alaska's Closest Election: The District 36 House Race

District 36 includes the communities
of Ketchikan, Wrangell, Metlakatla,
Saxman, Hydaburg, and Hyder.
To tell the truth, I was entirely ready for Dan Ortiz to lose his race to represent Alaska's House District 36. I was even ready to write about it. Instead, he's surprised everyone.

Dan Ortiz was my debate teacher in high school several years ago, and my mentor teacher last year: I began my teaching career, and he retired from his. From the first moments I heard he was planning to run for office as an independent candidate, Dan had my full support.

Still, elections for many years show that Ketchikan and Wrangell—the two biggest communities in District 36—heavily favor Republican candidates. Just two years ago, Republican Peggy Wilson won her house seat with 4131 votes to Democrat Matt Olson's 2332—nearly a two-to-one margin. In addition, Wilson wasn't even the only Republican in the race! She was the incumbent from Wrangell's former district, and Republican Kyle Johansen (Ketchikan's incumbent) ran as an independent.

Yep, I'm a Dan Ortiz supporter.
Dan initially expected he'd be running against Peggy Wilson, but at the end of the 2014 legislative session she announced that she'd retire. In the Republican primary, Wilson's 2012 opponents Agnes Moran and Patti Mackey decided to run again, but Wilson's staffer, businesswoman and longtime Ketchikan resident Chere Klein, won the day in the 2014 primary with results very similar to 2012.

With déja vu in the Republican primary indicating that Klein had assumed Peggy Wilson's mantle, I think Dan Ortiz and his team all agreed they had a tough race ahead. Of course, Dan had campaigned throughout the summer before the primary, and he continued campaigning hard all the way up to election day, personally visiting almost every resident in District 36. He was also running as a non-partisan, independent candidate in a year featuring the astonishing, independent gubernatorial Unity Ticket of Bill Walker and Byron Mallott. Later statistics may show this more clearly precinct by precinct, but I believe the Walker/Mallott campaign must have helped Ortiz significantly. Letters to the editor and other statements indicated he had support from Democrats, independents, and Republicans alike.

At the end of last week, however—the last weekend before election day—a mailer was sent out to hundreds of residences throughout the district. The attack ad, paid for by the Alaska Republican Party, stated "Dan Ortiz is running, alright. He's running from his Democrat ties." Then followed several lies and distortions, all trying to tie Dan to the Democratic Party. Southern Southeast Alaska isn't very used to attack ads like this, and Chere Klein very quickly made a statement on her campaign's Facebook page that she had not been consulted about the mailing and did not approve of it. She even ran an ad in the Ketchikan Daily News saying she joined District 36 in being disappointed by it. Nonetheless, something must have happened to push Alaska Republicans to send out the mailer—perhaps an internal poll that foretold the very close race to come.

In their personal actions, both Chere and Dan ran very clean campaigns, debating each other politely and responding promptly to issues like the mailer. Chere made a direct and clear case that she would carry on Peggy Wilson's work and represent District 36 as a Republican who'd cut spending, decrease regulation, and create a friendly climate for small business. Dan emphasized his strengths as an independent who'd work with anyone and everyone, fix the state budget by addressing both revenue and spending, and support Southeast Alaska's fishing industry and other community interests.

As I stayed up all evening watching the district's ten precincts report a few at a time, Dan trailed Chere with each new update. With nine of ten precincts reporting, however, he was behind only about 150 votes, and our election night crowd at the Ortiz house was pretty positive. Teaching high school history, debate, and economics through last year, Dan knows there are many college students from Ketchikan who have been excited about his campaign, and we all expect a fair amount of support from them in absentee ballots.

Then, nearly four hours after polls closed, the last precinct reported. I could hardly believe it myself, but Dan took the lead. We all celebrated wildly, amazed, and looked at the margin: Dan currently leads Chere by just 19 votes, (0.36% of votes cast). Without a doubt, all of the questioned, absentee and otherwise uncounted ballots will come into play over the next few weeks to decide the winner.

results at the end of election night
At the end of election night, District 36's race is the closest in the state. Only District 21's results are in the same league, with Democrat Matt Claman leading Republican Anand Dubey by 35 votes. Of course, no one knows how District 36's election will end: Those uncounted ballots—mere dozens of votes—will make the difference. However it turns out, southern Southeast Alaska has had a much closer race than most anyone could have expected, and whoever represents us in the legislature come January will have earned that position through a hard-fought campaign and just a few all-important votes.

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