Alaska GOP coup a bad sign for party's future

Strong arm tactics from corrupt oligarchs are guaranteed to generate a grassroots backlash in 2014. Photo: Republican Party of Alaska

WASHINGTON, May 27, 2013 — The Republican Party of Alaska has become a perfect microcosm for everything that is wrong with the Republican Party today. It has all the problems that have cropped up in other state GOP organizations gathered together in one state and taken to their worst extreme.

Abuse of power, disenfranchisement of grassroots members, misappropriation of funds, purges of members, negation of the electoral process and what amounts to a full-scale coup have all been used to keep an established party elite in power against the will of the people.

A backlash against these tactics is inevitable.

The Alaska GOP refused to properly seat elected Chairman Russ Millette and subsequently attempted to remove Vice Chair Debbie Brown when she assumed the Chairmanship. This past week, the takeover of the party was confirmed when the Central Committee rejected appeals from Millette and Brown, reaffirming the unelected installation of establishment favorite Peter Goldberg as the new party Chairman. Goldberg will be the fourth Chairman the party has had in a year, a very unhealthy sign for any organization.

In the interim, they also carried out purges of party members from other leadership positions, including declaring the entire elected membership of their District 12 Executive Committee to essentially not exist. From the lowest Precinct Committeeman to the District Chairman, the entire District was unseated with no due process, not even a hearing, at the whim of party leaders who didn’t like having an entire District in disagreement with their actions.

All of these problems have at their base a structural division that is common to most state Republican parties nationwide. While the executive officers of the party are supposed to be elected at a convention of independently elected delegates chosen at country or district conventions, the body of the governing committee of the state party is composed of members chosen by local party organizations whose membership has a very different composition.

The local parties, which in Alaska they are organized by districts, control who can become a Precinct Committeeman (or woman) and have a lot of power to decide who gets chosen for those positions and as a result who gets elected to the State Central Committee to represent their District between state conventions.

In contrast, the state convention is made up of delegates specially elected at local conventions where the party establishment has less control over the electoral process and where it is much easier for newcomers to the party or those outside the established power structure to get elected. That means that the delegations that get sent to the state convention from the district conventions are much less loyal to the establishment and much more likely to include reformers from Tea Party groups or groups like the Republican Liberty Caucus.

As a result, the loyalties and the objectives of the convention delegates and the Central Committee members are very different. Since the convention elects the Chairman, Vice Chairman, Treasurer and Secretary, in a time when there is a movement for change in the party those officers are likely to represent a much broader and more radical or reform oriented element of the party than the Central Committee.

This divided system is designed to provide grassroots input and create an environment for dynamic diversity in the party, but it also creates a formula for conflict and counterinsurgency which can get very nasty, because the Central Committee can potentially block the installation of officers and apparently even remove them from office against the wishes of the majority of the party membership, whose direct role is limited to the biennial convention, leaving them with no way to respond to protect their interests until the next convention.

The result is what many Republicans in Alaska perceive as a coup overthrowing the elected leadership of the party by a group of long-time office holders seeking to perpetuate an oligarchic control of the party which opposes change and is unfriendly to new members. The refusal of the establishment leaders to give anyone outside of their circle access to financial records, mailing lists or fundraising information makes the situation look even more suspicious, especially because it seems as if denying them access to those party resources may have been the motive behind opposition to Millette and Brown.

The situation is made worse by the perception that the cabal of insiders will not support reform-oriented candidates for office. They supported Lisa Murkowski as a write-in candidate against grassroots party nominee Joe Miller in the last Senatorial election. Now they are afraid of a Republican grassroots challenge to Don Young’s 42 year reign of mediocrity as Alaska’s one House member. If they are still in power in 2016 they will certainly oppose any more liberty-oriented candidate who wants to run in the primary to challenge Democrat Senator Mark Begich.

Of course, they may not be in power in 2016.

One thing their strong arm tactics has guaranteed is a backlash in 2014. They have alienated more party members and more potential newcomers and created an atmosphere of extreme hostility in the grassroots. Rather than giving up in disgust, it’s quite likely that the people they have disenfranchised will stick around for revenge. Now they understand they need to take over the party district by district as well as at the convention in order to take and hold power.  And there is no question that after this debacle the base of the party wants the ruling cabal gone once and for all.

This is a larger scale version of the story which is being played out in many county and state Republican parties around the country. A new generation of activists and leaders is rising in the party and demanding change and when they meet resistance from the establishment it can sometimes get pretty bloody. What is happening in Alaska is not surprising or unique. It’s just more blatant and shameless.

If anything is surprising about the mess in the Alaska GOP, it is that it is not getting more attention from outside the state. The national media is largely ignoring it, although it could be a very juicy story. When the controversy was brought before the Republican National Committee at their last meeting, they pointedly avoided dealing with it, brushing it off as an internal squabble.

Even though Alaska seems small and far away, if  Reince Priebus and his administration have any awareness at all of the crisis the party faces natiowide, they ought to be paying very close attention. Alaska presents a worst case scenario of how not to respond to a grassroots insurgency. Trying to ignore the situation makes the party’s national leadership look extremely weak. Allowing the membership of an entire state party to be disenfranchised by an entrenched and corrupt oligarchy makes their claims to embrace change and reform look as hollow as many grassroots Republicans have suspected all along.

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Dave Nalle

Dave Nalle has been writing political analysis since the 1980s for newspapers, magazines and now online journals. He is currently Execitive Director of the Center for Foreign Policy Priorities, is on the board of the Coalition to Reduce Spending, and served four years as National Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus.

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