In Republican Mat-Su, voters are choosing between different conservatives

The tight race between Sen. Mike Shower and challenger Doug Massie is focusing on effectiveness and implications for the state’s only booming region

By: - October 27, 2022 5:55 am
State Sen. Mike Shower, standing, speaks at a Greater Wasilla Chamber of Commerce candidate forum on Oct. 18. Seated next to him is his challenger, fellow Republican Doug Massie. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

State Sen. Mike Shower, standing, speaks at a Greater Wasilla Chamber of Commerce candidate forum on Oct. 18. Seated next to him is his challenger, fellow Republican Doug Massie. Both are Republicans, and both tout themselves as staunch conservatives. They have debates over the best ways to be effective and service the needs of the sprawling district. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

In Alaska’s largest conservative stronghold, the booming Matanuska-Susitna Borough, voters are being asked to decide what kind of conservative Republican they want to represent them.

That is the choice presented in the race between incumbent Sen. Mike Shower, a cargo pilot and retired U.S. Air Force officer who received 46.1% of the vote in the open August primary, and challenger Doug Massie, a retired Alaska state trooper who headed that agency’s wildlife enforcement division, who received 53.9% of the vote in the primary.

The two are vying in a newly redrawn and vast district that is anchored by outlying eastern and northern Mat-Su communities but includes a lot of territory beyond the borough. The district sprawls from the Cook Inlet shoreline in the south to outlying communities along the Parks Highway farther north than Denali National Park. It sweeps back down south to Prince William Sound, pulling in Valdez, a city that has been shuttled between legislative districts through Alaska history.

Both Shower and Massie describe themselves as staunch conservative Republicans. Both have ties to Gov. Mike Dunleavy — Shower holds Dunleavy’s old seat, to which he was appointed in 2018 before being elected in 2020, and Massie, as head of the state troopers’ division of the Public Safety Employees Association, helped steer that labor union’s endorsement of Dunleavy in 2018.

And both say they can work across party lines to benefit the district. To what degree is the question that voters will decide.

Shower has been one of the most conservative members of the Republican-led caucus, and none of the bills he’s been the primary sponsor of have become laws. In an interview after an Oct. 18 candidate forum held by the Greater Wasilla Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged that people “see the tough side of me” and think of him as a hard-core conservative. But he can compromise when it is necessary, he said.

Doug Massie, former head of the Alaska State Troopers wildlife division, speaks at an Oct. 18 candidate forum held by the Greater Wasilla Chamber of Commerce. Seated next to him are Scott Clayton, who is challenging Sen. David Wilson, and Sen. Mike Shower, who is Massie's opponent. All are Republicans. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Doug Massie, former head of the Alaska State Troopers wildlife division, speaks at an Oct. 18 candidate forum held by the Greater Wasilla Chamber of Commerce. Seated next to him are Scott Clayton, who is challenging Sen. David Wilson, and Sen. Mike Shower, who is Massie’s opponent. All are Republicans. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

“There are times for me, like all of us, to plant the flag on the ground and defend our principles and certain things. We might want to die on that hill. But there are other times when you say, this is better for the state and I’m going to step off my position,” he said. “There’s a time and a place to hold your line and there’s a time and a place to compromise.”

His record shows that willingness, he said. He pointed to campaign and election reforms he supported in partnership with three Anchorage Democrats, Sen. Bill Wielechowski and Tom Begich and Rep. Chris Tuck. That legislation failed to pass. He also pointed to his participation, with a variety of Senate and House members, in a fiscal policy working group.

Massie, however, argues that Shower and much of the rest of the Mat-Su legislative delegation is too ideologically rigid to be effective, leaving the region with unmet needs. Much of the discussion at the Wasilla chamber forum highlighted that ineffectiveness, he said.

He pointed to repeated complaints expressed at the chamber forum about unmet regional infrastructure needs – and related complaints that capital investment was going to other regions of the state, bypassing the Mat-Su Borough. That is a direct outcome of sitting lawmakers’ self-imposed ideological isolation, he said.

“They refuse to work with other people and across the aisle. You can look around and see how the (Mat-Su) Valley has suffered because of that,” he said in an interview conducted after the Oct. 18 event

The problems of ideological rigidity go well beyond Senate District O, he said.

Denali, North America's tallest peak, is viewed from the Parks Highway on Sept. 20. The district in which incumbent Sen. Mike Shower and challenger Doug Massie are running is vast, streching up the Parks Highway farther north than Denali and sweeping south to include Valdez on the coast of Prince William Sound. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Denali, North America’s tallest peak, is viewed from the Parks Highway on Sept. 20. The district in which incumbent Sen. Mike Shower and challenger Doug Massie are running is vast, streching up the Parks Highway farther north than Denali and sweeping south to include Valdez on the coast of Prince William Sound. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

“I’m not saying I’m a moderate. I’m a conservative. But I think that what we’ve seen lately, the levels of extremism, are not what Alaska and the nation are all about,” he said.

If elected to the Senate, Massie said he will act on his desire to achieve consensus and to reduce acrimony. That includes future decisions about coalition participation, he said.

“I want to be in a Republican majority. But I want to be in a functioning Republican majority. I don’t want to be in a Republican majority that can’t get anything done,” he said.

For both Shower and Massie – and for others running for office in the Mat-Su Borough – top priorities are actions to address the region’s rapid population growth.

The Mat-Su population has boomed, from around 40,000 in 1990 to around 110,000 in 2021, according to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

From 2010 to 2019, the Mat-Su region was one of the very few in Alaska that had any net in-migration, and the only one for which that migration was substantial, according to a more detailed state analysis. Population growth in the Mat-Su region averaged 1.9% a year during that period, compared to a state growth rate of 0.3% a year, kept above zero only because of births.

Shower and Massie had similar explanations when asked why the borough is growing so much while the population elsewhere in Alaska is stagnant or declining.

Afternoon traffic builds on the Parks Highway in Wasilla on May 3. Wasilla is the largest city the rapidly growing Matanuska-Susitna Borough, and local leaders consider road improvements to be a top legislative priority. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Afternoon traffic builds on the Parks Highway in Wasilla on May 3. Wasilla is the largest city the rapidly growing Matanuska-Susitna Borough, and local leaders consider road improvements to be a top legislative priority. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Affordable housing, when compared to Anchorage, a more “business-friendly” environment than in Alaska’s biggest city and ready access to outdoor recreation are among the key draws.

“This is the happening place,” Shower said.

“It’s basically got everything that people want,” Massie said.

The big increase in population has not made the Mat-Su region any less conservative, Shower said. If anything, the region is getting even more conservative, he said. But if political reasons are driving the influx of residents, they are likely doing so only subtly, he said. That includes people visiting the region. He cited the minimal level of pandemic restrictions imposed in the Mat-Su, compared to more sweeping restrictions imposed in Anchorage.

“During COVID, Anchorage was shut down. It was like a ghost town. Guess where those people were coming, to get stuff, to go to dinner, to do whatever? They were coming to the Mat-Su,” he said.

In its final weeks of campaigning, the race has taken on a sharper edge.

Massie has aired complaints about what he’s described as Shower and two other prominent Republicans trying to talk him into running against fellow Mat-Su Republican David Wilson, a senator who represents Wasilla. Along with Shower, the Republicans encouraging his run against Wilson were Sen. Shelley Hughes and Tuckerman Babcock, a longtime Republican Party leader, former Dunleavy chief of staff and current Senate candidate on the Kenai Peninsula.

Once redistricting paired him with Shower, Massie said, the three who wanted him to run against Wilson now asked him to refrain from running and to consider another position. Massie said he did not know why the three were targeting Wilson, whom he called a “bridge-builder.” “Maybe he wasn’t Republican enough for them,” Massie said.

Hughes, who represents Palmer and is running for reelection against Democratic challenger Jim Cooper, confirmed that there was some conversation about Massie running for the Legislature, but said her recollection is different.

State Sen. David Wilson, a Republican representing Wasilla, speaks at an Oct. 18 candidate forum held by the Greater Wasilla Chamber of Commerce. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
State Sen. David Wilson, a Republican representing Wasilla, speaks at an Oct. 18 candidate forum held by the Greater Wasilla Chamber of Commerce. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

“I recall encouraging him to run against David Eastman as that is where I’ve felt for sometime was the biggest need, but also remember he very much seemed to have his mind set on being a Senator – in an odd kind of way, like being in the House wasn’t good enough. I didn’t know then that Doug was much more moderate than what would be reflective of our area on important issues, so not sure how that conversation would have gone knowing what I know now,” she said by email.

Babcock disputed Massie’s account. “I am friends with Senator Wilson, Senator Shower and Doug Massie,” he said by email. “I have endorsed the incumbent Senator Shower.   Just positive about him, nothing negative about Doug Massie. Doug Massie and his family are bedrock Republicans and I have had the pleasure of working with them for many years. David Wilson has been an ally and friend on any number of projects. I look forward to us working together in the next session (if we are both successful).”.

Shower also disputed Massie’s account.

Shower supporters, meanwhile, have attacked Massie over his trooper record, pointing to a conflict he had with Amanda Price, Dunleavy’s first public safety commissioner. Price demoted Massey from his position as head of the wildlife trooper division, but Price herself was ousted soon afterward, in early 2021, and Massie regained his wildlife position.

James Cockrell, the current public safety commissioner, is a supporter of and contributor to Massie’s campaign.

Shower supporters also criticize Massie’s union ties. Massie had been president of one of the chapters in the PSEA, and the PSEA has endorsed him.

Elsewhere in the Mat-Su region, Wilson is defending his Senate seat against two Republican challengers. The winner of that race will emerge from the ranked choice system.

Republican candidate Stephen Wright, who is challenging incumbent Sen. David Wilson, speaks at an Oct. 18 candidate forum held by the Greater Wasilla Chamber of Commerce. Seated from left are Doug Massie, Scott Clayton, Sen. Mike Shower, Wilson and Sen. Shelley Hughes. All are Republicans. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Republican candidate Stephen Wright, who is challenging incumbent Sen. David Wilson, speaks at an Oct. 18 candidate forum held by the Greater Wasilla Chamber of Commerce. Seated from left are Doug Massie, Scott Clayton, Sen. Mike Shower, Wilson and Sen. Shelley Hughes. All are Republicans. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Wilson is a behavioral health administrator and former Wasilla City Council member who was first elected to the Senate in 2016. In the August primary, he took 46.4% of the vote. The remainder was split nearly evenly between his challengers, Scott Clayton and Stephen Wright.

Like others speaking at the chamber of commerce forum, Wilson stressed infrastructure needs. “The way to grow our community really is through infrastructure, and we need to make sure that we continue,” he said. “We need to keep our eye on the future.”

Roads top his list of infrastructure priorities, he said. “We know we need roads to resources, we need safer roads, roads help move goods to services,” he said. He cited some particularly troublesome spots, like Knik-Goose Bay Road, considered one of the most dangerous roads in the state.

Clayton, a business entrepreneur and former Marine running for the seat, called for voters to “continue to elect really strong conservatives: as a way to win more funding for Mat-Su infrastructure.

“Right now, all of that money is getting sidetracked. It’s getting detoured to places that are not conservative, to build them up. Who wants to build up the hub of conservatism in the state of Alaska? Not Democrats,” he said at the chamber forum.

Wright, an Air Force veteran, used his time at the Wasilla chamber event to talk about his philosophy toward government. “We have to be efficient in government and decentralize a lot of the functions of government because that really impacts the state,” he said. In the end, such decentralization should help the economy, he said. “What we’ve seen in the last few years is the private economy isn’t as strong as it should be,” he said.

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Yereth Rosen
Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen came to Alaska in 1987 to work for the Anchorage Times. She has been reporting on Alaska news ever since, covering stories ranging from oil spills to sled-dog races. She has reported for Reuters, for the Alaska Dispatch News, for Arctic Today and for other organizations. She covers environmental issues, energy, climate change, natural resources, economic and business news, health, science and Arctic concerns -- subjects with a lot of overlap. In her free time, she likes to ski and watch her son's hockey games.

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