A Facebook campaign and dividend memories influenced Alaska’s closest legislative election

In House District 39 along the Bering Strait, only 10 votes separate a longtime incumbent and his challenger

By: - November 17, 2022 5:00 am
Rep. Neal Foster of Nome, the incumbent in House District 38, is a pilot, businessman and triathlete. He is seen here in his plane. (Photo provided by Neal Foster)

Rep. Neal Foster of Nome, the incumbent in House District 38, is a pilot, businessman and triathlete. He is seen here in his plane. (Photo provided by Neal Foster)

As votes are slowly counted in Alaska’s 59 legislative elections, no race is closer than the head-to-head election in far-west House District 39.

In the Uruguay-sized area that includes Nome and the Bering Sea coast, Democratic Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, leads Alaskan Independence Party candidate Tyler Ivanoff by just 10 votes out of 3,317 cast, a difference of 0.32%.

About 500 ballots were uncounted as of Wednesday, and elections officials say the next count will be Friday.

Foster has represented the district since 2009, and before that, his father, Richard Foster, represented the area. The younger Foster has deep support from the Alaska Democratic Party and industry groups. He serves as co-chair of the House Finance Committee, one of the most powerful positions in the House.

Why is he running such a close race?

Those familiar with the race say Foster’s prior votes in favor of a smaller Permanent Fund dividend in order to prevent drawing down the fund’s assets dissatisfied constituents in his rural district. They say Ivanoff has been able to capitalize on that dissatisfaction with a successful Facebook messaging campaign, coupled with a wide network of local supporters, friends and family.

“I think that since I grew up in rural Alaska and have a lot of the same qualities as the people who vote — I rely on a dividend, I subsistence fish — I relate with a lot of the people who are voting and I would think that they see the same qualities in me as they see in themselves,” Ivanoff said.

Rather than buy traditional ads, Ivanoff reached out to potential voters individually or in small groups, through Facebook Messenger.

Voter turnout in House District 39 is among the lowest in the state — less than 31% of registered voters had participated, according to results through Election Day — which makes that kind of small-scale outreach effective.

John-Henry Heckendorn is a political consultant with Ship Creek Group in Anchorage. In Anchorage and Alaska’s other cities, a state House district may cover only part of the city. That makes it more difficult to target a social-media campaign, Heckendorn noted. 

In rural Alaska, where many communities are located entirely within a district, an “organic, crowd-sourced campaign run by a candidate with not a lot of technical resources, but a strong family network or social network, just tends to go a lot farther,” he said.

Foster said he’s heard from people who received those Facebook messages.

“But also, a lot of the folks in the villages, they just kind of associate themselves with him because he’s from the villages too,” Foster said. “And on top of that, he’s been a basketball coach, which in rural Alaska — basketball is very huge.”

Tyler Ivanoff, a teacher and basketball coach in Shishmaref, is an independent candidate challenging Rep. Neal Foster. (Photo provided by Tyler Ivanoff)
Tyler Ivanoff, a teacher and basketball coach in Shishmaref, is an Alaska Independence Party candidate who challenged Rep. Neal Foster. (Photo provided by Tyler Ivanoff)

In 2020, Ivanoff ran as a Democrat against Foster, but came up 100 votes short in an ultra-low-turnout Democratic primary that saw fewer than 18% registered voters participating.

That result was unexpectedly close, and it was attributed to the two candidates’ positions on the Permanent Fund dividend. Until that point, Foster had voted in favor of reductions to the dividend in order to preserve state services and not draw more than planned from the fund’s earnings. Ivanoff ran on a platform supporting larger dividends.

Voters remember history

Since that race, Foster has voted in support of larger dividends, but residents remember his prior votes, said Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin.

Olson’s district includes House District 39, and he said he believes the dividend remains a significant issue.

“Because of that, he’s wearing a kind of stain on his history. There was a time when he was not a full PFD person, and he is now suffering people’s remembrance of that because it’s such a hot competition out there,” Olson said.

House District 39 is one of the poorest legislative districts in the state, and the dividend makes up a larger-than-average proportion of residents’ annual income.

Despite the dividend issue, Olson called the close race “very surprising.”

Foster owns his own plane and flew from village to village in order to campaign, something Ivanoff — a fourth-grade teacher — couldn’t afford. 

According to campaign finance records, Foster’s flying was in part funded by industry-backed political action committees and executives from the telecommunications firm GCI. 

Ivanoff’s campaign raised about one-seventh of Foster’s total. The challenger said he did little in-person campaigning and instead reached out to people through the internet.

“He’s been apparently connecting with people on that level,” Olson said and noted that Ivanoff is a well-known name in western Alaska. Ivanoff has plenty of family members throughout the region, Olson said.

Among Ivanoff’s few campaign contributors is Gail Schubert, president and CEO of the Bering Straits Native Corp.

Records show Schubert frequently donates to Democratic candidates, and when asked why she supported Ivanoff instead of Foster, she said simply that he is her cousin.

Foster believes his campaign was also hampered by false rumors, including the incorrect assertion that he was in Vietnam when Typhoon Merbok hit western Alaska. 

In reality, Foster was present in the region during and after the disaster, traveling to Vietnam afterward.

The Alaska Stalker, a source of political gossip published by the Alaska Landmine website, claimed in October that Ivanoff drunkenly confronted Foster at an Anchorage bar and said he shouldn’t run for office because he is gay.

Foster is not gay and said he remembers the encounter as described online. 

“I don’t recollect that,” Ivanoff said when asked about the Stalker’s description.

Ivanoff said that during his campaign, he tried to be positive about Foster and didn’t campaign negatively.

He said Foster’s performance can be attributed to his votes on the dividend.

“I think people are still frustrated about the way that he used to vote (on the dividend). It’s just like the way that people look at Bill Walker,” Ivanoff said, referring to the former governor who is third in the current vote count in this year’s race for governor.

If elected, Ivanoff would be the second member of the Alaskan Independence Party to serve in the Legislature, but it’s a circumstance that came about by accident.

Ivanoff said that when he registered as a candidate, he intended to run as an independent but mistakenly listed himself as an Alaskan Independence Party candidate instead.

“But once I got to know the members of the party, they’ve been really supportive of me, so it’s really good to have that support,” Ivanoff said, noting that members of the party have “similar ideas” to his own large-dividend beliefs.

Despite his narrow lead, Foster said he’s “feeling pretty good” about the result so far.

“I think things should go OK,” Foster said.

In prior elections and in the Aug. 16 primary election, Foster received significant support from absentee and early voters. Hundreds of those ballots remain uncounted.

Ivanoff said he’s unworried by the prospect that Foster will win with late-counted votes.

“If I don’t win then I’ve pushed Foster to listen to his constituents. But if I do win, I’ll do my best to support the people’s ideologies and do my best as a leader,” he said.

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly said Ivanoff would be the first Alaskan Independence Party legislator. He would be the second, after Carl Moses.

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James Brooks
James Brooks

James Brooks is a longtime Alaska reporter, having previously worked at the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Empire, Kodiak Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. A graduate of Virginia Tech, he is married to Caitlyn Ellis, owns a house in Juneau and has a small sled dog named Barley. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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