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Ahead of Election Day, local candidates launch final campaign push

Clockwise from top right: State House District 7 candidates Justin Ruffridge and Ron Gillham (courtesy photo), and State Senate District D candidates Jesse Bjorkman and Tuckerman Babcock. All candidates are running as Republicans in the Nov. 8 election
Riley Board & Sabine Poux
Clockwise from top right: State House District 7 candidate Justin Ruffridge and incumbent Ron Gillham (courtesy photo), and State Senate District D candidates Jesse Bjorkman and Tuckerman Babcock. All candidates are running as Republicans in the Nov. 8 election.

Tuesday is the last day to vote in a slate of state and national elections in Alaska. Already, the Alaska Division of Elections has received over 60,000 ballots from voters statewide.

In the final days before Nov. 8, central Kenai Peninsula candidates for State House and Senate have been working hard to rake in any remaining votes.

Alaska State Senate

In the Senate District D race, three candidates are vying to represent an area that encompasses the northern half of the Kenai Peninsula.

Republican Tuckerman Babcock, who lives between Kenai and Soldotna and has raised the most money in the race, spent the final stretch ahead of Election Day visiting restaurants and senior centers to rub elbows with potential voters. He said sometimes, he goes to Fred Meyer and walks up and down the aisles, hoping to strike up conversations.

“I spend a lot of time going to places where people are,” he said.

Babcock led the August primary with 49 percent of the vote. He’s Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s former chief of staff and former chair of the Alaska Republican Party, and has picked up endorsements from local and state Republican groups.

He said he learned from chairing the state party and advising other candidates that the best candidates prioritize three or four issues — which he said can be a hard policy to stick to when every voter has their own priorities. That was true when, one time, a voter asked him if he would make rising agricultural feed costs a central part of his campaign.

Senate District D
Ashlyn O'Hara
The Peninsula Clarion
Alaska Senate District D candidates Tuckerman Babcock, Jesse Bjorkman and Andy Cizek at a candidate forum at the Soldotna Public Library on Monday, Oct. 17.

“I said, ‘I care about that, I will pay attention to that as a senator, but it’s not one of my three or four main issues,’” Babcock said. “‘And then they were very offended.”

Another big issue is abortion, a major national topic since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade this summer. The right to abortion is currently enshrined in Alaska’s constitution. But anti-abortion advocates would like to see that amended in a statewide constitutional convention.

Babcock said when he’s asked about his stance on abortion, he explains he was raised by parents who fought to legalize abortion in the state. But throughout his life, he’s developed his own beliefs and he said he will always vote pro-life.

Babcock said on Election Day, he and his wife, Kristie Babcock, are planning to visit six restaurants around the district. Then, he’ll park and wave on the side of the road.

Babcock is facing off against Jesse Bjorkman, whose campaign strategy has included frequent door knocking and radio advertising on KSRM, where he has a radio show.

Bjorkman, a teacher at Nikiski Middle/High School and current member of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, pulled 36 percent of the vote in the primary and has picked up his own collection of local endorsements.

On the chilly Friday afternoon before the election, after recording a campaign ad at KSRM, he knocked on a handful of doors in east Kenai.

Bjorkman tells residents he has four main priorities if elected — fiscal stability, prioritizing public safety, improving roads and creating high standards in public schools.

Reception was mixed. Lots of folks weren't home, and he left a campaign flier on the door handle.

“The idea is to talk to as many people as possible,” he said. “So you just try to keep moving.”

He had plenty of conversations. He talked to a commercial fisherman who’s aware of his campaign and another man who echoed Bjorkman’s priorities.

Other homes were less receptive. Some residents were having dinner or heading out the door, or can’t vote because they’re not registered in the state.

“It’s always hard, because a lot of times, people don’t want to be sold at their door,” he said. “They just want information.”

There are no Democrats running in the Senate District D race. When Bjorkman encounters voters who identify themselves as liberals, he works to convince them he’s the best choice among a slate of conservatives.

“I’m pro-life,” he told one voter. “But what you need to know about me is that I’m not willing to support any legislation that would endanger womens’ health. I don’t want to pass laws that would mean that women couldn’t get the vital healthcare that they need. The other two candidates in this race are much more extreme than I am.”

The third candidate in the race is Andy Cizek, of Soldotna, who’s running as a nonpartisan candidate and snagged 15 percent of the primary vote in August. He said he’s been campaigning by attending events and talking to voters on the phone.

“I’m a nobody, so that’s been the challenge,” he said. “People are telling me every day, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you’re even doing this until I seen it today.’ So, word’s getting around.”

Cizek said the biggest concern he’s heard is dissatisfaction with the status quo. He said he’s primarily concerned with making sure elected officials are following the law, and holding himself to the same standard.

Alaska State House

The race for the House District 7 seat is also contested.

Incumbent Republican Rep. Ron Gillham, of Soldotna, is running to keep his seat representing Kenai and Soldotna in Juneau against Republican Justin Ruffridge. Gillham brought in 43 percent of the vote in the August primary, while Ruffridge got the remaining 57 percent.

Gillham said his campaign season has been a lot different from prior years.

“It’s been more aggressive and more stressful,” he said.

Gillham wasn’t planning on knocking on doors late last week, when we called. But over the phone Monday, he said he’s been showing up to events in Kenai and Soldotna to get out the vote.

“Since August, it has been pretty hit the ground running,” Gillham said. “And we haven’t really slowed down.”

Gillham has appeared on stage along with Babcock and shares endorsements from Alaska Republican groups.

And like other conservative candidates, he said he’s concerned about the state’s new ranked-choice voting system.

Voters narrowly approved the new ranked-choice systemin the 2020 general election. That new system won’t impact Gillham’s race, since it’s just two candidates.

Still, he said it’s the biggest concern he’s heard from voters this campaign season.

“People want it to go away,” he said. “I personally have only had two people tell me that they liked it. That seems to be on the top of everybody’s list.”

He said education has become increasingly important to him since he’s gone to Juneau. Last session, spurred by the national conversation about critical race theory, Gillham proposed bills that would have made parents more involved in their kids’ educations.

Now, he said he’s focused on bolstering Alaska’s trade schools.

“That’s kind of where my priorities went to, was, showing these high school kids – juniors and seniors – that, hey, these jobs are going to be available, they pay good money, and you’re going to be able to stay home, you’re going to be able to stay in Alaska,” he said.

House forum
Ashlyn O'Hara
The Peninsula Clarion
From left, Alaska State House candidates Ron Gillham, Ben Carpenter and Justin Ruffridge participate in a candidate forum on Monday, Oct. 10.

Soldotna pharmacist Justin Ruffridge is also running as a Republican for House District 7.

One of his strategies over the last six months has been knocking on as many doors as possible. He counted 4,000, so far.

“A lot of it is, when people go to vote, your hope is that they at least have a face that goes with the name on the ballot,” he said.

Five days before the election, he was doing a last-minute push in Kenai with a small team of volunteers, including his mom and a co-worker from Soldotna Professional Pharmacy.

Ruffridge, who has starred in local Kenai Performers shows, is no stranger to the spotlight.

But he said there’s a different kind of nerves around door-knocking.

“If someone hates your performance, that’s kind of like, ‘Alright, you didn’t like my performance. But it’s not like you didn’t like me, as a person,’” he said. “So there’s a little bit of this that’s, like, really putting yourself out there. It’s very vulnerable."

One issue that has loomed large in this State House race is not a state issue at all, but a city one.

Ruffridge sits on the Soldotna City Council, which took heat following a Pride-month drag show performance in June.

Last week, an Anchorage group, Alaska Family Action Inc., sent a mailer to local voters with a photo of Ruffridge next to one of a drag queen dancing in nude tights. “Justin Ruffridge does not have the same values as the peninsula,” it read. “Do your part to protect the peninsula from this garbage!”

Gillham said he wasn’t responsible for the mailer and that he hadn’t talked to the Anchorage group about it beforehand.

“I just don’t like the dirty politics,” Gillham said. “It’s about what I can do, not what somebody else can’t.”

Still, Linda Ruffridge, Justin’s mother, said it was disappointing to see the campaign take a negative turn.

“Up until then, I felt like the campaign was being positive on both sides,” she said last week. “I don’t think anybody likes to see campaigns turn into mudslinging and negativity. But that’s what happened on Monday.”

Ruffridge said the drag queen conversation hasn’t come up during door knocking.

But he does get questions about another tangential issue.

“I’ve had a few about ivermectin,” he said. “So I usually bring around with me my dispensing records of ivermectin. So people can see that I definitely was not denying prescriptions for those.”

Last legislative session, Gillham proposed a bill that would’ve required pharmacists to dispense medication for the treatment of COVID-19. That came on the heels of a request from Republican legislators that the state’s pharmacy board make it easier for COVID-19 patients to get access to the anti-parasitic medication. Ruffridge, in his capacity as the pharmacy board chair, sent a letter that said pharmacists should use their “professional judgment” to decide whether they will fill prescriptions for ivermectin for treatment of COVID-19.

Like the Senate candidates, Ruffridge also gets questions from voters about abortion.

Ruffridge and Gillham say they’re pro-life. On Thursday, when a Kenai resident asked Ruffridge where he stands on the issue, Ruffridge pointed to his work with ABC Life Choices.

“My wife and I have been involved in a lot of ministry work,” he told her. “A lot of people that are choosing to have abortion are doing so because they’re actually in dire circumstances in their life. So we’ve been involved in our church group for many years trying to give people support.”

Ruffridge spoke with the voter for a few minutes about their families, and family values. After about five minutes, she tapped his shoulder with his pamphlet

“That’s good. I will vote for you,” she said. “I don’t vote all the time, but I will this time.”

On the northern Kenai Peninsula, Nikiski Republican Rep. Ben Carpenter is also up for reelection for House District 8. Carpenter is running unopposed for that race.

On the southern peninsula, Republican Rep. Sarah Vance, representing District 6, is fending off challenges from nonpartisan candidates Ginger Bryant and Louie Flora. Republican Sen. Gary Stevens is running to keep his seat against Republicans Heath Smith and Walter Jones for District C.

Voters have one last day to vote in local and statewide elections. Absentee by-mail ballots must be postmarked by tomorrow to be counted.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.
Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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  • An update from last Friday included final primary results from the election on Aug. 16. It hasn't changed anything for the peninsula races for Alaska House and Senate; both primaries have fewer than four candidates, so all will advance to the general election this fall.