This story has been updated to include comments from Rep. Bill Thomas, who was unavailable prior to our first deadline on election night.
The contest for House District 34, in Southeast Alaska, is still too close to call. Only 44 votes separate Republican state Rep. Bill Thomas from Democratic challenger Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins.
Forty-four is about the number of people it would take to fill every seat on a school bus. It’s less than the number of players allowed on an NFL team. And in a legislative election, a 44-vote difference isn’t enough to know anything.
“We’ve been looking at the data and probably 800 absentee ballots are yet to be counted, although I’ve heard all sorts of different numbers,” Kreiss-Tomkins said on election night. “It’s going to make a big impact. We put a real concerted effort into banking ballots early. My vote has not yet been counted – it’s an early vote. And ditto for probably the majority of the people that are at our little election night party.”
Wednesday morning, Bill Thomas was having breakfast at The Bamboo Room in Haines with members of his staff. He said even if he wins the election, he’s probably lost his spot as chairman of House Finance.
“There are people up there already picking my bones. They all want it so they’re not going to wait for me,” Thomas told radio station KHNS. “So I’ll probably end up sitting in some committee, starting all over again. And I won’t have the stroke to get any big bounce of money for any big projects.”
Thomas and Kreiss-Tomkins both ran intense campaigns, especially in the last couple weeks. Local newspapers were saturated with advertising, and mailers were sent to local homes, some from the campaigns themselves and others from supporters. Scores of letters to the editor ran in support of both men. And they appeared together at public events in Sitka and Haines.
Thomas leaned on his experience in Juneau, his chairmanship of the House Finance Committee, and his relationship with state Sen. Bert Stedman, a powerful Sitka Republican who co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee.
Kreiss-Tomkins made his presence known in Sitka and surrounding communities by showing up in person on front porches to talk to voters about the election.
“And it was neighbors talking with neighbors, friends talking with friends,” he said. “I knocked on multi-thousands of doors and we ran a real hard, hard campaign. It feels great.”
Kreiss-Tomkins also ran many newspaper ads, including one the week before the election featuring Juneau Native elder Ethel Lund.
Lund was shown posing with Kreiss-Tomkins and one of his campaign signs. Text below quoted her as saying “I support Jonathan because of his integrity and sincerity, and because he has the new energy and fresh approach we need for the future.”
She later said publicly that her remarks were meant as encouragement for a new young candidate, not as an endorsement. Thomas says regardless of the intent, it had an impact on his campaign.
“When you send that out to the Native community, they’re definitely going to turn around and say ‘Hey, we’ve got SEARHC executive director, former executive director endorsing my opponent,'” he said. “A thousand SEARHC employees in Sitka. Yeah, I think it made a difference. And we couldn’t respond to it.”
Now, both candidates find themselves waiting for absentee ballots to be counted on Friday. A recount is still a possibility, too.
Tight races aren’t new to Thomas. When he first won this seat, in 2004, results were so close there was a recount. It left Thomas with a 59-vote victory over Democrat Tim June, also of Haines.
“I won’t be disappointed if I’m out,” Thomas said. “I can go back fishing. Disappointed for the staff I have, because I have six staff. Disappointed for the district because as of co-chair of finance people just don’t realize what stroke that has. They’ll find out.”
But it’s just as likely the race could go the other way, and Kreiss-Tomkins could see his 44-vote lead evaporate.
“Even if absentee ballots were to swing this the other way, in a big way, I don’t feel like we can lose,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “This is something we’re really proud of, and I think it’s because we just focused on a grassroots approach, and I think that was reflected on Election Day.”
House District 34 includes Sitka, Haines, Klukwan, Hoonah, Kake, Angoon, Port Alexander, Pelican, Elfin Cove, Craig, Klawock, Hydaburg and Metlakatla.
Additional reporting by Margaret Friedenauer from KHNS in Haines and CoastAlaska’s Ed Schoenfeld.