While his contentious Alaskan State House campaign resulted in a narrow victory, Democrat Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins ’12 will face a recount on Monday to hold onto his new title.
After unseating eight-year incumbent Bill Thomas, a Republican, for a seat in the Alaska House of Representatives by a narrow 34-vote lead — certified almost three weeks after Election Day — Kreiss-Tomkins will need to wait a little longer for the final tally since his opponent challenged him to a recount this week. A native of Sitka, Kreiss-Tomkins left Yale last spring to campaign to represent his home district in the Alaska State Legislature.
“[The possibility of representing my district] is a dream. … The district is my home, and as [the representative] my job would be to make my home a better place, to care for my neighbors,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “This campaign was a five-month exercise in my ability to empathize with people, and as a consequence to care for them if I were to have the power and responsibility to advocate for them.”
Kreiss-Tomkins initially held a 44-vote lead after around 80 percent of the total votes had been counted on Election Day, Nov. 6. But as Alaska’s Division of Elections began tallying the additional votes, Kreiss-Tomkins and Thomas were often exactly tied or separated by a narrow difference of votes.
At one point, Kreiss-Tomkins fell behind Thomas by two votes, a situation that Kreiss-Tomkins wrote in a letter to supporters gave him “a sickly feeling in my stomach.”
On Nov. 22, after the final absentee and special absentee ballots were counted, Kreiss-Tomkins was declared the winner, with a 0.38 percent margin of victory in an 8,216-vote election. Alaska law allows anyone to request a recount. If the margin is less than 0.5 percent or 20 votes, the state will pay for it regardless of who ends up winning. Otherwise, a deposit is required to request the recount.
In an interview with the News, Thomas criticized Kreiss-Tomkins for the Yale student’s publication of a mailer that cited a prominent Alaska Native leader lending her support to Kreiss-Tomkins, which Thomas said the leader later told him she never gave. In an interview with Alaska radio station KHNS on Nov. 21, the day before votes were certified, Thomas said Kreiss-Tomkins “lied on so many things and … was supposed to run a clean campaign and didn’t.”
The comments marked the latest in a race often defined by the candidates’ many differences, including age — Thomas, at 65, is 42 years older than the 23-year-old Kreiss-Tomkins — fundraising and campaign strategies.
Kreiss-Tomkin said his campaign had relied on a grass-roots approach, going door to door and visiting isolated communities often ignored during the campaign process.
“Politics should be about people, and we ran a campaign powered by people,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.
Kreiss-Tomkins recalled speaking with elderly voters in Hydaburg, Alaska, who had told him that they had not seen candidates go door to door since the 1980s.
“In Sitka and a lot of small towns in Alaska, that kind of grass-roots campaigning, going door to door, is really appreciated and respected, and I think Jonathan was able to use that to his advantage,” said Aren Vastola ’14, a Sitka native.
Former President of United Fishermen of Alaska Bobby Thorstenson, a Republican who said he refused to vote for Mitt Romney because he thought the presidential candidate was “too moderate,” gave Kreiss-Tomkins “1-to-20” odds of a November victory when he met the candidate in August. But after meeting with Kreiss-Tomkins multiple times and seeing how the candidate spent time getting to know voters across his district, which is spread across five islands and part of mainland Alaska, he decided to back Kreiss-Tomkins.
“This was an epic campaign and epic win — the last time there was a 22-year-old in the legislature [was] about half a century ago,” Thorstenson said. “He’s definitely the first guy in the legislature with a hyphenated last name — he used to be a nobody, but he beat who I would consider to be the fifth most important man in Alaskan politics.”
Kreiss-Tomkins’ grass-roots approach also extended into fundraising efforts. His campaign had more total donors than any other Alaskan House election, with one of the lowest per capita donation rates in the entire state. Overall, his campaign saw nearly 500 donors and raised around $70,000, a figure dwarfed in comparison by the $120,000 raised by Thomas.
But Thomas, a commercial fisherman, said that Kreiss-Tomkins’ lack of a job allowed him to campaign more heavily during fishing season.
“He doesn’t work, he came home from college, he lives at home,” Thomas said. “I am a working man, I have a family, I had to work, that’s the difference. I have house and car payments.”
With Kreiss-Tomkins’ apparent victory, Republicans hold a 24–16 majority in the Alaska House.
Correction: Dec. 3
A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Hydaburg, Alaska. It also misdescribed the law governing election recounts in Alaska.