The two Republican candidates competing for a sprawling Senate district post have a history with that seat.

Earlier this year, Mike Shower and Randall Kowalke found themselves caught in a political tug-o-war featuring Gov. Bill Walker, Senate Republicans and district Republicans. 

Walker, in February, appointed Shower to succeed Mike Dunleavy, who in January stepped down to focus on his bid for governor. But Shower was not the governor’s first pick.

Walker initially selected Mat-Su Borough Assemblyman Kowalke. Senate Republicans rejected Kowalke because he wasn’t on a short list district Republicans submitted to Walker.

Now, Kowalke and Shower are squaring off in the Aug. 21 primary, seeking to represent a region that includes Valdez and Whitter to the south, Delta Junction to the northeast and rural Mat-Su Borough communities such as Skwentna, Willow and Talkeetna. 

Kowalke believes his experience as the assemblyman representing the Willow and Talkeetna areas qualifies him for the job.

“I have to work with a group and we also cannot deficit spend. We have to fund schools, we have to set tax rates, all of those things I’ve been doing for the past three years,” Kowalke said.

Shower spent 20 years in the Air Force and has recently been thrust into the legislative world after Walker’s appointment. He hopes to bring a fresh perspective to the seat.

“Who is newer than me? No political background at all, military guy, working in the civilian world for a while in a small business here out of Palmer that does oil and gas as well,” Shower said.

The two share similar views on many issues important to Alaskans. When it comes to criminal justice reform, both used colorful analogies to describe the need to repeal and replace Senate Bill 91, a sweeping crime bill that quickly fell under heavy public and legislative scrutiny for perceived loopholes since it passed two years ago. Lawmakers have since made several changes, each candidate calls ineffective patchwork.

Shower likened the bill to baking a cake.

“Halfway through baking it, you realize you’ve screwed up the ingredients. You can’t just pull it out pour some more flour and sugar on top and it’s going to be good. It doesn’t work. You pull the cake out, throw it out and start over and that’s my position on SB 91. We have passed SB 54, SB 55, HB 312 to fix the holes on a bill we said was working. Clearly, it’s not,” he said.

Kowalke agreed the Legislature needs to go back to the drawing board.

“SB 91 and 54 are disasters," he said. "We had Frankenstein laying on the table with 91 and instead of dealing with him we put a new bolt in his head with 54. It didn’t help.”

Each also understands how recent cuts to the Permanent Fund Dividend, made first by Walker and later the Legislature, impacts Alaskans. 

In May, the Legislature approved a formula to use the fund's earnings to pay for government services as well as the dividend. It's the first time in the state's history Alaska will use earnings to pay for government operations rather than just the dividend.

Both candidates say these earnings should be distributed evenly between dividend payouts and government operations to ensure a cap on how much the Legislature spends on state agencies. 

“I’m a little ambivalent about the thousand dollars I lost but I have eight grandchildren and their college savings funds were impacted by this. The imagery of taking candy away from children is a little harsh,” Kowalke said.

“For the lowest income Alaskans, it’s a big percentage of their income helping them get through the winter when months are tough,” Shower said. “For kids who save for college, it’s a good kick start. For small businesses, it is killing them. We’ve taken over $2 billion in cash in this economy in the last three years by reducing those payments.”

Their biggest difference comes in how to reign in state spending and manage the budget. Kowalke—who has a background in the oil and gas industry—things more barrels could be the answer.

“We’ve lived well with $30 oil, $40 oil, $50 dollar oil when we had a million barrels in that pipeline so I think we can build our way out of some of this as well as other natural resources, timber, mining,” Kowalke said.

Shower is in favor of what he calls a “flat line budget,” only being adjusted for growth or inflation.

“If we know what we’re going to see in the future, we don’t have to pink slip teachers. Because we can know three, five, ten years down the road because we have a stable platform and we know what the government is going to spend,” Shower said.

With its shortage of Alaska State Troopers, the Mat-Su Valley has faced increasing problems with opioid addiction and suffers associated fallout: rising property crimes and stolen cars. Both candidates have the same goal of bringing a sense of security back to the community.

“I’ve got kids and grandkids and I want them to inherit a state that is safe, stable, and sustainable that they want to live in,” Shower said.

Kowalke said, “It’s important for me for the future of our children and grandchildren that we work to keep Alaska on the right course or get back on the right course. To some degree we’re turning around a tanker, I recognize that.”

The winner of the primary on Aug. 21 will face off against Susan Kay, the only Democratic candidate running for that district.

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