Photo of Alaska state Senator Cathy Giessel
Problem Addressed Threats to Voting Rights
Solution Targeted and defeated in a hyper-partisan Republican primary in 2020 after 10 years in the Alaska state Senate, Cathy Giessel returned to office in 2022 after the state implemented two electoral reforms that gave more choice and a greater voice to Alaska voters.
Location Anchorage, AK
Impact State

What she’s done

Cathy Giessel exemplifies why election reforms are being implemented around the country. A popular Republican who served 10 years in the Alaska capital, including two years as Senate president from 2019-21, she was targeted by the state GOP in 2020 for working too closely with the Democratic minority. She lost the closed Republican primary by a wide margin to a political unknown.

In November that year, voters passed a pair of electoral reforms that created a single primary open to all candidates regardless of party affiliation, with the top four vote-getters moving on to a general election where the winner would be selected through ranked choice voting. The reforms, intended to make elections less partisan and more competitive, give all voters, and especially independents, a greater say in who represents them.

Giessel ran again in 2022 and aided by the new election rules reclaimed her seat in the Senate. She and her colleagues formed a bipartisan majority coalition in which she serves as majority leader. She continues to press for bipartisan solutions relating to retention of public employees, access to mental health services, and preservation of the state’s fishing culture and industry.

Her story

Giessel’s story is not unlike many other Republicans who just weren’t “Republican enough” for their more partisan colleagues. An Alaskan native, Giessel is a lifelong party member who is staunchly committed to conservative values. But in the current political climate, where the emphasis more often is on what divides us, she stands out as a pragmatic problem solver willing to build and support bipartisan coalitions in the state legislature to pass bills intended to improve life for her fellow Alaskans.

After she led a bipartisan coalition in her two years as Senate President, the state party, under the influence of more extreme partisans, ousted her in the 2020 primary. Unlike many other conservatives around the country who stepped away from elective politics after being primaried themselves, Giessel chose not to exit the political arena. Her comeback signifies her commitment to public service and exemplifies the benefits of the two electoral reforms passed by Alaskans in 2020: a multi-party first-four primary and ranked choice voting.

Looking for Shared Values

After a decades-long tenure rising through the ranks in the Alaska Republican Party, Giessel first ran and was elected to the state Senate in 2010, the same year that the Tea Party swept into power. Her Wikipedia page says she identified with Tea Party values, and when she first took office, she was among four conservatives who did not join the Senate’s bipartisan coalition.

Looking back, Giessel says she did not identify with the Tea Party, though she suggests her decades immersed in GOP politics may have led her to be more partisan and less aware of the common ground she shared with her Democratic colleagues. But once in office, she says, repeating a favorite story, she found herself needing to work with Bettye Davis, a Senate Democrat, to save a particular bill. That collaboration was “an eye opener”, she says. It was then that “I realized, if you look for the shared values, you can get productive things done.”

Giessel wanted to serve in the Legislature to address particular needs. As  a nurse practitioner who had seen rising healthcare costs adversely affecting Alaskans, she understood the healthcare market was not a free market, and that the government could help improve access to unaffordable care. Likewise, she viewed the government as a necessary tool to improve the availability of mental health services in the state. She recognized that these issues had long been “the purview of the Democratic party” and over the years has staked out her position on this common ground.

Pragmatic Conservatism

During her first decade in the Senate, Giessel regularly worked effectively with both Republicans and Democrats to advance what she considers productive legislation. She was rewarded for her bipartisan leadership when her colleagues elected her Senate president in 2019.

Giessel epitomizes the kind of collaboration needed across party lines for making progress on challenging issues. Speaking about one instance when, as chair of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, she negotiated with her Democratic counterpart on the House side on a business tax issue, she said, ““It was very difficult. But I found it was just a really productive process. We both had good ideas and we put them together. At the end of the day, we had something even better.”

It helps that on several typically partisan issues Giessel is not dogmatic. She has voted in favor of bills that expand access to behavioral and mental health services. She voted against a bill that limits the state’s ability to restrict gun use during disaster emergencies and supports restrictions on gun ownership for people with mental illness. She recognizes climate change is happening in Alaska, acknowledges the high cost of relocating communities from areas no longer habitable, and voted to establish a carbon storage trust fund. And she supports switching from the 401(k)-style retirement system for state employees to the guaranteed pension system that Alaska once had as an incentive to keep public employees, especially teachers, from moving to other states.

An important factor that may enable Giessel’s success is that Alaska is much less partisan and more centrist than many other states, according to research by The Ohio State University and, separately, by the Center for Legislative Accountability (a project of CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference). When asked her secret to running such a functional government, Giessel replied,

“Our bipartisan coalition is just a delight. There are a few of our members in the coalition that tend to be a bit more to the right than some of the rest of us, and they have the opportunity to verbalize their viewpoint … but they understand that at times they’re overruled. The priorities of the caucus are what the majority wishes to do.”

Getting Primaried

Even though a normal Senate term is four years, quirks in the state’s redistricting process forced Giessel to win four elections to serve her first 10 years as a senator.

And yet, after finally serving a four-year term, she lost the 2020 primary by almost 30 percentage points to Roger Holland, a political newcomer who moved to Anchorage from Louisiana in 2009. Primaries typically attract fewer but more partisan voters than a general election, and Alaska’s Republican primary in 2020 was semi-closed, meaning only registered Republicans and those with no party affiliation could vote.

During the runup to the primary, Giessel did not support Ballot Measure 2, the initiative to implement a multi-party first-four primary and ranked-choice voting in the general election. But her defeat gave her good reason to reconsider her position. In an interview with Nick Troiano, founder of Unite America, Giessel explained that she ended up voting for the initiative because “there’s too much hostility here. We’re just too divided. We’ve got to start working together.” The initiative was a way to give the people who wanted to work together a better chance at getting elected.

Asked about being targeted by her own party, Giessel responded that the GOP in Alaska is not very different from the rest of the country. “The Republican Party is seriously divided right now, and we certainly are in Alaska with a very conservative group and a group that is more focused on actually getting productive things done and is willing to work with all comers.” Belonging to this latter group, she seems to bear no bitterness towards the party that “vilified” her and cast her out. She remains a registered Republican, and even though she says the party grew “seriously divisive” around the time Donald Trump took office, she nevertheless supported him in the last two elections. She declined to say who she intends to vote for in November.

Her Comeback

Rather than accept her defeat as a signal to retire from politics, as so many Republicans around the country who’d been primaried had done, Giessel kept in touch with her constituents. She continued to send out a newsletter explaining the bills that were up for consideration and how the budget process was working. And she says she was “deluged with emails and handwritten postcards and letters” from independent voters who said they would have chosen to vote in the Republican primary if they’d known Holland would win. They all urged her to run again.

That encouragement, her dismay at the state of the Senate, and the opportunity created by the election reforms persuaded her to do so. This time around, she ran against Holland and Roselynn Cacy, a Democrat, in the new multi-party first-four primary format. Though the results didn’t matter since all three would advance to the general election, it’s worth noting that Giessel finished first with 36% of the vote, Cacy second with 33%, and Holland third with 31%.

Expecting the vote to again be split fairly evenly, with no one crossing the 50% threshold needed to win, Giessel understood that the new ranked choice voting system meant she had to campaign differently. Rather than simply play to her base, she instead knocked on doors regardless of who might open them because she wanted to deliver an unusual message, especially for any Democrats who answered: Make her the No. 2 choice on the ballot if she wasn’t already their No. 1 choice.

It worked. Giessel and Holland finished one and two, respectively, in the heavily Republican district. With Cacy now out of the race, the votes for Cacy were redistributed to the candidates ranked as the second choice on those ballots. Most of Cacy’s supporters who ranked a second candidate had selected Giessel, giving her a resounding victory with 57% of the vote in the next round of counting.

Giessel’s 2020 loss highlighted the vulnerabilities of closed primaries and first-past-the-post voting used in Alaska and throughout the entire country for generations. Her comeback is a testament to the electoral reforms that made it possible for more Alaskans to have a greater voice in their representation.

Noting how ranked choice voting also led to the election of Mary Peltola as the first Democrat from Alaska in the US House in half a century, and the re-election of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, rated one of the least conservative Republicans in Congress by the Heritage Foundation, and Mike Dunleavy, a Trump-backed Republican, to the governorship, Giessel said, “It underscores the productivity of that kind of an election system, the final four and then the instant runoff.”

Reflecting on the divisiveness that she says has weakened her party, Giessel offered these thoughts:

“We often call ourselves the party of Lincoln. Well, perhaps we need to look back at how Lincoln functioned. He was a collaborator. The book Team of Rivals points out even his Cabinet was a very diverse group of people that all had different views. And that’s what he wanted. That’s what’s most productive – to have all the views at the table.”

Make Voting Matter More

The movement for electoral reform is growing and putting its energy behind modifications to our electoral system that are intended to put into office people who, like Cathy Giessel, are more interested in solving problems than obeying the dictates of a political party. The National Association of Nonpartisan Reformers (NANR) is your link to a network of organizations committed to implementing structural reforms that no longer exclude independent voters from parts of the electoral process and give all voters the chance to choose who they want to represent them rather than who they fear the least.

America's damaged democracy
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Author: George Linzer
Published: June 20, 2024

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Interview with Senator Cathy Giessel, January 3, 2024, and email follow up, June 3, 2024

James Brooks, “Nine incumbents trail as conservative Alaska Republicans voice anger on primary election day”, Anchorage Daily News, Aug 20, 2020,, accessed Jun 12, 2024

Yereth Rosen, “In new bipartisan Alaska Senate majority of 17, members vow compromise and consensus”, Alaska Public Media, Nov 29, 2022,, accessed Jun 15, 2024

Wikipedia, “Cathy Giessel”,, accessed May 30, 2024

Alaska State Legislature, 33rd Legislature SB 48,, accessed Jun 14, 2024

VoteSmart, “Cathy Geissel’s Voting Records”,, accessed Jun 4, 2024

Center for Legislative Accountability, “State rankings 2022”, CPAC,, accessed Jun 14, 2024

Edward B. Foley, Video: “Top-3 Voting: Electoral Reform to Combat Polarization”, The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, May 28, 2024,, accessed Jun 4, 2024

Edward B. Foley, Slides: “Top-3 Voting: Electoral Reform to Combat Polarization”, The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, May 28, 2024,, Jun 14, 2024

Alaska State Legislature, Senator Cathy Giessel,, accessed Apr 21, 2024

Ballotpedia, “Catherine A. Giessel”,, accessed Jun 4, 2024

Alaska State Legislature, “Senator Roger Holland”,, accessed Jun 5, 2024

Alaska Division of Elections, “Alaska’s Primary Election History”,, accessed Jun 5, 2024

Center for American Progress, “Is Alaska the Secret to Saving American Democracy”, panel discussion, Dec 12, 2023,, accessed May 29, 2024

Nick Troiano, “How a bipartisan governing majority emerged in Alaska“, Alaska Beacon, May 17, 2024,, accessed May 31, 2024

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