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2018 Campaign: Dispatch from Alaska

This story is one of a series of posts which follow some of the interesting races happening in other states near to Washington State.  We’ll have additional reporting from Hawaii, California and Oregon.

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I’m in Alaska this week hosting both of the leading Republican candidates for Governor at breakfast events.  We’re recording our podcast for our sister site, State of Reform, before a live audience.  So, we’ll be in the weeds on health care with both Mead Treadwell, the former Lt. Governor, and Mike Dunleavy, a former state senator.

The 2018 election for Alaska’s governor is a truly unique one in the entire country, with some names you may have heard of over the years.

Incumbent Gov. Bill Walker is running for re-election.  Eight years ago, he ran in the Republican primary and came in second to Sean Parnell.  Parnell was Sarah Palin’s Lt. Governor when she departed office.  So, he ascended to the governor’s mansion and faced Walker in a tough primary.

Walker lost, but four years later – now four years ago – Walker decided to run again for governor against Parnell, but this time as an Independent.

For preface, Alaska has a closed primary system.  Only registered Republicans can vote for Republicans and likewise with the Democrats.  Independent candidates need to turn in a petition with the signatures of Alaska voters to be allowed on the general election ballot.

In the primary, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run separately, like in Washington State.  But, after the primary, the candidates of both parties who won their respective primaries then form a ticket for the general election.  This unified ticket is like the US presidential general election where you have to vote for both candidates rather than splitting votes.

When Walker ran in 2014 as an Independent, no one gave him much of a chance to win.  Parnell has solidified most of the conservative voters in Alaska, and Democrat Byron Mallott was running strong as the first native Alaskan on a major party ticket. Once the primary election determined the Democratic and Republican candidates, the stage was set.

All things being equal, about 40% of voters in Alaska will vote Republican no matter what.  About 20% of voters in Alaska will vote Democratic no matter what.  So, the independent voters can swing the vote in Alaska, but they have to be pretty unified for a Democrat to pull that off.  It’s a tough sell.

So, Walker pulled off a miracle.  He convinced first-time candidate Mallott to leave his position as the Democratic candidate for governor and instead join him as the Independent candidate for Lt. Governor.  Mallott agreed, creating a unified Independent ticket for the 2014 general election and leaving a vacant ticket on the Democratic side.  Mallott’s Lt. Governor candidate dropped out, and because the switch took place after the late-August primary, there was no way under Alaska state law to replace the Democratic nominee once the position was vacated.

With no Democratic candidate on his left, with independent voters swinging towards Walker (that’s not a monolithic group in Alaska, to say the least), and with a smattering of Republicans from four years prior that still considered themselves Walker Republicans, Walker won the 2014 general election 48-46 with a few other minor party candidates on the ballot.

That preface is important as we return to 2018.  This year, after flirting with running as perhaps a Democrat or a Republican, Walker again decided to run as an Independent.  Two candidates lead the pack on the Republican side ahead of the August 21st primary, as mentioned above.

On the left, former US Senator and Mayor of Anchorage Mark Begich threw his name in the hat for governor on the last day of filing in early June.  Begich was, of course, the last Democrat to win a statewide election, which he did in 2008.  That was a unique year and a unique race, too.

First, he was running in the Democratic wave election where the young Senator from Illinois was about to ascend to the presidency, creating coattails for candidates like Begich nationwide.  (Notably, Harry Reid’s team also had a lot to do with that race as former Washington State political standout Brandon Hall was dispatched north to help Begich. Hall had successfully managed Reid’s re-election campaign in a 2006 cycle that many thought would be a loser for Reid.  But, I digress…)  Democrats picked up a 60-vote majority in the US Senate as a result, in part, of the Obama wave election.

Second, Begich is from a long standing Alaska family.  His father served in Congress from Alaska. His brother serves in the legislature now.  Begich is not your ordinary Democratic candidate in Alaska.  In short, he is a heavy weight.

Third, Senator Ted Stevens was indicted, tried and convicted for making false statements related to cases of corruption and bribery.  He was found guilty by a jury on October 27, 2008, just days before the general election.  Begich won that race by 3,700 votes, or 48%-47%. Those charges were later over-turned, but that is beside the point, which is this:  for a Democrat to win statewide, it needs to be an extraordinary race, with coattails, a strong Democrat and a damaged Republican.

Back to this 2018 race.

Walker, the Independent, now has a strong challenge from his left that will erode votes from his narrow margin of victory four years ago.  Begich is a strong candidate. But, with some independent votes lining up with the incumbent, it’s hard to see how either Begich or Walker re-create the magic of their previous statewide victories if the Republican candidate is reasonable.

Which brings me back to this week…

We host both of the leading candidates for the Republican nomination for a podcast interview this week.  Treadwell is more of a pro-business Republican while Dunleavy is more of a social conservative.  Both fit various molds of an Alaska Republican.  Both have strong standing in the community beyond the race for the Republican nomination.  And both are likely to carry at least 40% in the general election, I would bet, given some of the base demographic data of voters in the state.

So, the key questions in this year’s Alaska gubernatorial race are the following:

  • Does Walker have another magic trick to pull out, like perhaps getting Begich to leave the race after the primary?
  • Can Begich catch fire, and convince independent candidates that he’s the best person to lead the state among the final three?
  • Will whoever makes it through the Republican primary be damaged in any way that might undermine an otherwise solid base of Republican support?

We’ll see.  As they say, “This is why we hold elections.”