Bill Walker was the first candidate to make an appearance at Anchorage’s Election Central on Tuesday night. He strolled in with an entourage ready to cheer his bid as an independent gubernatorial challenger. And when the votes were tallied, the Walker name did come out on top – only, it was for the Libertarian nomination for the U.S. Senate race. The victory of an unknown by the name of Thom Walker has puzzled the Libertarian party.
The Libertarian Senate primary was supposed to be a race between two former party chairs: conservative Mark Fish and the more liberal-leaning Scott Kohlhaas. And then there was candidate Thom Walker.
Walker had been a registered Republican until this spring. He hasn’t campaigned or raised any money. He hasn’t even joined the Alaska Libertarian Party Facebook page. So, when Walker got 2,600 votes – more than Fish and Kohlhaas combined – it was not expected.
“When I walked into the convention center and saw that, I thought, ‘Wow, this is just crazy,” says Michael Chambers, the chair of the Alaska Libertarian Party.
Chambers was pretty confused, until he realized that Thom Walker shared a last name with another candidate for statewide office – that is, Bill Walker, an independent candidate for governor who has spent more than $100,000 on signs, internet advertising, and traditional media buys.
Chambers thinks all that promotion of the Walker name may have something to do with the outcome of the Libertarian race. The Libertarians hold an open primary with the Democratic and Alaska Independence Parties, so anyone can vote in their race – including people who aren’t familiar with Libertarian Party workings.
“I appreciate voters, but they’re not all necessarily versed on who’s who,” says Chambers.
Because Bill Walker is running for governor without a party affiliation, he won’t appear on the ballot until the November general election. But campaign manager Nancy Peterson says she’s aware of voters who wanted to fill his name in this go-round.
“We’ve actually had several calls from some of our supporters who said, ‘Hey, I forgot the Bill wasn’t on the primary, and when I got to the voting booth, his name wasn’t there. So, I voted for the only Walker that was on the ballot,’” says Peterson.
Since Bill Walker’s advertising might have had something to do with Thom Walker’s win, the former plans on looking at the latter’s district results to see if it tells them anything about their advertising.
Thom Walker lives in Fairbanks and he handles operations for a University of Alaska research station in the foothills of the Brooks Range, but there’s no surge in the Interior that suggests voters were specifically casting ballots for him. Instead, the 35-year-old candidate’s biggest support comes from the Kenai Peninsula, Kotzebue, and parts of Anchorage.
Pollster Marc Hellenthal says the surprise Walker win could have some bearing on the general election. He agrees that Bill Walker’s name recognition probably rubbed off on Thom.
“The ordinary general voting public aren’t prepared to take a quiz on the people that they’re going to vote for, and they can easily be confused,” says Hellenthal.
Hellenthal points to another case of namesakes on this year’s ballot: the two Dan Sullivans. He says when former Natural Resources Commissioner Daniel Scott Sullivan first announced his bid for U.S. Senate just a few months after Anchorage Mayor Daniel Albert Sullivan filed for the lieutenant governor’s race, he saw evidence in his polling that the two Republicans were getting mixed up.
And on the subject of Senate candidate Dan Sullivan, Hellenthal thinks Thom Walker’s nomination could be welcome news to the campaign. Walker’s victory lays to rest any speculation that the Libertarian Party could swap out their candidate for Tea Party favorite Joe Miller, who had been previously been supported by one of the Libertarian candidates and who came in second in Tuesday’s Republican primary. And because Bill Walker is running as an independent and has courted voters outside of the Republican Party, Hellenthal says the other Walker could end up pulling votes in the Senate race from incumbent Democrat Mark Begich.
“[Thom]‘ll end up garnering some votes — from just his name Walker — which may be more moderate or Democratic,” says Hellenthal.
Libertarian Party chair Michael Chambers believes the benefits of Thom Walker’s candidacy to Republicans make the situation look like dirty tricks. Chambers suggests it’s possible that Thom Walker is a plant, and he doesn’t intend to support Walker at this time. Chambers adds that he’s reached out to Walker multiple times over the past three months, and none of his calls have been returned.
“If he can’t even answer simple inquiries like, ‘Where is he?’ ‘Is he a real person?’ then how can I support a candidate who is a Manchurian candidate?” asks Chambers.
Thom Walker also didn’t return messages left by APRN. A source close to Walker explained that he had left for an extended float trip through the Endicott Mountains on Wednesday, and will be off the grid for the duration. He adds that Walker was the first Libertarian candidate to file paperwork, and decided to run because no one else had put their name in at that point. His friend describes Walker as an avid outdoorsman who regularly handles logistics for remote trips, which may account for the absenteeism. Walker is reportedly aware that he won the nomination, and he too was surprised by the result.
Officials with the Alaska Republican Party not only deny involvement – they say they’re ignorant of the situation entirely. Former chair Randy Ruedrich says he’s “flattered” that Libertarians believe he could engineer their primary outcome, but that he cannot take credit for this case. He adds that if one were to plant a Walker in the race, it might be smarter to draft a “William” or “Billy Ray” from the 200 registered Republicans with the last name.
Current chair Peter Goldberg also says he’s never heard of Thom Walker.
“At this point, I haven’t paid squat attention to the Libertarians,” says Goldberg.
The runner-up candidates are trying to take the shake-up in stride. Mark Fish says the loss to Walker was unexpected and disappointing. Fish adds he would still be interested in the party’s nomination, if Thom Walker returns from his float trip and agrees to step down before the September 2 candidate substitution deadline.
“It’s up to the Libertarian board to choose its replacement, and if they wanted to choose me, I think it’s a natural choice as the next guy in the vote count,” says Fish. “I would be happy to carry the message forward.”
Scott Kohlhaas has a different strategy.
“I’m thinking of changing my name to ‘Sullivan.’”