Gov. Bill Walker and former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich are competing for many of the same voters in this year’s election for governor. Tuesday is the deadline for candidates to drop off of the ballot, and supporters of Walker, Begich and those who are fine with either candidate are concerned about a three-way race with former state Sen. Mike Dunleavy.
Puanani Maunu is a Juneau resident who supports Walker, who’s an independent. She said his decision to cut permanent fund dividends was particularly courageous.
“I think it’s easy to criticize Gov. Walker, and that’s why I admire that he was able to make that difficult decision, because the state Legislature was just not moving, one way or another,” she said.
But Maunu voiced mixed feelings as she talked through whether Begich, a Democrat, should drop off the ballot before the deadline.
“I mean, I don’t think Mark Begich or Gov. Walker should drop off on either end to try to consolidate one or the other, because each represents, you know, a segment of people that are going to be voting for them. And I think it does weaken both the Democratic and independent side. But I think that … I’m not sure,” she said.
And Maunu is where a lot of centrist and left-of-center voters are.
The math in a three-way race favors the Republican Dunleavy. It’s nearly unprecedented for conservative and Republican candidates to share less of the vote than former Gov. Sean Parnell had four years ago. That’s when he lost to Walker in a close race with only two major candidates. Other than the first election for Alaska’s governor, only once have conservative and Republican candidates combined to have less than the 46 percent that Parnell received. That was in 1998, when Republican candidate John Lindauer and write-in Republican Robin Taylor combined for 37 percent.
Power brokers who supported both Walker and Begich four years ago when Begich was running for U.S. Senate have been choosing sides. The Alaska AFL-CIO labor federation endorsed Walker.
AFL-CIO President Vince Beltrami said Walker’s stands on a complete fiscal plan, administrative orders favoring workers, and the proposed natural gas pipeline made him unions’ choice. Beltrami would like to see Begich withdraw.
“In our opinion, a three-way race is just a recipe for ending up with Mr. Dunleavy as the governor,” he said.
Anchorage Democratic state Sen. Berta Gardner also sees the math as a problem. But she said Begich is the stronger candidate. In part, that’s because Walker’s approval rating fell after the PFD was cut — once through a Walker veto and twice by the Legislature.
“In a head-to-head Walker-Dunleavy race, I don’t think the governor can win,” Gardner said. “And I believe that Mark Begich has a much better chance of winning.”
Gardner said that Walker would make things easier if he withdrew. Walker’s campaign has consistently said he wouldn’t drop out. Begich also has so far resisted calls to withdraw.
Anchorage Democratic state Rep. Andy Josephson gave money to Walker’s campaign before Begich joined the race. He said both are strong candidates.
“I think they would both do a good job as governor,” he said. “And I am profoundly and deeply concerned about their splitting votes. There are thousands of Alaskans that would vote for either gentleman. And that’s a problem. And I’m hoping that in the next, oh, three or four days, one of them withdraws.”
While Begich and Walker have taken similar positions on many policy issues, the campaign has put a spotlight on their differences. Planned Parenthood Votes endorsed Begich. Alaska state Director Jessica Cler said Begich will stand strong on women’s health care and reproductive rights. The organization supported Walker’s decision to expand Medicaid eligibility. But it opposed other Walker administration decisions. They include the defense of limiting Medicaid funding for abortions, and the decision against vetoing a law that limits sex education.
“Yes, we’re concerned about Mike Dunleavy becoming governor, but also concerned about another term of Bill Walker being governor,” she said.
Two of the more prominent Democrats in Juneau have taken opposite sides.
Former Mayor Bruce Botelho signed a petition asking Begich to withdraw. He credits Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott with working with tribal organizations. And he said many Alaskans may not like the PFD cuts, but they understand them.
“Most people, I think, understand that as unpopular as these decisions are, they’re also necessary, in terms of being able to keep Alaska’s government and economy, frankly, moving in a positive direction,” Botelho said.
Botelho said Walker could be stronger on women’s reproductive rights, but said the state Supreme Court has consistently protected these rights, and Walker has repeatedly acknowledged this.
But former Tongass Democrats chair Kim Metcalfe said Begich is the best person on the issues that she cares about, including women’s issues. Metcalfe’s the chair of a new group, Begich for Alaska, supporting the candidate.
Metcalfe said she trusts Begich’s analysis on whether he can win a three-way race.
“I have great faith in him and I think that he can pull this out,” she said. “I know it’s not going to be an easy race. You know, everybody knows that, but I think people are coming around to our way of thinking, when they really start thinking about the issues.”
Fellow Juneau Begich supporter Beth Stewart recalled supporting Ernest Gruening’s unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign in 1968.
“So I’m used to working on issues that might not always win,” she said. “But I have a set of principles that I stick to. And I’m not going to compromise those.”
The withdrawal deadline has been significant in the past. After winning the Democratic nomination, Mallott merged his campaign with Walker’s at the deadline in 2014.