Alaska Gov. Bill Walker ended his re-election campaign today and threw his support behind Democrat Mark Begich.
“Every decision I made as your governor, I have made on the basis of what I believe is best for Alaska,” Walker said. “With that said, effective today, I am suspending my campaign for the reelection as governor.”
Walker made the announcement during an address to the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention. There was an audible gasp from the crowd as he made the suspension announcement, and applause as he backed Begich’s campaign and as he left the stage.
“I am so proud of the work that we have done in the most challenging fiscal crisis in the state’s history,” Walker said. “And it is the honor of my life, the honor of my life, to have served as the governor of this great state.”
Walker said he was disappointed, and that if there had been more time before the election he thought he and newly appointed Lt. Gov. Valerie Davidson would’ve had a better chance. There are 18 days left until the Nov. 6 election.
“Ultimately, it’s not how long my team and I serve, it’s how well we serve the people and the state we love while we have the opportunity and the honor to serve,” Walker said.
Walker said he made the decision after talking with many Alaskans about whether he or Begich had a better chance against Republican Mike Dunleavy.
“The determination was made that at this point, Begich has the better odds,” Walker said.
Walker expressed concern about the potential reversal of the Medicaid expansion by Dunleavy.
Walker said Dunleavy’s “campaign record and rhetoric indicates that he will eliminate Medicaid expansion that has provided health care access to 44,000 Alaskans, created jobs, and brought $1 billion of federal dollars into an economy that dearly needed it, decreasing statewide health care expenditures by $16 million and kept hospitals from closing and saved lives.”
Walker also predicted that Dunleavy would take away funding for the Alaska natural gas pipeline.
The announcement came three days after Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott resigned after making what Walker has described as an “inappropriate overture to a female.”
The move will let Begich pull closer to Republican Mike Dunleavy in the race for governor.
Democratic Governors Association spokesman Jared Leopold says the DGA is now optimistic about winning in Alaska. He said the association will decide whether to spend money in the state.
“We’ll be keeping a close eye on Alaska,” Leopold said. “This is obviously a game-changer that we saw today. And we’ll see what happens in the coming weeks.”
The names of Walker and Mallott must remain on the ballot, because it’s past the deadline to withdraw. Libertarian Billy Toien also is running.
At a debate with Dunleavy following the governor’s announcement, Begich applauded the governor’s decision to suspend his campaign.
“I do want to acknowledge the amazing, courageous action that the governor did. He was about Alaska,” Begich said, to applause from the crowd.
Dunleavy said Walker’s campaign had a problem after Mallott resigned.
“I think it was a surprise — not a shock, a surprise — given what happened with the lieutenant governor, and it’s a three-way,” Dunleavy said. “But we’ve always been focused … on our race, what we stand for, getting the message out. So we’re going to keep forging ahead.”
Walker began his administration with broad support. A national poll in early 2016 listed him as among the country’s most popular governors. But that June, Walker’s decision to veto half of permanent fund dividends began a long decline in his approval rating.
While the Legislature voted for two later PFD cuts, Walker took much of the blame. The reductions allowed the Permanent Fund to grow, which Walker argues will allow PFDs to continue into the future.
The move also allowed the Legislature to pass a plan to pay for state government using permanent fund earnings. Walker said that without this, deep reductions in state government services would hurt Alaskans by harming schools, health care and the state’s economy.
But political opponents criticized Walker for the cuts and capitalized on the PFD cuts’ unpopularity.
Coverage from KTUU (Walker begins speaking at around 26:30):
Wesley Early of Alaska Public Media, Elizabeth Harball of Alaska’s Energy Desk, and Jeremy Hsieh of KTOO contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the Democratic Governors Association spokesman’s name. It’s Jared Leopold, not Jason Leopold.