Alaska's former independent governor mulls comeback bid against GOP successor

Alaska's former independent governor mulls comeback bid against GOP successor

Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy confirmed Friday that he would seek re-election in Alaska, but he may face his predecessor in next year's top-four primary.

Bill Walker, an independent who was elected to his only term in 2014, told the Anchorage Daily News he was giving "very serious consideration" to seeking a comeback. The only other notable politician who has expressed interest in running so far is former state Rep. Les Gara, a Democrat who formed an exploratory committee last month and recently said that, while he hasn't made a final decision, he's "likely" to get in.

If Walker runs, he'll continue a long and eventful career in Last Frontier politics. Walker got his start as a Republican in the 1970s as a member of the city council and later became the mayor of Val. He went on to serve as general counsel for the Alaska Gasline Port Authority. Walker first ran for governor in 2010 when he challenged incumbent Sean Parnell, who had ascended to the state's top post the previous year after Sarah Palin resigned, but he lost the GOP primary 50-33.

Walker decided to seek a rematch with Parnell as an independent in 2014. Still, while early surveys from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling gave the incumbent only lukewarm approval ratings in this red state, Parnell looked secure in a three-way contest that included Democratic nominee Byron Mallott. All of that dramatically changed around Labor Day, though, when Mallott dropped out and became Walker's running mate, which made the independent candidate the de facto Democratic nominee.

Parnell suddenly found himself in a much tougher race than he'd anticipated, and one he wasn't adequately prepared for: While the Republican's campaign belatedly tried to buy TV ad time, there just wasn't much left to purchase in a state that was hosting an ultra-expensive Senate race between Democratic incumbent Mark Begich and Republican Dan Sullivan. Indeed, while Parnell ended up launching a hard-hitting commercial against Walker, he could only air it in the Juneau media market, where just around 10% of the state lives. Ongoing questions about how Parnell handled sexual assault cases in the state National Guard only made things worse for the governor.

Walker ended up unseating Parnell 48-46 even as that year's red wave was propelling Sullivan to victory, but the new governor faced a tough four years in office thanks to a budget crisis from declining oil revenue. Walker, with Mallott at his side, planned to take advantage of a recent court decision that would have allowed him to claim the Democratic nomination in 2018 while still identifying as an independent, but he decided to run without any party support after Begich made a late entry into the race.

Dunleavy, like Parnell four years before, very much looked like the frontrunner in this three-way race—thanks in large part to Alaska's red hue—and the Walker and Begich camps spent the next several months arguing that the other should drop out. Ultimately, Walker ended up leaving the contest and endorsing Begich weeks ahead of Election Day after Mallott resigned after a sexual harassment scandal. It wasn't enough to stop Dunleavy, though, from beating Begich 51-44, with another 2% going to Walker.

Dunleavy made his own enemies early in his tenure after he oversaw draconian budget cuts, including a retaliatory reduction in funds for the Alaska Supreme Court after it ruled against him in an abortion rights case. This led a bipartisan group to launch a recall campaign against him in 2019, but the pandemic ended up dramatically slowing their signature gathering.

The deadline for the Recall Dunleavy campaign to turn in the 71,000 valid petitions they'd need isn't until early June of next year, but it's not clear how many signatures are still needed. There have also been no recent polls indicating if Dunleavy is vulnerable either in a recall campaign or in a regular election.

No matter what, though, Alaska will be in for a very different gubernatorial election than any state has ever had next year, thanks to the passage of a 2020 ballot measure. Starting in 2022, all the candidates for congressional, legislative, and statewide races will compete on one primary ballot, where contenders will have the option to identify themselves with a party label or be listed as "undeclared" or "nonpartisan." The top four vote-getters will advance to the general election, where voters will be able to rank their choices using instant-runoff voting.

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