Alaska Governor’s Race Slipping From GOP Column

While 2014 is looking like a Republican year, the Alaska Governor’s race seems to be slipping away from Republican control:

Things have been looking up in recent months for Alaska Senate nominee Dan Sullivan, whose position against Democratic Sen. Mark Begich has improved since his difficult primary ended. But the state’s other big-name Republican on this year’s ballot has been moving in the other direction. Like a number of governors in other often-safe red or blue states this year, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell has been looking more vulnerable with each passing week.

It’s one of the biggest themes of the 2014 elections: While the national mood has taken hold of Senate races and wrenched many of them toward Republicans, a slew of local issues has endangered gubernatorial parties in power, from Democrats in deep-blue Hawaii to Republicans in ruby-red Kansas. Now it’s happening in Alaska, where the Democratic candidate dropped out and joined an independent “unity ticket” with Bill Walker, a onetime Republican, unifying Parnell’s opposition.

The Alaska Senate race is colored with more local flavor than most, but Begich has been continuously bedeviled by an unpopular president and some of his federal policies. Meanwhile, two singularly local issues are giving Parnell trouble: a local oil and gas tax measure passed in 2013, and Parnell’s handling of a sexual-assault scandal inside the Alaska National Guard. And to top it all off, the cacophonous Senate race may be keeping Parnell from getting his side of the story out.

Parnell’s camp concedes the race is looking close, but is convinced the unity ticket will end up damaging Walker because it more closely associates him with an unpopular Democratic brand. “With Bill Walker and Byron Mallott joining together, you’ve now got a Republican versus a Democrat,” said Parnell campaign spokesman Luke Miller. “More specifically, you have a Republican in Governor Parnell, and a candidate, Bill Walker, who is endorsed by Mark Begich and the Democratic Party.”

Public polling conducted since early September shows the race looking like a toss-up, with Parnell trailing Walker in roughly half of the head-to-head matchups (Alaska has a reputation for being difficult to survey.) An internal poll conducted for Parnell by Basswood Research in late September showed him up five percentage points over Walker, 46 to 41 percent.

The unique situation and independent streak of the players involved has led to an exhausting and delicate balancing act. Walker, who now has the support of Alaska Democrats after welcoming Democrat Byron Mallott to his ticket, may benefit from Begich’s strong ground game even though Walker has not explicitly endorsed Begich. Begich has voiced his support for Walker.

While Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski has come out in support of Begich’s opponent, Sullivan, she won’t say who she’ll vote for in the governor’s race. (A further twist: Mallott cochaired Murkowski’s successful write-in campaign in 2010 after she lost the GOP primary.) In a question-and-answer session with reporters in her Anchorage office last month, Murkowski said of the governor’s race: “Alaskans are of a mind that they don’t get particularly caught up with the party label, and this will be, I think, a very insightful election to see how true that really is.”

Sullivan, for his part, served as attorney general and natural resources commissioner under Parnell, but he barely mentions the governor on the campaign trail.

Other than a recent poll from Fox News that shows Parnell leading by five points, every poll in Alaska since September has shown Walker with a healthy lead, and RealClearPolitics gives him a 3.8 point lead in the polling average. That being said, polling in Alaska has always been something of a difficult task given the nature of the state geographically and the costs involved in polling so it’s hard to say just how accurate these polls are. If they’re accurate, though, it’s interesting largely because similar polling being conducted at the same time the polling in the Senate race is showing Republican Dan Sullivan leading Senator Begich, with a 4.4 point lead in the RCP average. It’s not unusual, of course, for two races in the same state to take different tracks like this, but it’s of interest in no small part because, before anyone else had entered the race against Begich there were some who were lobbying Governor Parnell to enter the race because he seemed to be the most popular Republican in the state other than Lisa Murkowski. He declined and decided to run for re-election. That may prove to have been a mistake.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook