Gov. Bill Walker and Mark Begich met early Monday afternoon in an undisclosed location in Anchorage. The two candidates for governor had tried all week to iron out who is going to stay in the race against Mike Dunleavy for governor, and who might find a way to gracefully bow out.
Gracefully is the operative word: A sitting governor doesn’t just step aside and a former U.S. senator doesn’t either, especially when he has the Democratic Party behind him.
They both know a three-way is trouble against a Republican candidate of the stature of Dunleavy; Begich and Walker both occupy the same space in the electorate — the progressive, Bernie Sanders Democrats and others on the political left. Dunleavy has the political right locked down.
Complicating the matter is the sitting lieutenant governor, Byron Mallott, who gave up his own aspirations to be governor in 2014, and accepted the understudy role, allowing Walker to win the election after the Alaska Democratic Party jettisoned two duly elected candidates — Walker’s running mate Craig Fleener and Mallott’s running mate Hollis French.
Mallott been a loyal soldier, rewarded by being allowed to basically run day-to-day operations in government to the extent he wishes to. And so to combine a Walker-Begich ticket would be an act of deep disloyalty to Walker’s most stalwart ally.
As of sundown on Labor Day, both Begich and Walker were still in the race — Begich as the top Democrat in the state, and Walker as whatever he wants to be on any given day.
Begich has been making the case for weeks that he, in fact, actually has an advantage over Dunleavy, while Walker is bumping along the bottom in third place as one of the least liked incumbent governors in the nation.
Walker brings recent baggage — lying about how he wouldn’t impose taxes and lying about how he wouldn’t take the Permanent Fund dividend from Alaskans.
His administration has been marred by scandal, from the $850,000 he gave to his consultant friends like Rigdon Boykin, which paid off unsettled debts from previous joint ventures, to appointing Roland Maw to the Board of Fisheries, only to then find him embroiled in the largest Permanent Fund dividend fraud lawsuit in Alaska history. The scandals have continued, crime has spun out of control, and the governor has been distracted by his enchantment with China.
But he has the endorsements of the unions, which is no small advantage.
Begich is the actual nominee of the Alaska Democratic Party — with 33,451 votes already from the August primary. That’s his baseline as he heads into November.
The Alaska Democrats, his base, have not had such a good candidate for governor in years, and they’re not likely to see a person of his caliber run for governor for a long time under their banner. If they let this one go, and allow a full eight years to pass without a candidate for governor, it damages their party’s brand.
Add to that is the prize of redistricting: The Alaska Democratic Party knows that the next governor has a great deal to say about how the redistricting board is shaped, and there will be new lines drawn across the state that will influence who has power: In Southeast, a diminishing population means Southeast Alaskans will lose at least one half a seat in the House, while the Mat-Su Valley will gain a seat. The way those lines get drawn will have a powerful impact on who controls both the House and Senate.
If Walker is elected again, he will owe no allegiance to the traditional Democratic constituency that brought him to the party. With term limits, he would never face reelection, and therefore Democrats would not be able to count on him for anything.
Ultimately, either Begich or Walker must announce their decision before the close of business on Tuesday, Sept 4th. That decision will have been reached, as it was in 2014, behind closed doors, far from the inquisitive eyes of the voters. If one of them drops, there will have been a price to pay by the other, and voters won’t know what that price is until the election is far behind us.