With the 2016 election behind us, and the Anchorage municipal election dead ahead, politicos in Alaska are looking around for the conservative who will be at the top of the Republican ticket in less than 24 months.
Who will run for governor as a Republican and how crowded will be the field? Here are the names that knowledgeable observers are dropping at this early stage:
Robert Gillam: The race will begin shortly, with multi-millionaire Robert Gillam expected to throw his hat in the ring the first week of January by putting together a “kitchen cabinet” that will meet on a weekly basis. He’s also said to be working on a publicity campaign to stop Gov. Walker’s proposed state income tax. If he doesn’t get a post as Secretary of Interior, watch for him to commit $3-5 million (rounding error) to fund a race for governor.
- Strengths: Virtually unlimited financial resources, positioning him well to “buy” the primary election in what is likely to be a crowded field. Potential to be a Trump-like candidate, with his personal wealth and propensity for blunt talk. Could position himself as a true outsider.
- Weaknesses: No direct political or government experience. Has not run for office before. Potential to be a Trump-like candidate, which would be a problem only if things go badly for The Donald.
Mike Dunleavy: Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Mat-Su & Copper River valleys) is said to be working on legislation to stop Gov. Walker from raiding the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend in the future. He is a bold firebrand conservative, both socially and economically. His tall stature and rugged good looks don’t hurt, either.
- Strengths: Solid conservative credentials. Would use the Perm Fund Dividend as a populist issue. Administrative experience, strong in education.
- Weaknesses: Needs statewide name recognition. Will need broad electoral appeal.
Charlie Huggins: Retiring Sen. Charlie Huggins, of District D, has military background (retired colonel) as well as excellent relationships in the Legislature. Once president of the Senate, he’s leaving office, which could give him the distance he needs from the problem that the 30th Legislature will face in closing the fiscal gap.
- Strengths: Strong personal charm, gentlemanly demeanor, truly a nice guy. Military street cred. Strong likability factor.
- Weaknesses: Needs statewide name recognition. Can he raise the money.
Anna MacKinnon: Sen. Anna MacKinnon, co-chair of Senate Finance, has the experience to be governor, and the good relationships across party lines, but whether that’s the direction she wants to go is the big question for her. She could suffer politically during this legislative season because, during tough fiscal times, she’ll be making some unpopular decisions.
- Strengths: Has been an excellent state senator. Thoughtful. Articulate. Experienced. Hard working.
- Weaknesses: Statewide name recognition. May be tied to the Alaska Legislature’s history of overspending.
John Binkley: Former legislator (House, Senate) from Fairbanks, John Binkley is a riverboat captain who is in the tourism business and has an easy laugh every time someone asks him if he’ll throw his name in the hat for governor. He’s done that, he says. It’s not likely, but people ask.
- Strengths: Interior base, which is an important battleground region in statewide elections. Business experience and leadership. Great network and therefore good fundraising capacity. Friendly, likeable demeanor. Legislative experience.
- Weaknesses: Does not seem to want the office.
Pete Kelly: Sen. Pete Kelly of Fairbanks has considered it but he’s got a huge battle to get through with the fiscal crisis. He can’t throw his name in the ring if in June that crisis is as bad as it was this year in June, meaning he’s got a tough route to the governorship.
- Strengths: Interior base, which is an important battleground region in statewide elections. Thoughtful and strategic. Likeable. Strong conservative street cred.
- Weaknesses: He’s got to fix the fiscal crisis. That is going to be a challenge.
Don Young: Rep. Don Young could run for governor, and sometimes jokes that he will. But this week he said he’s running for his House seat in 2018. He’ll be 85. Some say if he ran, everyone should simply get out of the way.
- Strengths: Statewide name recognition – no one has more. Excellent campaigner. Amazing statewide campaign machinery. It’s his for the taking.
- Weaknesses: Does not seem to want the office. Congressman Young looks quite happy in his current office, now 43 years in.
Lisa Murkowski: Some have floated Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s name as a possibility. But that would open up her Senate seat in two years, and Alaska has a powerhouse Washington team that few want to see split up. She has fought too hard to get where she is.
Tuckerman Babcock: Chairman of the Alaska Republican Party, Babcock wrangles all the disparate elements of a party that has a lot of contentious factions. If he can keep that group straight, he could have a shot. But can he avoid the “friendly fire”from the right?
- Strengths: Formidable political skills. Great statewide network. Ties all up and down the Railbelt region.
- Weaknesses: Needs statewide name recognition. May draw fire from Joe Miller faction.
Dan Sullivan (Mayor): Former Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan is always mentioned and has indicated his interest. The unions might have something to say about it, but the mayor surely knows how to cut a budget.
- Strengths: Statewide name recognition. Outstanding family pedigree. Strong street cred managing budgets and controlling costs. Sizable political machine in Anchorage. Fundraising abilities. Experience running in a statewide race.
- Weaknesses: Intense union opposition. Anchorage roots, which is not always helpful statewide.
Loren Leman: Former Lt. Gov. Loren Leman — conservative, thoughtful, and experienced — has been thinking about it for years. Is this his time? His and Carolyn’s youngest daughter tragically died in a climbing accident one year ago this week. The healing process is never a straight line. Only Leman can know when he’s ready.
- Strengths: Experienced both as a senator and lieutenant governor. Managed budgets through lean times in Alaska. Strong support in faith-based community, hardworking, fiscal hawk. Alaska Native.
- Weaknesses: A long time has passed since he was in office and Alaska is a transient state. Name recognition and political brand will need to be re-established with a new era of voters. Can he raise the money?
Bill Walker: Current “Nonpartisan” Gov. Bill Walker is said to have brought in a political consultant to see if he could run on the Republican side, and the consultant came back with the verdict: No.
- Strengths, weaknesses: Look for Walker to run again as an (ahem) “nonpartisan” as he obviously relishes being governor.
MISSING: SOMEONE FROM THE BUSINESS COMMUNITY
Both John Binkley and Dan Sullivan have strong business credentials, but they are considered part of the political class, not outsiders. Robert Gillam is a political outsider, but he’s closely aligned himself with Donald Trump, and that’s a relationship that could help or hurt, depending on how The Donald does as president.
Where is the business community and who might emerge as a person with the courage to lead during the toughest fiscal situation since the late 1980s? Who has the business credibility, grasp of the issues, potential for broad electoral appeal, and the political savvy to put together a strong campaign?
Some mention the name Brad Keithley, but he’s not likely to pass the opposition research test. As a career attorney, his profession can hurt him.
Others say Joe Beedle (Northrim Bank president), but Joe has landed the job of a lifetime. He has not shown political ambitions, preferring to move the needle in lower key ways.
John Sturgeon has almost folk hero status in Alaska after battling the Park Service all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He’d have to re-register as a Republican, but he does have broad appeal because of his David-and-Goliath taking on of the federal government.
The hunt is on, and the suggestion box is open. Send your thoughts to [email protected].