Mike Dingman: Democrats weigh run with Walker versus battle for Begich

By MIKE DINGMANAugust 20, 2013 

You've heard of focus groups --they sit in rooms and eat a new type of cookie or watch the trailer for a new television show -- and offer their opinions to a panel of "product developers." The producers or manufacturers take all the comments and use them to tweak the product, or even discontinue it altogether. Sometimes the product people don't want anyone to know what they're planning, so they give you something similar to test the waters and see how their real product would do.

Right now, you are a focus group for Democrats in Alaska, and you likely have no idea.

A few things have happened in a short time that point to the fact the Democrats are weighing their options and trying to gauge public opinion using social media and news outlets.

First a "We Want Wielechowski" page showed up on Facebook - likely started by political strategist Jim Lottsfeldt. Shortly after that, Ivan Moore - also a pollster and political strategist - proposed that Sen. Bill Wielechowski run for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Bill Walker, who has already announced his run for governor as an independent. Finally, a week ago, state Sen. Hollis French announced his intention to run again for governor.

I've asked Sen. Wielechowski a number of times about the discussion of him running for governor or lieutenant governor, and he has always answered that he is enjoying his summer and weighing his options.

French and Wielechowski are political allies and friends. They can often be seen in professional and social settings together. It's unlikely that the two would run against each other in a Democrat primary, and it's very likely they had some sort of discussion before French announced his intent.

Casey Reynolds broke that news on his KFQD radio show the morning French filed paperwork saying he was exploring a run for governor. It's odd that Hollis took that step so quietly, without the usual media fanfare.

In 2010 French was only able to grab 38 percent of the vote when he ran against Ethan Berkowitz in the Democratic primary, even though party insiders will tell you French was the favorite of the Alaska Democratic Party.

So why would an establishment Democrat file his intent to run for governor while Wielechowski is still "weighing his options?" Would French consider running against his friend and political ally? I doubt it.

French is probably trying to gauge public opinion on possible races involving a mix of Democratic candidates against incumbent Gov. Sean Parnell. That would explain why he entered the race slightly under the radar, and why he filed his intent without actually filing to run for governor. If Wielechowski will be the eventual Democrat favorite in one capacity or another, French can't actually file for a specific office until he knows where Wielechowski plans to go.

There's also the question of Sen. Mark Begich defending his seat for the first time since he unseated incumbent Ted Stevens in the historic election of 2008 - and this year is not shaping up to be a cakewalk for him. The GOP already has heavyweights Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and Joe Miller in the hunt. Political insiders believe Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Daniel Sullivan will enter the race after he returns from his current deployment with the Marines in Afghanistan.

Begich presumably wants a strong Democrat on the gubernatorial ballot to help bring Democrats to the polls, whereas Democratic insiders seem to favor the "Two Bills" idea -- putting a Walker/Wielechowski ticket running outside the party system in an attempt to court moderates on both sides and still shore up the liberal base.

So Alaska, you're the Democrats' focus group. Or guinea pigs.

Whether or not you're aware of it, you're the party's way to decide if they will help Begich with a strong Democrat on the gubernatorial ballot or really try to beat Parnell using the independent coattails of Bill Walker.

Mike Dingman is a fifth generation Alaskan, born and raised in Anchorage. He is a former student body president at UAA and has studied, worked and volunteered in Alaska politics since the late 90s. E-mail, michaeldingman@gmail.com.

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