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Bill Walker switches from Republican to independent in his gubernatorial bid

Alex DeMarban

Former Valdez mayor Bill Walker said he'll run for governor as an independent free of any party, a strategy that ensures he won't face Gov. Sean Parnell in the Republican primary and ensures that his name will be on the general election ballot in November 2014.

Parnell beat Walker in the 2010 Republican primary before winning reelection as governor. Parnell won 49.5 percent of the primary votes, followed by Walker with 34 percent and Ralph Samuels with 14 percent.

Calling himself a "traditional" Republican in a press release announcing the decision, Walker said Parnell has corrupted the Alaska Republican name by giving the oil industry a massive tax break and by not pushing the state's major oil companies harder to develop the North Slope's vast natural gas reserves that many Alaskans have wanted to tap for decades.

"In 2013 if you don't believe that it is okay to give massive oil-tax cuts without any guarantees of increased production, and if you don't believe that it is acceptable for the North Slope leaseholders to warehouse Alaska's natural gas while they continue to develop competing projects around the globe, then somehow you are no longer considered a good Republican," he said in a press release on Thursday.

An oil and gas attorney, Walker has said he's following the advice of Alaskans fed up with party politics who urged him to make the switch, he said.

"So while I remain a traditional Alaskan Republican, I will always be an Alaskan first.  And that is my vow: As governor, I will always put Alaska first," he said in the release.

Parnell scored favorably in a job-approval poll early this year, when 48 percent of Alaskans said they supported the work he's done, compared to 39 percent who didn't.

Marc Hellenthal of Hellenthal and Associates said a recent, random phone poll of 324 people found that Parnell had a 57 percent positive approval rating, and a 26 percent negative rating.

Hellenthal said 226 of those who claimed they could and would vote in the Republican primary strongly favored Parnell over Walker. It was 62 percent for Parnell, with 22 percent for Walker and 16 percent undecided.

"You can quickly see the problem if you're Bill Walker," Hellenthal said. "I'm sure he's seen the same numbers. The labor unions poll quite a bit, and he's their darling."

Hellenthal's latest numbers come after Parnell introduced the controversial oil tax cut estimated to provide hundreds of millions of dollars to the state's oil producers, primarily BP, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil.

The tax cut is on track to be tested by statewide voters in the August 2014 primary election, thanks to a repeal effort that claims to have gathered more than 50,000 signatures. Hellenthal said that the tax cut will define the election, but that it's not yet on people's radars. He expects Parnell's favorability ratings to change as the tax cut becomes an issue before the primary election.

The Republican Party of Alaska has been wracked with upheaval and infighting this year, with the ouster of two of its party heads making national headlines. Walker said his supporters cross party lines. They include Debbie Brown, who was ousted as chair of the Alaska Republican Party in April, and Vince Beltrami, president of the AFL-CIO, Walker said.

Alex DeMarban at alex@alaskadispatch.com