Seeing blood in the water after tens of thousands signed an initiative seeking to repeal Gov. Sean Parnell's flagship legislation, Sen. Hollis French has filed preliminary paperwork to seriously weigh a run for governor.
"I will go on the record saying I do have a snowball's chance in hell," said French, despite being a Democrat in a scarlet-red state.
French, a former Arco production operator at the Kuparuk oil field two decades ago, believes the governor is especially vulnerable after the Legislature passed Senate Bill 21, providing a tax cut worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the state's oil producers, primarily BP, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil.
The political calculus also looks good because the election in November 2014 promises to be a match that includes Parnell and another prominent Republican, Bill Walker, running as an independent.
"It looks like a three-way race to me, and that gives a Democrat the best chance he or she is likely to have," said French.
For his part, Walker said, “I remain focused on the November 2014 general election, concentrating solely on the solutions that are in the best interests of Alaskans without the constraints of party platforms."
French said Tony Knowles, another Democrat with oilfield experience, squeaked past Republican Jim Campbell to win the 1994 race after Alaskan Independence Party candidate Jack Coghill unwittingly served as "spoiler" by drawing Republican votes. Knowles was Alaska’s last Democratic governor.
Filing a letter of intent with the Division of Elections will allow French, a state senator for more than a decade, to raise money and test the waters for a statewide run, he said.
French called Parnell extremely vulnerable on the oil-tax cut: "I mean 50,000 Alaskans stepped up in record time to sign the referendum to overturn his signature accomplishment."
Parnell's campaign could not immediately be reached for comment by the Dispatch.
An article at KTUU, however, quoted Parnell campaign manager Jerry Gallagher as saying Parnell "remains committed to lower taxes, fighting federal overreach and increasing education opportunities."
"So far, the other candidates for governor, including Hollis French, mirror President Obama's policies of higher taxes and bigger government," campaign officials wrote, according to KTUU. "The voters will have a clear choice in November 2014."
Like the referendum proposes, French said he'd return to the state's current tax legislation that helped stuff state coffers with billions of dollars during a time of high oil prices in recent years.
But he'd modify that legislation. The legacy fields, Prudhoe Bay and Kuparuk, should continue to be taxed under a steep progressive rate, since the industry essentially paid for those fields decades ago.
But the tax law needs to be more generous in other areas, to spark production in new fields and to encourage heavy oil and shale oil development. That could include reducing the state's progressive take in those areas and continuing the ample tax credits offered for exploration fields and capital investment.
"(The current tax law) was set up to say if you are going to harvest profits and export them out of state, we will tax you highly. But if you reinvest in Alaska, your taxes come way down. That's a good model," French said.
French also sees an opening against Parnell because he's flat-funded education and refused to support a Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, even as other Republican governors around the nation have begrudgingly agreed to the change.
The health care expansion "is not only good for human beings, it's good for business," French said.
Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com