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Parnell doesn't have a lock on the governor's race yet

Mike Dingman
OPINION: Mike Dingman argues that Bill Walker has a shot against Gov. Sean Parnell. Pictured: Walker announces his independent run for governor in August 2013. Richard Mauer

If I told you that one of the races you weren’t paying much attention to this election season might actually be in play, what would you say?

While you’ve been watching the U.S. Senate Primary between Dan Sullivan, Mead Treadwell and Joe Miller, or been trying to figure out why Lesil McGuire never found any traction, or trying to learn all the names and districts of the new Alaska House candidates, one race you thought was a done deal might have gotten a little more interesting. 

Byron Mallot is a great Alaskan and should be revered for his service, but as a political candidate he is never going to light the stage on fire and he certainly is not going to electrify a voting populace. Independent candidate Bill Walker, however, might have closed the gap on Gov. Sean Parnell. 

I’m not saying that Walker has run away in the polls or caught fire in this race. However, he can be nothing but encouraged by recent polling numbers. Last week, Walker announced that a poll commissioned by his campaign and conducted by Ivan Moore Research showed Parnell at 42 percent, Walker at 29 percent and Mallott at 16 percent. When the poll took Mallott out of the mix, the poll shows a one point race – Parnell 46 percent, Walker 45 percent. If Walker is taken out of the mix, Parnell wins in a rout -- 55 percent to 34 percent. 

Now, while the folks in the Parnell campaign office certainly are not sitting around listening to Michael Stipe singing “It’s the end of the world as we know it,” the numbers are fairly interesting. But what do they mean?

French novelist Marcel Proust said “The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” So, just for a moment, look at the Alaska governor's race and the numbers through "new eyes."

The first thing these numbers tell us is that, right now, at least, the presumptive Democrat nominee is irrelevant. That might not continue to be the case. Maybe the Democrat has a hidden fire inside and after the primary he is going to turn the campaign around.  It isn’t likely, but it’s possible. 

The next thing it shows us, and the most important, is that Bill Walker isn’t irrelevant -- far from it. In fact, Bill Walker jumping into the race as an independent shook up the entire process. Many believed that Sen. Bill Wielechowski would jump into the race riding his recent statewide notoriety as one of the leading critics of Gov. Parnell’s oil tax reform bill -- which is set for a repeal vote on Aug. 19. 

When I asked Sen. Wielechowski last summer about his plans for the upcoming election and if he had thought about running for governor, he would continually tell me that he was “going to enjoy his summer” and “weigh his options.” The pundits will speculate though, and they did. With Walker in the race as an independent, rather than a contender for the Republican nominee, the prospects for the Democrat -- any Democrat -- seemed less likely and Sen. Wielechowski decided to stand pat. 

Parnell and Walker faced off in the 2010 Republican primary with third challenger Ralph Samuels. In that race one of the signature moments was a KTUU debate held at the Wendy Williamson Auditorium. Bill Walker mentioned a bridge that Conoco-Phillips needed to build in order to develop the CD-5 field in the Colville River Delta. 

As the group discussed “federal overreach” and the “permitting process” and other phrases that generally put most people to sleep, Bill Walker pounded his fist on the table. He said he would build the bridge and let the “feds” come take it up with him. What Walker proposed is impossible in practical terms. It would violate federal law, state law and the Alaska Constitution. The governor has no power or ability to actually effect that kind of change -- but in that table-pounding moment, none of that mattered. 

In that moment Bill Walker looked more like a governor that fits Alaska’s independent “screw the feds” nature than anyone else at the table. As Walker gave his speech Parnell just sat there, looking slightly uncomfortable with his poster-perfect smile. 

Gov. Parnell went on to win that primary and retained his office on the third floor of the Capitol Building. So let's not overstate these numbers and certainly not that one moment in one debate four years ago. Gov. Parnell is still the front-runner with a substantial lead in the polls.

As this election moves on the excitiment is going to come from the U.S. Senate race and from many local races around the state. We will be looking to see if the Republicans can keep their sizable majority in Juneau and if they can replace Sen. Begich in Washington, D.C.

However, while we are enthralled with those races, don’t be surprised if another race -- that none of us expected to be all that exciting -- starts to become more interesting.

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

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.