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Democrats long for a third-party spoiler

Paul Jenkins
OPINION: Columnist Paul Jenkins argues that Mark Begich faces an uphill fight - but not if a third candidate divides the conservative opposition. Pictured: Wally Hickel, left, and Joe Vogler. Hickel commandeered the Alaska Independence Party from perennial candidate Vogler and rode it to the governorship in 1990. Vogler never won statewide office, but tilted the balance of several elections. BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News

Given Alaskaʼs political landscape, when do you think Democrats will scare up somebody -- almost anybody will do, actually -- to jump into the post-primary race as a viable third-party conservative candidate for Mark Begichʼs Senate seat? Without that magical person, Begich could be toast.

In Alaska, an uncracked citadel for conservatives -- not Republicans, mind you, conservatives -- a liberal Democrat, especially an acolyte of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Barack Obama, would have a tough time in a smack-down with a Republican who has not been ambushed and smeared by, say, the Justice Department. If the Democrat in question was the deciding vote for Obamacare, his problems could only multiply.

What to do? How would you blunt that edge, rake off a few conservative votes to hurt the GOP nominee? The answer is easy. Offer an alternative. All you need is an acquiescent, recognized political party -- or an effective write-in campaign. Third-party candidates long have played King Kong in Alaska elections.

Take the 2008 Senate contest, for instance. Begich did not even have to get his loafers dirty. Democrat-cum-Republican Vic Vickers did that for him. He showed up from Florida all on his own ostensibly to run in the GOP primary against then-Sen. Ted Stevens - spent more than $1 million, in fact -- and muddied Stevens as a crook. Stevens had been convicted in a fixed Justice Department case later tossed out. Vickers made negative campaigning an art form. 

Vickersʼ bombast and Justiceʼs slime were helpful, but Begich squeaked by Stevens in the general by 3,953 votes -- only after Alaskan Independence Party candidate Bob Bird tallied 13,197 votes.

It was not the first time an Alaska third-party candidate had an effect. In 1974, Jay Hammond edged incumbent Bill Egan by 287 votes -- after the AIPʼs founder, Joe Vogler, garnered 4,770. 

Democrat Steve Cowper, defeated by Bill Sheffield in 1982 only to return the favor in the 1986 primary after Sheffield dodged impeachment, won the general election with 84,943 votes. Republican Arliss Sturgulewski netted 76,515 -- but Alaskan Independence Party candidate Vogler likely cost her the election by getting 10,013.

Democrat Tony Knowles in 1990 led Republican Sturgulewski 60,201-50,991, but Wally Hickel, under the Alaskan Independence Party banner, won with 75,721 votes.

In 1994, Knowles defeated Republican Jim Campbell in a squeaker, 87,693 votes to 87,157, but only after Jack Coghill, flying the Alaskan Independence Party banner, bled off 27,838 votes. (Are we starting to see a pattern here?)

Republican Sarah Palin netted 114,697 votes in 2006 to Knowlesʼ 97,238. Andrew Halcro, as an Independent, got 22,443.

In Begichʼs 2008 race and four state governor elections since 1982, a third-party candidate made a huge difference; in four of the five, the AIP was front row. Could a third-party candidacy happen again? Democrats would be nuts not to find somebody to step up.

The Senate seat held by Begich is vitally important to Democrats and Republicans alike. The New York Times says more than $20 million in ads already have been reserved in Alaska -- by outfits such as Karl Roveʼs Republican-loving American Crossroads and Reidʼs Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. That could be just the start -- and in a state with only 490,000 registered voters.

In the GOP primary for the nod to face Begich in November, the fight is between former Natural Resources chief Dan Sullivan and Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell. Joe Miller, who lost to Sen. Lisa Murkowski in an historic general election write-in after winning the primary in 2010, likely will tank in the August primary, unlikely to win even 20 percent of the tally. By all accounts his negatives would sink the pope.

Is Miller a possibility for a third-party run? He owes the GOP zip and has a hard-core bunch of followers who would stick to the bitter end, but he has to know it would kill his political aspirations in Alaska. Or is there a better choice?

A third-party candidate tasked with attracting conservative votes would need to be somebody likable, somebody a voter fed up by the growing negativity in the Senate race could turn to, a sensible choice. It would have to be somebody inoffensive, salable and -- this is important -- available.

If Republicans are lucky, Democrats will not find him -- or her.

Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com., a division of Porcaro Communications, which now is placing media for the Mead Treadwell campaign.

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, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.