Gov. Sean Parnell, who Sarah Palin appointed after she resigned, easily outdistanced his two GOP rivals in Tuesday's primary while Democrat Ethan Berkowitz breezed by his opponent to set the stage for the Nov. 4 gubernatorial election.
Parnell will be on the GOP slate with Mead Treadwell, who handily defeated Jay Ramras to win the GOP lieutenant governor nomination. Berkowitz will team with Diane Benson, who easily outpaced three other opponents in the Democratic primary.
With about two-thirds of 438 precincts reporting, Parnell held a comfortable lead over Anchorage attorney Bill Walker, his closest rival. Ralph Samuels, the third strong GOP candidate, conceded early in the evening, blaming "an unsexy message against an incumbent governor," he said.
Just before midnight, Walker was still holding out hope but acknowledged it didn't look good for him. "Obviously I'm not pleased but it is what it is," he said. "We're just excited about the race we've run."
Berkowitz refused to claim victory early in the evening despite a comfortable lead over state Sen. Hollis French.
"We're feeling confident but there's still a long ways to go tonight," he said. "This is a typical Alaska election."
Berkowitz said his strong lead shows that people want change. "They want someone who's tough, someone who can move the state forward and bring Alaska the future it deserves."
That includes a gas pipeline and lower energy costs, he said.
Parnell also was reluctant to claim victory over Walker late Tuesday night even though he was ahead by more than 10 percent.
Still, he said, he thinks voters understood that he was working to ensure jobs and strong families with his policies as governor and in his campaign message.
"I think it's about jobs and families," he said in a brief interview at Election Central. The economy is an issue but so is a strong education system, he said.
Parnell ran a low-key campaign, which drew criticism from rivals who accused him of ducking debates and other public forums that would have allowed them to ask tough questions and show their differences. Walker and Samuels both challenged Parnell for his leadership and contended he was doing little to put the state in a better position for the future.
But the governor has countered that he was trying to run the state and campaign at the same time, and that he believed he'd given voters adequate opportunity to listen to his ideas and judge him as a candidate.
"I think we made each other better as candidates," he said Tuesday night.
Parnell touted his accomplishments in the year he has been governor, following Sarah Palin's abrupt resignation in July 2009. He counts among those his push for merit scholarships for all high school seniors and his initiative to combat domestic violence and sexual assault. Parnell also said he is working to bring a gas line to fruition through his support of the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act and the state's work with TransCanada Corp. and Exxon Mobil Corp. And he has offered proposals for tax credits and other measures to encourage more investment and development of North Slope oil.
Walker and Samuels had always been distant choices for voters in the primary, according to scattered polls paid for by Republican candidates and polling firms. And while Samuels stayed a distant third, Walker's numerous TV spots and message about building the gas line now seemed to resonate; he climbed steadily from a position of little name recognition to come relatively close to the governor.
Walker, an Anchorage attorney and former Valdez mayor, based his campaign on building an "all-Alaska gas line," from the North Slope to Valdez, where gas would be liquefied and shipped overseas. Walker's campaign mantra was "stop studying, start building," and he advocated the state spending several billion dollars to get the pipeline under construction.
Samuels, a former state lawmaker who is now an Anchorage business executive, was a backer of the "bullet line," a gas line that would run from the Slope to the Fairbanks area and then into Southcentral. He also used the campaign to warn against what he sees as looming budget troubles as oil production plays out. Samuels wanted to start talking about the need for cuts to significant educational and Medicaid programs so the state doesn't have to make more drastic and abrupt cuts later.
On the Democratic side, Berkowitz and French made oil taxes the defining issue of the campaign. French, a state senator who will keep that seat, supported the current tax structure, known as ACES, and put in place by Palin with support from Democratic lawmakers. The tax system has collected more than $10 billion since 2007 that has been set aside in budget reserve accounts but can still be tapped by the Legislature.
Berkowitz drew the wrath of some Democratic lawmakers and others in the party when he split with French over ACES and suggested a field-by-field royalty system. Instead of taxes, the money would come through leases, so the rate couldn't be changed by lawmakers once set, and Berkowitz wants the money put into the Permanent Fund, also making it off limits to lawmakers.
In the lieutenant governor campaigns, the Republican race was the most closely watched with Treadwell, an Anchorage entrepreneur and former chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, making a strong showing against Ramras, a Fairbanks lawmaker. Former talk show host Eddie Burke also campaigned heavily in the primary.
"Yippee," Treadwell said soon after walking into Election central Tuesday night.
Treadwell said his campaign has been about trying to wake people up to the reality that the pipeline is running only one-third full and that something needs to be done. "We've got to put a bead on filling that pipeline," he said, adding that building a gas line and diversifying the economy are also part of his message.
The Democrats competing for lieutenant governor ran very low-key races. Benson, a former truck driver, has run for public office in the past, including for Congress against Don Young. Benson opponent J.J. "Jack" Powers, a bingo parlor owner, largely financed his own campaign, spending more than $200,000 of his own money into it.
Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com.