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Walker should run as a Democrat or step aside for Begich

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: February 6
  • Published February 6

Gov. Bill Walker addresses a joint session of the state Legislature for his annual State of the State speech on Jan. 18 at the state Capitol in Juneau. (Klas Stolpe)

Gov. Bill Walker cannot win re-election without entering the Democratic primary. Even in a two-way race, his chances are questionable.

A poll released Feb. 1 by the Morning Consult showed Walker's approval rating at 29 percent. No one I talked to among Alaska's pollsters and insiders believes it is that low, but Walker's popularity surely is lagging.

Walker, a Republican, ran in 2014 as an independent until joining in a unity ticket with Byron Mallott, who gave up the Democratic nomination and became his running mate. Voters had lost patience with Gov. Sean Parnell and picked Walker in a two-way race without knowing much about him.

Now Walker and Mallott have again filed to run as independents. But the last three years have been tough. Voters have seen little payoff from the unpopular decisions Walker made.

Meanwhile, Mark Begich waits coyly for his moment. The former U.S. senator and Anchorage mayor would probably be a stronger candidate than Walker against Sen. Mike Dunleavy, the most likely Republican nominee.

Begich's biggest wins in the past have come from last-minute campaigns. He didn't enter his Senate race until the April before the November 2008 election. His first successful run for mayor, after two losses, lasted only nine weeks in 2003.

Even if he doesn't run, Begich's presence in the wings will force decisions on Walker. It should make him a Democrat.

If the governor chooses to run as an independent without entering the Democratic primary, he will lose.

The least credible Democrat would still get more than 10 percent of the vote, all of it coming out of Walker's support. In 1996, Theresa Obermeyer got 10.3 percent against Sen. Ted Stevens, even as he questioned her mental health in a statewide televised debate.

Walker can't afford to lose those votes in a year in which Alaskans are angry about reduced Permanent Fund dividends, hurting from a bad economy, frustrated at an unsolved fiscal gap, and scared of a crime wave.

"The governor has placed himself in a virtually untenable position," said Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, Mark's older brother. "I wouldn't bet that he is going to win re-election."

So you know, Tom Begich is my close friend and I have known him and Mark since childhood. I also like Walker and have positive relations with him, although we don't know each other well.

Over dinner Saturday, Tom Begich explained his concerns. On Monday, without wine, we talked for quotation.

Walker can run as an independent, as a Democrat, or, depending on the outcome of a lawsuit, as both. Voters know him, so I don't think it matters much what label he wears, but it will matter to the Democratic Party.

If Democrats lose the governorship and both houses of the Legislature, they could spend the next decade in the cold. Members of the Redistricting Board, who will set the election map after the next census, are chosen by the governor, the speaker of the House and the Senate president.

With no one at the top of the ticket for their party, Democratic legislative candidates would lose votes. The Democrats won't let that happen.

"If he is not going to run in that race, certainly there will be a higher-profile Democrat who will file in that race," Tom Begich said. "If Bill Walker doesn't get into the Democratic primary, I will be encouraging my brother to."

Mark Begich said — and I believe him — that his biggest reason for holding back is personal. He is enjoying life, making money as a consultant and spending time with his 15-year-old son. He said he may not decide before the filing deadline, June 1.

Mark held back from directly criticizing Walker. He is better at dishing non-committal political BS than his brother. But he sounded like a candidate when citing Alaska's crime and budget problems, saying, "The vision of where Alaska needs to go is lacking."

When Begich first floated his name last summer, I didn't like it. As I've written before, Walker may not have made all the right decisions, but he attacked the state's problems forthrightly, with courage and honesty. Wounded but still fighting, he deserved support.

Reducing the dividend by veto and then through legislation kept about $1.5 billion available for future use to plug the fiscal gap. It was the most important step yet toward solving the state's fiscal problems.

It also hurt Walker's popularity, possibly fatally. Polls show a significant chunk of Alaska voters formed a negative opinion of Walker with the dividend veto in the summer of 2016 and have never come back.

This fall's dividend will come out right before the election. Walker has proposed a modest increase. That probably won't be enough to change minds. But to propose a full dividend would be a transparent attempt to buy votes and won't fool anyone.

Mark Begich never would have vetoed the dividend in the first place. He is too political.

On the other hand, he might not have needed to veto the dividend. As a supremely talented political operator, he might have found a fiscal solution two years ago by working with the Legislature.

Is this a fair comparison?

Attacking Walker for the state's lack of a fiscal plan amounts to criticizing him for failing to convince other people — the state Senate — to do what he bravely sought to do.

Ironically, Dunleavy was the worst demagogue in that fight, seemingly promising everything to everyone without pain or sacrifice. Only in Alaska can you pose as a fiscal conservative while promising to give away as much money as possible.

But politics isn't fair. Most voters don't pay attention to nuances. Walker could easily to lose to Dunleavy because of what he failed to convince Dunleavy and his allies to do.

A miracle is still possible. This legislative session could produce joy among the populace. China could write a check to build the gas line.

But without a miraculous new selling point, Walker faces a tough campaign.

His camp vows he is in the race to stay. But if Walker remains an independent and not a Democrat, he could come in third in November.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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