On Friday afternoon, Gov. Bill Walker shocked attendees at the Alaska Federation of Natives' annual convention by announcing he would suspend his campaign for re-election and instead support Mark Begich against Republican candidate Mike Dunleavy. The move capped a wild week that had already seen the surprise resignation of Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott for "inappropriate comments" made to an unidentified woman. Mallott was replaced, in his office and as Walker's running mate, by Valerie Nurr'araaluk Davidson.
There's no question that the effect on the governor's race is momentous. Less than three weeks remain before the election. Ballots with Walker and Mallott's names on them have already been printed, and about 1,000 absentee ballots have already been returned.
But in grappling with the most recent shakeup, we may be tempted to forget that in Alaska elections, there's no such thing as normal. Here's an incomplete rundown of some of Alaska's most notorious turnabouts from elections past:
1. The Unity Ticket
Ironically, Gov. Walker was himself the beneficiary of an untenable three-way race in 2014. Having withdrawn from the Republican primary to run as an independent, Walker was a long shot to prevail and was viewed by many as a spoiler who would ensure then-Gov. Sean Parnell would coast to an easy re-election — until he and Democratic candidate Mallott joined forces to create what they called the "Unity Ticket" and won a tight race influenced by a National Guard scandal that continues to have repercussions today. Although he emerged victorious on Election Day, Walker's win didn't sit well with Republicans in the Legislature, who often stymied his efforts to move bills and advance policy initiatives.
2. Sen. Lisa Murkowski's write-in win
Alaska's senior U.S. senator has always been too close to the middle of the road for those in the Republican Party's right wing, and her campaign for a second full term came to a screeching, though temporary, halt in 2010 when hard-right populist Joe Miller defeated her in the primary. Undeterred, Murkowski embarked on a near-unprecedented write-in campaign (the only successful previous effort was in 1954, by South Carolina's Strom Thurmond). After Miller's campaign was bogged down by allegations of misuse of his office as a Fairbanks borough attorney and the detainment of an editor for the Alaska Dispatch who was covering a town hall event, Murkowski won by four percent.
3. Ted Stevens' trial
The 2008 U.S. Senate race in Alaska was bizarre from the outset, as Alaska political giant Sen. Ted Stevens ran his campaign while on trial for making false statements related to improper gifts from oil field services company owner Bill Allen. Under other circumstances, Stevens would have coasted to an easy victory. But Oct. 27 of that year provided the most consequential "October Surprise" in Alaska history, when a federal jury found Sen. Stevens guilty on all seven counts. A neck-and-neck result between Stevens and Mark Begich was too close to call on Election Day, but Begich prevailed weeks later after absentee and questioned ballots were counted. The verdicts in the case were thrown out in April 2009 after misconduct by prosecutors came to light, but Stevens' political career was over. He died in a plane crash a year later.
4. The wild 1998 governor's race
Prior to this year, the governor's race that saw the most late-stage hijinks was unquestionably in 1998, when Republican John Lindauer faced Democrat Tony Knowles. Lindauer's campaign was rocked by revelations that his campaign had been largely financed by his wife, and — according to Republican Party leaders — "undermined the party's credibility" by not being transparent about the source of the money. In late October, Republicans pulled their support from Lindauer and endorsed write-in candidate Robin Taylor. In the end, Taylor and Lindauer split the Republican vote nearly evenly and Republican Moderate candidate Ray Metcalfe siphoned off another 6 percent, and Tony Knowles cruised to an easy win.
5. Hickel and the Alaska Independence Party
In 1990, Lindauer was involved in another of Alaska's biggest electoral shake-ups when he vacated his place as the Alaskan Independence Party nominee to clear the way for Wally Hickel, a late entry after the Republican primary was won by moderate Arliss Sturgulewski. To make matters even more dramatic, Sturgulewski's running mate Jack Coghill jumped ship to join Hickel's ticket on Sept. 20. Sturgulewski's campaign never recovered, and for the first time, a third-party candidate won the Alaska governor's race. That feat wouldn't be repeated until Walker's independent run in 2014.
Alaska is a wild place, and so are its politics. There's no guarantee that this year's electoral roller coaster is over, but the drama in the governor's race to this point has earned it a place in the pantheon of campaign upsets that have made campaigns in the Last Frontier so unpredictable. Candidate Dunleavy's final words in Friday's AFN candidate forum were "don't be surprised if there are more surprises along the way" — so buckle up, this year's drama might not be over yet.
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