In a primary election that could very well determine the next governor, Alaskans will head to the polls Tuesday to decide which of two Republican front-runners will advance to the November ballot.
One contender is Mead Treadwell, who lives in Anchorage and served as lieutenant governor under then-Gov. Sean Parnell. The other is Mike Dunleavy, of Wasilla, who served as a state senator.
For Alaska Republicans, this year is an opportunity to reclaim the state's top elected office, with the race on track to be a three-way fight. In red-state Alaska, some Democrats fear that incumbent Gov. Bill Walker — a Republican-turned-independent who teamed with a Democrat to defeat Parnell — will split votes with former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, handing the advantage to the Republican nominee.
Among the seven candidates in the Republican primary for governor, Dunleavy and Treadwell have emerged as the two main contenders, equipped with significant campaign donations and political experience.
In an interview this week, 62-year-old Treadwell said, if elected governor, his top priorities would include growing the state economy and "taking care of Alaska families." Dunleavy, 57, named public safety, educational outcomes and the state's fiscal issues as priorities.
"(Dunleavy) got commitments from people early. Solidified his base," said Curtis Thayer, president of the Alaska Chamber who has long been active in Alaska Republican politics. "That's one thing Mead fights against, he did get late into the game, and people have made commitments."
Parnell, whom Treadwell served with as lieutenant governor, has endorsed Dunleavy. So has former Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan and organizations such as Alaska Family Action, a Christian conservative group.
Treadwell said this week he had not initially planned to run for governor, but his mind changed as he noticed other Republican campaigns weren't taking off, leaving Dunleavy without a well-funded challenger.
"This opportunity is too strong to leave to somebody who I believe the Democrats could make mincemeat of in the fall," he said.
Dunleavy and an independent expenditure group supporting his candidacy have raised and spent far more than Treadwell, according to reports filed Tuesday with the Alaska Public Offices Commission.
By Aug. 11, Dunleavy had raised $311,330 over the course of his campaign and spent $290,676, according to a report filed with APOC.
Treadwell had raised $136,312 and spent $130,595.
Meanwhile, the independent expenditure group Dunleavy for Alaska had raised nearly $750,000, according to an APOC report. A big chunk of that money — more than $500,000 — was donated by two people: Dunleavy's brother, Francis, who lives in Texas, and Bob Penney, a developer and Alaska sportfishing advocate. An independent expenditure group that formed in support of Treadwell has raised a fraction of that amount, according to APOC reports.
Independent expenditure groups can collect unlimited donations from individuals and corporations under a legal framework set out in the 2010 Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. However, the groups are barred from coordinating with a candidate's campaign.
Given the lopsided fundraising race, Jerry McBeath, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said he expected Dunleavy would likely win the Republican primary.
"He's getting his message out," McBeath said.
Dunleavy said money helps in spreading a campaign's message, but added he doesn't think it can buy an election.
"I have a brother who cares about his brother, who thinks it would be kind of cool to help his brother win an election just like any family member would, whether they lived in state or out of state," he said.
Barring any last-minute attacks, the primary has been relatively uneventful, absent the bare-knuckle jabs that often emerge in statewide races.
James Muller, a political science professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said it's not unusual for an election in August to seem quiet. Alaskans are still outside — fishing, gardening, enjoying summer. He anticipates that some voting in the Republican primary will decide who they'd prefer for governor right before Election Day.
Conservative voters who know they don't want Walker or Begich might still be undecided on the Republican nominee, in other words.
"Part of the reason for that is the two of them (Dunleavy and Treadwell) agree on a lot of things," Muller said.
Both candidates "seem to be fairly polite in criticizing the other," Muller added.
"I'd say that even though there has been mudslinging, there hasn't been to the extent that we've seen in the past," said Rebecca Logan, who is CEO of oil and gas group the Alaska Support Industry Alliance but spoke independent of her role there. "It's not anywhere near what we've seen before."
She said Dunleavy and Treadwell are "similar in a lot of their ideas." McBeath said he also doesn't see any stark contrasts between the positions the two candidates have taken on campaign issues. Dunleavy seems slightly more aggressive about cutting the budget, he said, and they're both against cutting the Permanent Fund dividend, the annual payout Alaska residents get from the state's oil wealth fund.
McBeath believes many Alaskans are most concerned about how gubernatorial candidates will protect those PFD checks.
"Elections are often decided on real short-term issues," McBeath said. The PFD, he said, "is a money-in-the-pocket issue — so it's not the general state of the Alaska economy, it's how much money is coming into my pocket? Is it going to be reduced or increased?"
The main place where McBeath sees significant differences between the candidates is in their backgrounds.
Dunleavy has worked as a teacher, principal, superintendent and an education consultant. He also served as a school board member, and was elected to the state Senate in 2012.
Treadwell is a former chairman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. In addition to serving with Parnell, he was deputy commissioner for the Department of Environmental Conservation under Gov. Wally Hickel in the early 1990s. He most recently worked at private equity firm PT Capital, where he was president.
There are also five other candidates on the ballot in the Republican primary race for governor: Thomas Gordon, Gerald Heikes, Merica Hlatcu, Michael Sheldon, and Darin Colbry. But, so far, those candidates have raised little to no money and campaign-watchers do not see a potential spoiler among them.
"The reality is, money always makes a difference," said Ivan Moore, a longtime Alaska pollster and campaign consultant.
Polls open statewide at 7 a.m. Tuesday. Find your polling place here.
More questions with gubernatorial candidates Dunleavy and Treadwell:
Dunleavy and Treadwell will face off in a debate on Thursday, Aug. 16, on KTVA Channel 11. The debate will be televised from 6 to 7 p.m. The debate will run longer online, where you can watch it from 6 until 7:30 p.m. at KTVA.com.