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With a deadline looming, Alaska Democrats are split on who to back in governor’s race

Alaska gubernatorial candidates from left, incumbent Gov. Bill Walker, Democrat Mark Begich, and Republican Mike Dunleavy. (ADN photo)

With just a few days to go before the Tuesday deadline for Alaska candidates to withdraw from the Nov. 6 election, Democrats remain split on who to support in the three-way race for governor.

Both Gov. Bill Walker, who is running as an independent, and former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, say they have no intention of dropping out of the race against Republican Mike Dunleavy, a former state senator.

That's left at least some Democrats and others worried that Walker and Begich will split the vote, handing the governor's office to Dunleavy.

"It becomes really a wild card," Rep. David Guttenberg, a Fairbanks Democrat, said about a three-way race. "You don't know what's going to happen."

In Alaska's last election for governor, voters had the choice between two candidates: incumbent Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican, and Walker, a Republican-turned-independent. Walker dropped his party registration in September 2014 to team with Democrat Byron Mallott, who had won the Democratic nomination for governor, but stepped off the ticket to support Walker and run for lieutenant governor instead. Walker and Mallott won that year's election on what they called a unity ticket.

Now, some Democratic lawmakers who had voted for Walker in 2014 are deciding whether to vote to re-elect him in November or go with the Democratic candidate, Begich, who served as Anchorage mayor before becoming a U.S. senator.

Rep. Adam Wool, a Democrat from Fairbanks, supported Walker in 2014 and supported Begich during his runs for U.S. Senate in 2008, which he won, and 2014, which he lost. Wool said he's "really concerned" about the outcome in a three-way fight.

Wool had already made up his mind to support Walker by the time Begich got into this race on June 1, he said.

"I think his being in the race is divisive, both for the voting Democratic body and also for those in elected positions," Wool said. "It's tough for a lot of people that want to be loyal to the party and loyal to him but also want to be going in the right place after November."

Sept. 4 is the deadline for a candidate to withdraw from the race, and for recognized parties to fill a replacement, Alaska Division of Elections spokeswoman Samantha Miller said in an email.

If a candidate wants to withdraw from the election after that deadline, Miller said, their name will still appear on the Nov. 6 ballot because it will have already been printed, but any votes for that candidate will not be counted.

Groups have formed in support of each of the three gubernatorial candidates. On Wednesday, an independent expenditure group called Begich for Alaska announced its formation in support of his run. The group is chaired by Kim Metcalfe, former chairwoman of the Juneau (now Tongass) Democrats. Such groups had formed earlier for Walker and Dunleavy.

Unlike candidates, independent expenditure groups can raise an unlimited amount of funds from individuals and organizations, but they can't coordinate with the campaigns.

National organizations are sending money to those independent expenditure groups, too. The Republican Governors Association, a Washington-D.C.-based organization that supports the election of Republican governors, has contributed roughly $500,000 to an independent expenditure group supporting Dunleavy called Families for Alaska's Future, said RGA spokesman Jon Thompson on Thursday.

The Democratic Governors Association, which supports the election of Democratic governors and is also based in D.C., had not spent money in Alaska's governor's race as of Thursday, but "felt very strongly" about Begich's ability to  win the election, said DGA spokesman Jared Leopold.

Unite America, a Colorado-based group supporting the election of independent candidates, had given about $75,000 to Unite Alaska, an independent expenditure group supporting the re-election of Walker and Mallott, said Joel Searby, senior strategist for Unite America and a consultant for Unite Alaska.

Anchorage Assembly member Christopher Constant, a Democrat, said he's supporting Begich in the race, but added that he's hopeful Walker and Begich can "find a path forward this week" ahead of Tuesday's deadline.

"I have zero desire to see a Dunleavy governorship," Constant said. Supporting Begich is an easy decision for him to make personally, he said. "The hard thing is recognizing the political challenge that the dynamics create."

Don Gray, a former chairman of the Alaska Democratic Party, posted a petition on MoveOn.org in mid-August calling for Begich to withdraw from the race. It had 100 signatures when posted, including those of Wool and Guttenberg, other current and former lawmakers, union officials, Alaska Native corporation executives, members of Walker's administration and others. It had gotten about 730 more signatures by Thursday, according to the website.

Last week, Begich dismissed the petition as a "stunt."

In a phone interview, Gray described himself as "a Democrat to the core." He said he had supported Begich in his runs for U.S. Senate, and he supported Walker in the last gubernatorial election. He said he felt Walker and Mallott were on "the right path." He worried Dunleavy would win in a three-way race.

Another candidate, Libertarian William "Billy" Toien, is also running for governor.

Gray said he wants Begich to get out of the governor's race and would like to see him run for U.S. Senate in 2020, though he said he was doubtful that would happen.

"I just don't know if it's in him to do anything like withdraw," he said.

Staffers for Begich and Walker said Thursday that the candidates have no plans to withdraw.

"I don't think anyone's gonna blink," said Sen. Cathy Giessel, an Anchorage Republican.

"But I would never have anticipated the Walker-Mallott ticket," she added.

Large labor groups last week lined up behind Walker, who picked up endorsements from the Alaska AFL-CIO and the state affiliate of the National Education Association. Begich has landed endorsements from Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, and from Alaska LGBTQ civil rights group Alaskans Together for Equality.

Typically, the AFL-CIO and NEA would endorse the Democrat in a race, said Jerry McBeath, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

"Labor wants to vote on candidates who are going to win," McBeath said. "So they're making a judgement."

McBeath said Dunleavy has the advantage to win in the general election against who he characterized as two moderate candidates.

"We view the Alaska race as a high priority and a top pick-up opportunity," said Thompson, spokesman for the Republican Governors Association.

Former Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, is supporting Begich and said he'd leave questions about a vote split to political consultants.

"Each Alaskan is going to pay attention not to the calculus of the race, which is interesting," he said, "but what they're going to pay attention to is who they believe."

Guttenberg said he found Walker "refreshing." If he had to vote now, Guttenberg said he would vote for Walker, but he added: "It's hard for me to say I'm not supporting Mark."

"Theoretically, he would be the guy I would be running up and down the street on, shouting his name, but we're in a unique set of circumstances," he said. "To say that I'm going to support somebody beside the Democratic candidate is difficult for me."

Like Gray and Wool, Guttenberg said he supported Begich in his runs for U.S. Senate and then supported the Walker-Mallott ticket in 2014.

"I think Walker has done an admirable job of trying to get us back on track," said Guttenberg, who is not running for re-election this year. "He was dealt a very difficult hand in tough times and he, more often than not, was the adult in the room with the legislators."

Sen. Berta Gardner, an Anchorage Democrat, said she expected a three-way race in November and was supporting Begich, characterizing him as smart, capable and collaborative. She said she'd always been a Begich supporter.

Gardner said she didn't think Walker would win in a two-way race against Dunleavy because of the Walker's decision to reduce Alaskans' Permanent Fund dividend checks. She said she'd received many phone calls and emails from angry Alaskans over the dividends.

"It's intense and deeply personal and people feel they've been robbed," she said. "And I think sadly it makes Walker unelectable."

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat, said he's supporting Begich because that's the candidate he most aligns with.

"I don't agree with him all of the time but I feel like the state is kind of in a malaise and we need new leadership at the top," he said.

Walker, he said, "has governed like a Republican." He said he disagreed with Walker on a list of issues, including Walker's position on same-sex marriage and abortion, as well as his vetoes of public education funding and part of the Permanent Fund dividend. Wielechowski called the veto of the dividend "an extremely regressive way to balance the budget."

"You've got two Republicans and one Democrat," Wielechowski said about the three-way race.

Though others, including Dunleavy, see it differently. On the night of the primary election, Dunleavy said "in some ways, it's really two Democrats and a Republican" in the race. Walker said before the primary that he has support from both parties, and doesn't have to toe a party line. Guttenberg called Walker a "centrist."

From McBeath's perspective, Walker is "right in the center, I think, in terms of trying to appeal to Alakans on the issues he thinks are important."

There isn't concern in the Republican party about Walker splitting the more conservative vote, Giessel said.

"The governor has chosen to leave the Republican party and affiliate as an independent and I think that his positions have demonstrated that as well," she said. "Perhaps he does fall right in the middle as an independent."

In the coming week, the candidates' campaigns are charging forward as they travel around the state for events, according to their staffers.

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