In the first two weeks since Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce said he would resign from his position to focus on his run for governor, he has failed to appear at any candidate debate or forum.
At a Wednesday event hosted by the Kenai and Soldotna chambers of commerce, 15 minutes by car from Pierce’s mayoral office, Democratic governor candidate Les Gara and independent candidate Bill Walker had the stage to themselves. Incumbent Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy was also absent.
In their absence, Gara and Walker said that the best candidate is the one who shows up.
“Those who choose not to participate in the public process, there’s nothing we can do about that,” Walker said. “I’m guessing people remember who thinks enough of this area that they’ll come down here.”
As Alaska’s governor election heads toward Election Day on Nov. 8, the four people seeking the state’s top job are taking different routes to the finish line.
Gara and Walker are planning dozens of appearances at forums across the state. Dunleavy has said he will appear at just five events, and Pierce has yet to say whether he will appear at any.
It’s a situation that mimics one developing across the country. Many candidates for office, particularly Republicans, are limiting appearances with their rivals.
In some cases, it’s a result of strategy. A frontrunner can limit appearances to avoid mistakes that might cost them a lead in the polls.
[Above: Gov. Mike Dunleavy, former state Rep. Les Gara and former Gov. Bill Walker debate at the Alaska Oil and Gas Association conference in Anchorage on Sept. 1]
In other cases, the decision to avoid debates is emblematic of growing national partisanship and an antipathy toward neutral parties and independent reporters. The Republican National Committee, for example, has said it may boycott debates sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a neutral body.
Dunleavy led his three challengers by wide margins in the results of August’s primary election, and it isn’t clear whether ranked choice voting will change that result in November.
Incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who also led her challengers in August, has also announced a limited schedule of debates and forums, while her leading challenger, Republican Kelly Tshibaka, issued a public request for five debates with Murkowski.
“This campaign is a job interview with the people of Alaska, and it’s the responsibility of all candidates to show up,” Tshibaka’s statement said in part.
A consultant who works for Dunleavy and asked for anonymity to speak freely said it’s clear to them that Dunleavy wants to avoid the potential for missteps.
Gara also sees it that way.
“Look, everybody knows that Mike Dunleavy loses his temper when he’s in public, so his handlers don’t want him in debates and he doesn’t have a vision. So why should he show up and scare people away?” Gara said.
Andrew Jensen, Dunleavy’s campaign spokesman and an administration employee, said the governor isn’t avoiding Alaskans.
“We 100% deny that our schedule is intended to avoid missteps,” he said.
“I know firsthand, the governor has a very busy schedule,” Jensen said. “His calendar is very full every day, meeting with constituents, meeting with interest groups, businesses, he’s hearing input from Alaskans across the spectrum on a daily basis. So it may not be on a stage, but the governor is interacting with Alaskans every day.”
Walker, who unsuccessfully campaigned for reelection in 2018 while also serving as governor, said it’s possible to balance working and campaigning.
“Everybody has their own priorities,” he said. “When I was governor and running for office, I thought I had an obligation to attend every debate, and I did. … I had the same job. I didn’t have $100 oil. I had a tremendous fiscal challenge. And I showed up.”
Jensen said Dunleavy’s campaign has picked five debates and forums that include a cross-section of Alaska life. They include an event hosted by the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, one hosted by the state chamber of commerce, one from a resource development group, the Alaska media-hosted Debate for the State, and the event hosted by the Alaska Federation of Natives.
Gara and Walker are attending those events and more, ranging from Kodiak to Ketchikan, Homer to Fairbanks, and talking to groups as varied as the Alaska Chiropractic Society and the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness.
The absence of Dunleavy and Pierce appears to have caused some groups, such as the Anchorage Board of Realtors, to cancel a planned debate.
Individually, Gara and Walker each trailed Dunleavy by about 33,000 votes, with Gara finishing second and leading Walker by 549 votes.
Alaska’s ranked-choice voting system could put one of them on top. If supporters of the third-place finisher pick the second-place finisher as their No. 2 choice, the combined total could be enough to defeat Dunleavy.
Though both candidates are urging their backers to put the other man second, opinion polls indicate that if Gara finishes second, eliminating Walker, some of Walker’s supporters will pick Dunleavy as their second choice, allowing the incumbent to win.
The margin in the polls has been tighter if Gara is eliminated first; few of Gara’s supporters say they will pick Dunleavy as their second choice.
Both men have said it’s a mistake to look at polling too closely, and they’re focused on reaching out to voters.
“I believe in sharing my vision for a better future, for better schools and better jobs,” Gara said. “Mike is betting that he can skip debates and that he’ll get away with it and nobody will notice. So, you know, that’s his bet. I would rather talk to people and listen to people.”
Update: This article has been updated to clarify the anonymous consultant’s opinion and position and to include a denial by the Dunleavy campaign.
Originally published by the Alaska Beacon, an independent, nonpartisan news organization that covers Alaska state government.