Alaska Republican incumbent Gov. Mike Dunleavy had a solid lead in the governor’s race in preliminary results posted after the Tuesday election, with over half of first-choice votes.
Independent former Gov. Bill Walker and Democratic former lawmaker Les Gara were in a contest for second place, but neither appeared likely to overtake Dunleavy in the race. Republican Charlie Pierce trailed in fourth place.
Under Alaska’s new ranked choice voting system, the top four candidates in the August primary advanced to a ranked choice general election. If a candidate crosses the 50% threshold needed to win, the candidate wins outright. If no candidate crosses the threshold, the last-place candidate is eliminated and their votes distributed to the remaining candidates according to voters’ second-choice preferences. The process repeats itself until a candidate crosses the 50% mark.
With all precincts reporting on Thursday, Dunleavy had 52% of first-choice votes. Gara had 23% and Walker had 20%. Pierce had less than 5%. Thousands of absentee ballots remained to be counted, which could tilt the results of the election, but Dunleavy’s decisive early lead appeared to narrow the path for either of his challengers to overtake him.
If Dunleavy maintains his lead with more than half of first-choice votes, he could be declared the winner before ranked choice tabulation takes place. Even if Dunleavy slides below the 50% threshold once additional ballots are counted, many of Pierce’s supporters likely voted for Dunleavy as their second-choice, which could put the incumbent over the top before Gara and Walker’s votes are tabulated.
Election officials are set to continue counting ballots until Nov. 23.
Dunleavy supporters reacted with jubilation to his early lead at the Marriott hotel in downtown Anchorage Tuesday night.
“We’re the only red state left on the entire West Coast left because of you people,” Dunleavy told his supporters. ”We’re so excited about what we can do in the next four years … we gotta wait just a little longer to see how these numbers pan out.”
The crowd reacted with a chant of “four more years” led by longtime Dunleavy aide Dave Stieren.
“We’re gonna build on the successes that we had in the first term, whether it’s crime, whether it’s the PFD, whether it’s fiscals, whether it’s investment in the state of Alaska, we’re gonna keep building that out,” Dunleavy said. “Right now we’re just enjoying the moment. We’ll be talking about policy here tomorrow morning, probably.”
Walker, at a separate gathering in downtown Anchorage with supporters and friends, said on Tuesday it was too early to know the final outcome.
“I think we always had a headwind in this race and we knew it,” said Heidi Drygas, Walker’s running mate. “It doesn’t really matter who comes in second or third if Dunleavy gets over 50%.”
Wednesday, Gara said on social media that “it will be a steep climb for absentee and early vote ballots to change the current result.”
“Possible but unlikely,” he concluded.
The governor’s race was dominated by spirited campaigning by Gara and Walker, both of whom pitched themselves as alternatives to Dunleavy and criticized the sitting governor for his record on stagnant education funding, a lack of a fiscal plan for the state, cuts to state programs including the Alaska Marine Highway System and the University of Alaska, and a declining population during his term in office.
Both Gara and Walker also promised to protect abortion access in light of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that eliminated federal protections for accessing the procedure. Abortion is currently protected under the Alaska state constitution.
Dunleavy ran a hands-off campaign, making few public appearances as a candidate and participating in only four candidate forums. Dunleavy touted reductions in crime in Alaska during his tenure — though Alaska is still one of the most dangerous states in the union for women — and this year’s high dividend amount, made possible largely due to high oil prices driven by geopolitical factors including Russia invasion of Ukraine.
Though Dunleavy faced a recall attempt following his first year in office, that effort fizzled out amid the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
Pierce, the other Republican in the race, was sued late last month for allegedly sexually harassing a former employee while serving as the Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor. His running mate, Edie Grunwald, announced days after the lawsuit was filed that she was suspending her campaign. Dunleavy, who earlier in the campaign urged his voters to rank Pierce second, did not withdraw his support for Pierce once the lawsuit was filed. Pierce also urged his supporters to rank Dunleavy second.
In the final days of the race, Dunleavy remained largely out of the public eye, making no public appearances aside from a four-minute speech at a rally hosted by the Alaska Republican Party on Sunday, and evading questions from reporters on multiple occasions.
While Gara and Walker maintained an amicable relationship throughout the campaign and urged their supporters to rank the other candidate second, some political observers said they sabotaged each other by touting their strengths as candidates. Gara insisted for months that he was the only candidate guaranteed to protect reproductive rights. Walker said he was the only candidate that could beat Dunleavy by drawing moderate supporters in addition to left-leaning voters. Neither of their strategies appeared to gain traction with voters, many of whom were won over by the large Permanent Fund dividend delivered mere weeks before Election Day