Alaska governor's race: Parnell trailed Walker all night

Independent gubernatorial candidate Bill Walker held a slim lead over incumbent Republican Gov. Sean Parnell in Tuesday's general election, but the outcome was far from certain even as the last of the state's far-flung precincts reported their tallies.

Shortly after midnight Wednesday, with all 441 of the state's precincts reporting, Walker and running mate Byron Mallott held a slim lead of about 3,165 votes over Parnell and his ticket mate, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan. The election appeared to be heading into one of Alaska's infamous nail-biting contests.

If Walker holds his lead, he and Mallott would make Alaska history by becoming the first nonpartisan ticket elected to the state's top executive offices.

"The lead is small but I'd rather be in this side than the other," Walker said at his campaign gathering in Anchorage's Performing Arts Center. "I won't crack the champagne bottle till it's over."

The Alaska Division of Elections said an estimated 20,000 absentee ballots remained to be counted, and the division expects to continue to receive them through the Nov. 19 deadline. There are also an unknown number of questioned ballots which don't figure into Tuesday's tallies.

At the Anchorage Hilton, where Parnell and his supporters gathered in a ballroom, Parnell had expressed hope before the last few precincts reported. With supporters chanting "Four More Years," Parnell had predicted he'd carry the Mat-Su districts that were still uncounted as well as rural precincts.

"This could be more than a long night," Parnell said. "This could be a long few days."

Parnell's data director, Tyson Gallagher, said his campaign believed it would take the lead as more votes were counted, but that prediction was looking troubled as the evening wore on. At the Anchorage Hilton, where Parnell's campaign team and members of the Alaska's Republican majority gathered for the first returns, Parnell supporters were glued to a large-screen monitor.

Not long after, Walker arrived at Election Central in Anchorage's Egan Convention Center to a crowd of TV journalists pushing and pulling him in different directions for an interview.

As a skin drum banged and supporters cheered "Walker-Mallott 2014," campaign spokeswoman Lindsay Hobson suggested that it was her candidate, Walker, not Parnell who had a strong chance of winning the remaining votes in rural Alaska.

"AFN endorsed us," she said, referring to the recent annual convention of the Alaska Federation of Natives.

Paulette Schuerch, the campaign's rural campaign coordinator, said rural Alaska would likely favor Walker because of Mallott, his running mate.

"I don't just mean that he's Native," she said. "He is a true rural Alaskan."

Parnell, who brought a sense of calm to the governor's office after the tumultuous terms of Frank Murkowski and Sarah Palin, suffered damage to his credibility from a drumbeat of bad press over his handling of the National Guard scandal and an economy facing a $2-billion-plus deficit.

Despite those troubles, Parnell lost an opportunity to speak to voters -- if he'd only attended more debates before the Aug. 19 primary.

It was during those events, with Walker sometimes joking about Parnell's empty chair, that Walker and Mallott formed a kinship built in mutual concern over Parnell's performance and the direction of the state. After some shrewd politicking shortly after the primary, the two men left their running mates and joined forces to become the fusion ticket in early September.

The jockeying turned a sleepy, three-way contest -- and an almost certain victory for Parnell -- into a two-way toss-up with only nine weeks to go. That led Parnell to swap out campaign manager Jerry Gallagher, a former state lobbyist for ConocoPhillips like Parnell, with Tom Wright, a shrewd political operative on break from his job as chief of staff to the Republican House speaker, Nikiski Rep. Mike Chenault.

Spending in the race suddenly increased too. The AFL-CIO's independent expenditure group threw more than $500,000 behind Walker. And the Walker-Mallott threat caught the attention of Outside groups. The Republican Governors Association put more than $1 million behind Parnell.

The extra money for Parnell appears to have not been enough, though it helped fuel an aggressive campaign that repeatedly hammered Walker and Mallott as too vague on social issues and too wishy-washy on the economy. As the race wore on and tension rose, Walker accused the Parnell campaign of creating fake websites to slam Walker and spreading a lie that erroneously claimed Walker had supported an income tax.

If Walker cements his win, it will be a victory for unions. Many said they had concerns with Parnell's running mate, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, whose signature ordinance, AO 37, sought to restrict union power in Anchorage. That measure was on the ballot for voters in districts in the Anchorage municipality, and looked as if it would be repealed late Tuesday.

A win for Walker will also be a victory for Alaska Natives who wanted to see a Native lieutenant governor in Mallott, a respected leader who has headed up both the regional Native corporation in Southeast and the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. Loren Leman, lieutenant governor for Frank Murkowski from 2002 to 2006, also had Native ancestry, but not Native support like Mallott, who was once president of the Alaska Federation of Natives.

Though many things would be uncertain in a Walker administration, Walker has said he will:

· Expand Medicaid to include adults without children, something Parnell refused to do.

· Put the brakes on the the small-volume gas line that Parnell had said is the ace in the hole if the larger Alaska LNG project falters. The state has appropriated more than $400 million for that project.

· Ask agency heads to trim 5 percent from budgets.

Also uncertain is the future of the $45 billion to more than $65 billion Alaska LNG project, a partnership of the state, pipeline builder TransCanada and ExxonMobil, BP and ConocoPhillips. Walker has blasted that project as too confidential and said the state needs a bigger stake in the project. Parnell had warned that more than doubling the state's equity to 51 percent -- as Walker has called for -- would derail it.

Walker said he would stop the project if he digs into what are now confidential details and finds out the state isn't getting a good deal.

Walker has said he would support Parnell's oil tax rewrite, Senate Bill 21, though he had personally opposed it. He said he will closely watch to ensure oil company predictions about stabilized production and increased investment hold true.

Walker also said if he wins he'd possibly drop his lawsuit against the state over the Point Thomson settlement with ExxonMobil. Parnell had said a victory for Walker would cause the deal to be scrapped. The ExxonMobil project is expected to put a small amount of light oil in the pipeline in 2016 and serve as an anchor for the large amounts of gas needed in the Alaska LNG project.

Though Parnell had sowed doubt in voter's minds over Walker's policies, the National Guard scandal was apparently too much for Parnell. In early September, just after the unity ticket had formed, a report by the Pentagon's National Guard Bureau found the Alaska National Guard was infused with a culture of favoritism in that allowed sexual misconduct and other misdeeds to go unpunished.

Parnell requested and received the resignation of two top officials, guard commander Maj. Gen. Thomas Katkus and McHugh Pierre, deputy commissioner of the Department of Military and Veteran Affairs. But those actions came after years of complaints against Katkus brought by guard soldiers. After Parnell's administration had refused to release records, the Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Public Media took him to court, leading to a continuing barrage of bad headlines as the election neared.

Terrible economic news -- the state faces a $2 billion-plus deficit -- likely didn't help either.

Walker and Mallott have said they'll balance the budget.

Uncertain also is how Walker will decide social issues, such as abortion rights. Walker is pro-life, Mallott is pro-choice. But with much of his support coming from Democrats, Walker had said he would not initiate or support efforts to restrict abortion rights, and that if the issue crossed his desk he'd consider all sides, meet with commissioners and work closely with Mallott before deciding.

Uncertain also is where Walker will come down on education. He had expressed strong support for increases in educational funding, but said they would be contingent on the state not borrowing millions of dollars a day from its savings as it's doing now.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.