Candidates in the squeaky-tight gubernatorial race have urged supporters to stay patient, saying the contest is too close to call.
Gov. Sean Parnell, hoping to win his second full term but trailing slightly, said in a statement Wednesday it could be two weeks before all the votes are tallied and a winner -- either Parnell or Republican-turned-independent challenger Bill Walker, the top of the "unity ticket" -- can be determined.
"The Parnell-Sullivan campaign is down by 3,165 votes, and we expect that gap to narrow significantly next Tuesday when the Alaska Division of Elections counts the first batch of absentee ballots," Parnell said. He added that ballots from out of state would continue arriving for another week to 10 days.
There's no clear path to victory for either of the two candidates.
With all 441 precincts counted Wednesday, Walker had received 107,395 votes to Parnell's 104,230, a 1.4 percent difference.
Gail Fenumiai, director of the state Division of Elections, said nearly 24,000 absentee and early votes remain to be counted. Additionally, all or some portion of the 13,804 additional absentee ballots requested by voters could yet return to the state within the deadline for counting. And elections officials won't know until Thursday how many questioned ballots are outstanding. Those are typically cast by Alaskans who vote at the wrong location. There were roughly 13,000 questioned ballots cast in the last midterm election, in 2010.
As midnight approached late Tuesday, Walker told a crowd of chanting supporters at the Egan Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage that he and running mate Byron Mallott will have to wait and see what happens.
"Alaska faces difficult times and tough choices. Regardless of the victor in this election, I hope we'll all come together as Alaskans to move our state forward," he said in a statement from his campaign.
Tentative transition plans
With the gubernatorial inauguration set for Dec. 1, Walker said Tuesday night that he is preparing a transition plan in the event he is victorious, but it won't include two key officials from within the Parnell administration.
On Wednesday, he said he was not ready to discuss specific names, saying he would know more details early next week.
"We're in the middle of it now," he said. "We'll have announcements next week after Tuesday's count."
If elected, Walker said Parnell's proposed budget would serve as a starting point for his own budget. But Walker said he would have to see it before knowing whether he would keep all of it.
"He said he would reduce it and I assume he has," Walker said of Parnell's promise to cut the $5.8 billion budget by hundreds of millions for fiscal year 2016.
During his campaign, Walker had extended something of an olive branch to members of the Parnell administration, telling audiences during forums he is open to hiring some of Parnell's employees for his own administration. Walker said Wednesday he still holds that view.
But he said he will not hire Mike Nizich.
"It's time," said Walker, to let Nizich go.
Nizich, Parnell's chief of staff and Gov. Sarah Palin's before that, has been a central figure in the unfolding saga of the Alaska National Guard, with records showing he communicated with upset guard soldiers and Maj. Gen. Thomas Katkus, the former head of the guard. Katkus in September resigned at Parnell's request after the National Guard Bureau released a scathing report confirming years of allegations of sexual assault, favoritism and other misconduct in the Alaska guard.
Walker said another employee who has been a little too political must also go. Joe Balash, Parnell's natural resources commissioner, recently wrote an opinion piece attacking Walker's efforts at the Alaska Gasline Port Authority, an entity established by several municipalities that has tried and failed to create a natural gas pipeline project in Alaska.
On Tuesday night, Walker also provided more details about how he will handle the important Alaska LNG project, a critical effort initiated by Parnell and the latest in a long line of projects aiming to tap North Slope natural gas.
Walker said he would like to find ways to expedite the project's timeline and "engage the market in a meaningful way." Walker previously has helped line up potential buyers, such as Kogas in South Korea.
The Alaska LNG project, consisting of the state, major oil companies and pipeline builder TransCanada, may cost $45 billion to more than $65 billion.
Balash and other state officials recently traveled overseas to meet with potential buyers. Still, the project remains a long way from reality. The project partners will decide in four years whether to approve it. Gas isn't expected to flow for at least a decade.
Walker also said Tuesday the salary of Dan Fauske, head of the Alaska Gasline Development Corp., seems excessive. Fauske, the state's highest paid employee in 2013, made $366,000 in salary and received health and pension benefits worth an additional $150,000, for a total of $516,000 in one year.
"A lot of salaries over there seem excessive," Walker said, referring to AGDC, which is working on the Alaska LNG project.
Rural Alaska so far favoring Walker and Mallott
?Rural Alaska might play a key role in determining whether Walker keeps his lead.
Parnell, noting that he'd fought for improvements in the Bush such as more village officers and new school facilities, said on Tuesday night rural Alaska would favor him, a bold claim given the strong Alaska Native support for his opponents.
The 228,242 votes counted so far show a different story, with rural regions overwhelmingly favoring Walker and running mate Byron Mallott, a Native leader who once headed the Alaska Federation of Natives.
While the ballots that remain to be counted could change Walker's lead, it's possible a significant number of the votes that will be counted Tuesday are from rural Alaska, where the state opened more than 100 new early voting locations this year.
Statewide, Parnell and his running mate, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, were victorious in 18 of 40 districts. They won decisively in Eagle River and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, as well as most of the Kenai Peninsula, according to state election reports. They also won portions of the Anchorage and Fairbanks areas.
Walker and Mallott won in the other 22 districts, and rural areas, including Western Alaska. Their independent unity ticket also did well in Southeast, much of Anchorage, Kodiak, and in the Fairbanks area.