Democrat Byron Mallott and independent Bill Walker and their partisans have been in discussions since Wednesday about merging their gubernatorial campaigns into a bipartisan or nonpartisan unity ticket.
With the Sept. 2 deadline looming for changes to the November ballot, the talks intensified Friday and are expected to continue through Labor Day. The negotiations could, for the first time in Alaska history, result in a blank spot on the ballot where the Democratic gubernatorial ticket normally would be -- an idea that key party members appear to be endorsing, though approval would have to come from the party central committee.
"Talks are continuing between the Walker and Mallott teams to create a unified ticket and there will be a formal press availability on Tuesday," said Laury Scandling, spokeswoman for the Mallott campaign. "The talks will continue tomorrow," she said as the meeting broke up around 7:30 p.m. Sunday.
For months, polling has suggested that Republican Gov. Sean Parnell would win a three-way race against Mallott and Walker, but would face a much more daunting challenge against a single candidate, especially Walker. Some Democrats and Republicans who oppose Parnell have been pushing Mallott and Walker to join forces.
Tom Begich, a high-level Democratic Party volunteer who has been promoting a Walker-Mallott merger, said Sunday that no deal had yet emerged, but he was hopeful that the two candidates could produce a combined ticket by the deadline.
"I can say comfortably there's a common desire in both camps to not see the governor re-elected," Begich said. "How they get there is very dependent on the attitudes of not just Bill Walker and Byron Mallott, but also Hollis French and Craig Fleener, and their core groups of supporters." Begich said he was steering clear of the camps now that negotiations were underway.
State Sen. Hollis French, an Anchorage Democrat, gave up his early bid to run for governor and switched to lieutenant governor to give the top spot on the Democratic ticket to Mallott. Fleener is running for lieutenant governor with Walker. The two lieutenant governor candidates would have to consent to leaving their tickets.
Speaking of Mallott and Walker, Begich said, "These two people are reasonable -- they are thinking not just of themselves, they're thinking of these core groups. They want to be sure that a decision to work together on a ticket makes them stronger, and they aren't fully convinced of that at this point, and that's part of why there are these discussions," Begich said.
"At the same time, both of them have privately expressed to me they're perfectly prepared and ready to move forward with their own campaigns should something not emerge," Begich added. "My hope is that something emerges where these guys are sharing the ticket. If it's with Byron on top, that's great. If it's with Bill Walker on top, that's great."
Others close to the campaigns said Mallott and Walker had struck a deal in principle, with Walker taking the top spot and Mallott running as lieutenant governor. Mallott has been calling long-term supporters to tell them of the deal, according to one supporter.
But sticky issues remain that could kill or change an agreement. Among them: will Walker drop his Republican Party registration? Will the Democratic Party forgo running a candidate at the top of the state ticket for the first time? Will Walker agree to abide by a set of Democratic core values, including on the issues of abortion and Medicaid expansion? Will Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, the state's top elections official, agree to allow the ballot changes, some of them unprecedented, or would there be a protracted court case?
On the issues questions, Walker has already answered several of them. He said that if elected, he would expand Medicaid on his first day in office, so long as the federal government continued to pay for the increased coverage. Democrats have been clamoring for expanded Medicaid while Parnell has opposed it.
Walker said he personally opposes abortions, but in a recent interview he pledged that under his watch, he would not allow new restrictions even if it meant vetoing anti-abortion legislation.
"It comes up a lot and I answer it the same way every time," Walker said. "Yes, I am a social conservative. I'm not running on those issues at all. Where it is when I come in, is where it will be when I come out."
By party rule, the Democratic Party couldn't assist a Walker-Mallott fusion ticket if Walker remained a Republican. With Walker's organization made up largely of himself, his family and his law office, the Democratic Party could play a big role in the kinds of behind-the-scenes activities -- like getting out the vote -- that have shown to be essential to any successful campaign.
Walker lost to Parnell in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary and decided this year he would challenge Parnell again, but in the general election as an independent who got his name on the ballot by petition.
Malcolm Roberts, a former aide to Gov. Wally Hickel who has been lobbying Walker and Mallott to join forces, said Sunday he was hopeful a deal would emerge soon.
"What a great team they would make, not just in the campaign, but to lead Alaska," Roberts said. "I've heard Byron talk about a renaissance for rural Alaska and if you combine that with Bill's expertise and priorities, it would just be awesome."
Roberts and his wife, Cindy, took Walker and his wife, Donna, to the Bartlett Democratic Club dinner Friday evening at the Anchorage Senior Center, a session that followed a long meeting between Walker and Mallott at Walker's law office. At the Bartlett Club, the guests listened to Tom Begich talk about efforts to field a candidate in every legislative district. Roberts said the place was abuzz with political excitement, and Walker was one of the last to leave, even helping to carry out the pots and pans afterward.
"They were talking to everybody, and the spirit was really very positive the whole evening, quite beyond partisanship," Roberts said.
Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat, said he too had been lobbying the Walker and Mallott campaigns to join forces.
"I think a Mallott-French ticket can win, I just think the best chance is a unity ticket," Gara said.
Walker went home to Valdez Saturday to attend his 45th high school reunion, then returned to Anchorage Sunday afternoon to continue talks with Mallott. Before he even got back, his partisans were meeting with Mallott's.
Tom Begich's brother, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, had pushed hard earlier in the campaign to have a strong candidate at the top of the state ticket to encourage Democrats to come to the polls. More recently, Tom Begich said, his brother has been polling well enough throughout the state that he wouldn't oppose an independent Walker-Mallott ticket, leaving a blank spot atop the Democratic ballot.
"He's more comfortable in his race than he was eight months ago," Tom Begich said.
Calls to Walker, Mallott, French and Fleener were not returned Sunday.