With two dull campaigns from the major party candidates and an independent trying to prove he's relevant and electable, the talk so far about the 2014 governor's race is less about issues than the notion that three people are running.
While Alaska has always had its share of fringe candidates populating the outer reaches of the ballot, it also has a history of flirting with real three-way gubernatorial contests. Since 1978, independent or third-party candidates have made strong showings in all but two elections and likely affected the outcomes in several. In 1990, the third-party candidate, Wally Hickel, beat his two main party rivals and won a four-year term.
The twist this time around is the possibility that the two challengers to incumbent Republican Gov. Sean Parnell, Democrat Byron Mallott and independent Bill Walker, will pull so many votes from the same pool of disaffected voters that Parnell will be re-elected. At least that's what current polls show, and it's why some Parnell opponents are trying to convince Walker and Mallott to unite in a fusion ticket. Election laws give Walker and Mallott until Tuesday to make a switch.
"The third party does screw up the two major parties," said former Anchorage Mayor Tom Fink, who should know.
In 1982, Fink ran for governor as a Republican and got 72,291 votes. The Democrat, Bill Sheffield, only got 46 percent with 89,918 votes but it was enough to win. That's because Libertarian Dick Randolph drew 29,067 votes -- just less than 15 percent of the total.
"Randolph certainly hurt me," Fink said in a recent interview. "He and I were good friends, just like Sheffield and I were, but he certainly took a bunch of conservative votes."
While Randolph may have also taken votes from Sheffield, Fink said, Randolph's conservatism meant that Fink had trouble singling out his own during the campaign.
"I would have a hard time attacking Randolph," Fink said. "As a Republican, I always hate to see a third party -- unless it's two liberals."
Aside from some weak showings by the Green Party, the main three-party contests in Alaska have been two conservatives or two Republicans against a lone Democrat.
Hickel, a longtime Republican, figured in two of those races, both times deserting his party.
Hickel's first win, in 1966, came the traditional way when he beat Democrat Bill Egan in a two-party race. Hickel quit his term early to join the Nixon administration in Washington as interior secretary.
Hickel attempted a comeback in 1978, going after his nemesis, Gov. Jay Hammond, in the Republican primary. When Hickel lost, he mounted a write-in campaign in the general election. Hickel beat the Democrat, Chancy Croft, by 7,899 votes but lost to Hammond by more than 13,000 votes.
Eight years later, in 1990, Hickel didn't show up for the primary. Arliss Sturgulewski, a moderate distrusted by conservatives, won the Republican primary. Her running mate was "Mr. Republican," Jack Coghill.
Two weeks later, in a orchestrated series of events that still stands as one of most bizarre episodes in Alaska politics, the Alaskan Independence Party's candidates for governor and lieutenant governor quit. The party replaced them with Hickel and Coghill. The Republicans replaced Coghill on Sturgulewski's ticket with moderate businessman Jim Campbell.
"A third-party race has a sad effect on at least one of the candidates, and I certainly had that," said Sturgulewski. "As the Republican nominee, it did have a substantial impact."
Hickel only got 39 percent of the vote but it was nine points better than second-place Tony Knowles and nearly 13 points better than Sturgulewski.
"Wally's 1990 win is the granddaddy of all third-party runs," said Stephen Haycox, emeritus professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Four years later, Hickel retired and Coghill took the top spot on the Alaskan Independence Party ticket. His presence on the ballot as a traditional conservative probably allowed Knowles to win on his second try.
Knowles beat Campbell, this time the Republican candidate for governor, by 536 votes. Coghill came in third but he got 27,838 votes.
"The one election that I would say that a third-party candidate definitely cost the election was Jim Campbell and Tony Knowles and Jack Coghill," said Steve McAlpine, who lost to Knowles in the 1994 Democratic primary. "It's a fair statement to say that the lion's share of Mr. Republican's votes would have probably gone to Campbell, and he lost the election by less than 600 votes."
Knowles faced three-party elections two more times: in his second term, when he crushed the Republican nominee, John Lindauer, and beat back a write-in campaign by Republican Sen. Robin Taylor, and when he attempted a comeback in 2006 and lost to Sarah Palin. Palin got 48 percent of the vote to Knowles' 41 percent, with independent Andrew Halcro getting most of the rest. While Halcro, a moderate Republican, most likely took votes that otherwise would have gone to Knowles, he probably also took some of Palin's.
"I don't think the Halcro vote played a role in 2006," Haycox, the UAA professor emeritus, said in an email. "Knowles was seen as too slick and too familiar, and Palin was seen as a courageous iconoclast."
Whether the 2014 election remains a full-bore three-person race will be known by Tuesday, the last day a candidate can withdraw and be replaced on the Nov. 4 ballot. Walker said he'd consider merging campaigns but Mallott has said he wouldn't.
Last year in October, when Mallott was beginning his campaign, Sen. Hollis French, now Mallott's running mate, said he thought Walker's presence would help Mallott.
"Looks to me like you've got two Republicans and one Democrat in the race," French said at the time.
But so far, according to polls that have been made public, the math is not working in anyone's favor but Parnell's.
"This election is remarkable for the lackluster Mallott campaign and the interest of so many Dems in configuring Walker to beat Parnell," Haycox said.
Alaskans like to imagine themselves as individualists, and that may figure in the popularity of third-party races, Haycox said.
"Alaskans who vote likely enjoy thinking of themselves as independent of party loyalty, and perhaps for some, even as a thorn for organized party apparatchiks," he wrote, but that idea may not last forever. "As the demographics change, that may become less a factor in the years ahead."
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Steve McAlpine as Tony Knowles' running mate in 1994. Fran Ulmer was Knowles' running mate in that election. McAlpine lost to Knowles in the Democratic primary in 1990 and 1994. He previously served as lieutenant governor under Gov. Bill Sheffield and Gov. Steve Cowper.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing