FAIRBANKS — The Alaska Republican Party's new second in command is convinced that former Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich will run for governor in 2018, and his potential candidacy loomed like a specter over the state GOP convention in Fairbanks Saturday.
"There's zero chance that he doesn't run," Rick Whitbeck, the new Republican vice chairman, said in an interview outside the convention hall. "It's logical, right?"
Whitbeck was one of two candidates for party office to reference a potential Begich candidacy in stump speeches Saturday. In his, Whitbeck outlined a doomsday scenario for Republicans that starts with Begich being elected governor in 2018 — succeeding the current "unity ticket" of Gov. Bill Walker, a Republican-turned-independent, and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, a Democrat.
With Begich in office, Whitbeck said, Democrats would get more control over the once-a-decade redistricting process, allowing them to create more favorable state legislative districts.
Begich would also get a safe position in 2020 from which to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, who unseated Begich in the 2014 election.
"If you thought the unity ticket is bad, if we get Gov. Begich it's going to be 10 times worse," Whitbeck told delegates. "We need to stop that, starting right now."
A spokeswoman for Begich declined to comment Saturday. But one of his friends and political allies, Jim Lottsfeldt, scoffed at the news from the GOP convention.
"I'm pretty sure I'm closer to Mark Begich than the vice chair-elect, and I haven't heard any of that nonsense," Lottsfeldt said in a phone interview from Anchorage. "I've heard the rumor too. And I always laugh because I figure I'll know if that were to happen."
The comments from Whitbeck came on the second and final day of his party's convention, which was markedly harmonious compared to Alaska Republicans' last two biennial meetings.
At the 2012 convention in Anchorage, a tea party-fueled insurrection forced state GOP officials to hire a security contractor. In 2016, both sides of previously warring factions left the convention hotel happy, from the presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz to members of the establishment and tea party wings of the state party.
"It wasn't a war," said Robert Uithoven, a Nevada-based consultant who was in Fairbanks for the Cruz campaign.
Instead, Republicans spent Saturday carrying out a series of elections and debating party procedure and policy.
Tuckerman Babcock, long a party insider, was picked as the new chairman, replacing Peter Goldberg.
Babcock is a former official in Gov. Wally Hickel's administration, a former assistant manager of Matanuska Electric Association, and the son-in-law of former Alaska Senate President Lyda Green.
Babcock defeated Ann Brown, a Fairbanks attorney who was favored by the party's more conservative wing, and Ric Davidge, a veterans advocate and former Interior Department official, by a vote of 183 to 132 to 35.
Party members also elected a slate of 28 delegates to the national Republican convention in Cleveland in July — 12 for Cruz, 11 for Trump, and five for Marco Rubio, the same proportion that the candidates had after the Super Tuesday preference poll in March.
In other states, delegate selections have provoked bitter fights between Trump and Cruz supporters. They want delegates to maintain allegiance to their respective candidates if Trump fails to win the 1,237 votes at the national convention required to clinch the nomination on the first ballot — after which delegates can begin switching their votes.
Both the Cruz and Trump campaigns submitted slates of preferred candidates to the Alaska Republican Party's nominating committee, which met in secret for more than five hours Friday to vet potential delegates.
Chair Paulette Simpson said the committee made adjustments to ensure geographic, age and gender balance among the delegates — and the resulting nominations didn't give the campaigns all the people they requested.
But they came close enough, with staffers for both Trump and Cruz saying they were happy.
"I thought the process was fair and transparent," Alan Cobb, a senior adviser to Trump's campaign, said in an interview. "The nominating slate is a victory for us."
Republicans also tweaked their platform and adopted new rules, with some of the changes favoring more regional representation and quick leadership transitions after party elections. That pleased some conservative activists, who'd previously argued that the rules were written to diminish their influence.
"We achieved all the rules changes we were trying to get for the last four years," said Lance Roberts, a member of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly.
The "amicable" convention, as Uithoven described it, left Republicans plenty of time to ponder the next election cycle — and a Begich bid for governor.
"We don't even let one election get behind us before we start talking about the next one," U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in an interview.
She said she thought Begich is "still very interested in elected office," though she added, "I don't know which one."
Others were certain.
"Everybody knows it," said Davidge, who mentioned a Begich candidacy in his own stump speech.
"We talk about it all the time," said Suzanne Downing, the Alaska Republican Party's communications director.
"You didn't know that?" Cathy Giessel, an Anchorage Republican senator, said to a reporter.
Downing said Begich's new consulting company, Northern Compass Group, and his political allies around the state are an "infrastructure" he could tap in a gubernatorial campaign.
"He's plug-and-play," she said.
Lottsfeldt, however, was unconvinced. He said if Begich were running for governor in 2018, "we'd be talking about it already," since the election isn't that far away.
Instead, Lottsfeldt said, Begich is merely a "straw horse" and a "boogeyman" that Republicans can use to distract from problems in Juneau.
"They don't want to sit around and talk about how they grew government by controlling the governor's house and both chambers of the Legislature," Lottsfeldt said. "They don't want to talk about that, so they've got to talk about Mark Begich coming to scare them at night."