Sean Parnell's Intraparty Problem

He hasn't even said his vows yet and already some Alaska Republicans are trying to bring Sean Parnell's political honeymoon to a premature ...
by | July 17, 2009

Parnell He hasn't even said his vows yet and already some Alaska Republicans are trying to bring Sean Parnell's political honeymoon to a premature end.

Parnell, Alaska's lieutenant governor, replaces Sarah Palin as governor on July 26. Parnell says he'll run for a full term next year, but he'll have to fight for his own party's nomination.

The former speaker of the Alaska House of Representatives, John Harris, has announced he's going to challenge Parnell in a primary. Other Alaska Republicans also seem to be plotting primaries against Parnell.

We've had a lot of experience with number twos taking over for governors this year and the responses from their own parties have run the gamut.

In Kansas, Democrats begged Mark Parkinson to run for a full term in 2010. When he said no, they begged him some more. When Arizona Republican Jan Brewer took office, the other gubernatorial aspirants in her party backed down -- at least temporarily. Ditto for Democrat Pat Quinn in Illinois.

Gary Herbert seems certain to face primary opposition in Utah, but his foes have at least had the manners to wait until after he becomes governor to declare their intentions. No one has made a move that is as provocative as Harris.

This move probably says something about Harris, but it also probably says something about the way Parnell is perceived.

The strange thing about this challenge: In many ways, Parnell is a better person to unite the Alaska Republican Party than Palin. Even before the last year, she had made enemies within the party.

Lyda Green, the former senate president, was a leading Palin nemesis. Palin once tried to depose Randy Ruedrich, the chairman of the state Republican Party. Over the past year, the rifts in the party have become much more serious, as Palin feuded with the legislature over Troopergate and the stimulus.

Parnell doesn't come with this baggage. He's a former legislator, who should improve relations between the executive and legislative branches.

On policy, it's easy to forget that Palin was an Alaska populist before she was the darling of social conservatives nationally. She raised oil taxes, increased payments to Alaskans from the Permanent Fund and took a hard line against the energy companies on the natural gas pipeline.

Parnell has loyally backed Palin throughout her tenure, but his background is different. He's a former lobbyist for ConocoPhillips. Parnell likely is less threatening to some of the most powerful people in Alaska than was Palin.

The big contrast between the two is their style. Parnell is being described as open, collegial and easygoing. Maybe being less divisive than Palin isn't hard, but Parnell sounds as though he's less divisive by a mile.

So why isn't the party uniting behind him?

As near as I can tell, his mild-mannered, easygoing style itself is the explanation. Fairly or unfairly, Parnell is viewed as bland, unassuming and a tad bit reminiscent of oatmeal. If he were an athlete, you might say he lacks a killer instinct. His loss last year in a Republican primary against U.S. Rep. Don Young proved to other Alaska Republicans that he is beatable.

Harris went so far as to describe the office as "basically an open seat." Clearly, he thinks Parnell is a pushover. Maybe, although Harris may be underestimating Parnell -- or at least underestimating the power of incumbency.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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