Will Bipartisanship Bring Down Alaska's Gov. Sean Parnell?

Republican Sean Parnell expected to be easily re-elected, but the joined forces of Democrats and Independents and his slow response to recent challenges have put him in jeopardy.
by | November 3, 2014

Sean Parnell, the Republican governor of Alaska, expected to be re-elected easially, but recent events have put him in jeopardy.

Parnell could have defeated soundly two challengers who would split any opposition vote -- Bill Walker, a former Republican running as an Independent, and Democrat Byron Mallott. But around Labor Day, the two of them formed a "unity ticket" headed by Walker. They've pulled even and at times ahead of Parnell in the polls.

That's because, at about the same time, Parnell had to deal with a scandal involving the National Guard. A 229-page report documented widespread sexual harassment and abuse in the Guard -- a sensitive subject in Alaska, which has among the highest percentages of women who have been raped or stalked in the country.

Parnell fired three top Guard officials and had already made domestic violence a priority, but his opponents have complained that he was slow to respond to a long-festering problem.

"In terms of credibility, he knew for four years and didn't do anything about it," said Marc Hellenthal, a pollster based in Anchorage. "Two chaplains told him about it four years ago. It could have been a little worse if the pope told him."

These circumstances created an opening for Walker, a former mayor of Valdez. Walker has argued with Parnell over issues such as Medicaid expansion and the construction of pipelines and a copper mine. He has also made a number of promises to voters that might be difficult to achieve, such as a drop in the retail price of gas.

Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Byron Mallot, left, teamed up with Independent candidate Bill Walker, right, to defeat Gov. Parnell. (AP/Mark Thiessen)

To retain Democratic support, Walker has downplayed his opposition to abortion. Labor unions have been happy to support Walker as an alternative to Parnell. Many remain upset about the outcome of an expensive ballot measure in August, heavily backed by Parnell, that had the effect of lowering oil taxes.

Walker been helped by the presence on the ticket of Mallott, who not only reassures Democrats but, as the first Alaska Native with a realistic chance of winning high office in the state, will help Walker carry many rural parts of the state. Mallott, who is of Tlinglit heritage, is a former president of the Alaska Federation of Natives. (The group has endorsed the unity ticket.)

Parnell, meanwhile, was slow to respond to his growing political difficulties. He shook up his campaign staff, but that also led to a period in which Walker's attacks went barely answered in the media.

"Parnell kind of woke up a bit late to the possible damage of the Guard scandal and to this unity ticket," says James Muller, a political scientist at the University of Alaska-Anchorage. "It is a more challenging situation for an incumbent governor than he faced a month ago."

Parnell's late efforts to define Walker have had to compete with the lavishly funded contest for the U.S. Senate, which has dominated the airwaves and political discussion (as well as tying up many people's phone lines at home).

"It's kind of eclipsing the other races, including to some extent the governor's race," says Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre, a Democrat who is supporting Parnell. "We're oversaturated with political messages and people aren't paying much attention, even those of us who are interested.       

Some observers expect that Democratic Sen. Mark Begich's ambitious turnout efforts, while they may not be enough to pull him over the finish line, will inevitably help Walker.

"I haven't seen anything like Begich's ground game," says Mark Trahant, a University of Alaska journalism professor. "It does play to Walker's advantage. One of the strategies for Begich has been to involve the Alaska Native vote and Mallot is an Alaska Native."

All of these factors help explain why Parnell is in trouble is what Navarre describes as "a very, very red state." Opinion is mixed about whether former Gov. Sarah Palin's endorsement of Walker will be much of a factor. It can't help that she's opposed to her own former lieutenant governor, but her abysmal ratings among Alaska Democrats won't do much to inspire them.

In the end, the outcome of what might have been an easy race has become unpredictable.

"I expect it to be a close race," Hellenthal said. "I won't be surprised if Walker wins it, but on the other hand, I won't be totally surprised if Parnell wins it, either."