In today’s environment of political divisiveness, what could be more nonpartisan than a “unity ticket” comprised of a Republican and Democrat running together? As remarkable as this sounds, this is essentially the situation in the 2014 gubernatorial election in Alaska.
Incumbent Sean Parnell, who succeeded Sarah Palin as Alaska’s governor in 2009, is running for his second full term in office. As recently as August, the race included two challengers -- Democratic nominee Byron Mallott and Bill Walker, a former Republican running as an independent.
But in an unusual twist, on September 2, the Democratic Party decided not to field its own candidate and instead endorsed a newly merged campaign comprised of Walker and Mallott. The Walker-Mallott ticket is officially known as "Alaska First Unity."Alaska has only had 10 different governors since it became the nation’s forty-ninth state in 1959 -- 6 of them have been Republicans. The state’s voters tend to lean Republican, especially in presidential elections. But surprises have often been the rule in Alaskan politics.
Should Walker win, he would not be the first Independent elected as governor of the state. The late Walter "Wally" Hickel holds that honor. Hickel was elected in 1990 to a second term as an Independent after a 21-year hiatus.
So who is Bill Walker?
In the late 1970s, Walker was a rising young figure in Alaskan politics, serving at the age of 27 as mayor of Valdez. His legal career and family then became his focus, not returning to politics until he ran in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary.
Walker lost that bid to Parnell, taking second place in a field of 6 candidates. Hickel, Walker’s friend, mentor, and campaign co-chair, passed away in 2010, midway through the campaign. Four years later, Walker chose not to run as a Republican, instead declaring himself as an independent for the 2014 contest.
In an interview for IVN, Walker reflected on how Hickel urged him to run as an independent in the 2010 race. According to Walker, Hickel never made a suggestion; instead, he would say, “here’s what you should do.”
Walker did not heed Hickel’s advice in his failed 2010 effort. Yet in August 2013, when he declared his candidacy as an independent, he was given a second chance.
“This was a proud moment for me because I was following the direction of a great Alaskan,” he remarked.
Opting to merge his campaign with Democrat Byron Mallott was a curious step to take. Prior to the announcement, both Walker and Mallott were trailing Parnell in the polls. But that action proved to be a game changer.
The Republican Party in Alaska tried to prevent the newly formed ticket by filing a lawsuit, claiming that the apparent political opportunism of the Walker campaign violated the rights of Republican primary voters. The lawsuit failed and the Parnell campaign chose not to appeal the decision.
The Walker-Mallott ticket is currently ahead in the polls. It has support from labor unions, including public safety and law enforcement. The Alaskan affiliate of the National Teachers Association (NEA-Alaska) has endorsed the ticket along with the Alaska AFL-CIO. Walker also has the support of Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Begich.
But the big question is how the running mates will reconcile their differences should they win.
“I have conservative social views and conservative fiscal views as well,” he said, which does not completely fall in line with the political views of Byron Mallott.Mallott holds more traditional liberal Democratic views on social issues like abortion rights, which Walker opposes. Critics of the merged ticket
lamented that the race is now between two conservatives, leaving liberal voters out in the Alaskan cold.
But Walker admits that neither he nor Mallott chose to run for governor to promote their social views. Instead, it was what they had in common, which according to Walker includes “the economy, energy costs, education, and the fiscal situation in Alaska.”
“Those things are what we share and that’s what brought both of us to run for governor,” he added.
And in the event that a piece of social legislation comes across his desk, Walker said he will consult with his attorney general and his lieutenant governor before making a decision.
“I can’t guarantee a result, but I can guarantee a process… I’m very comfortable with that,” he said.
When it comes to his opponent, Walker says they differ mainly on economic issues.
“[Governor Parnell] has declined to accept Medicaid expansion in Alaska and I will accept it,” said Walker. He cited the 40,000 Alaskans who are without adequate health care, as well as the 4,000 jobs Medicare expansion would create in the state.
Walker also pointed to the $7 million daily deficit Alaska is running, and that without action, the state will run through its savings within 5 years.
“I’ll be more fiscally responsible,” Walker maintained.
Other issues on which they differ include how to bring down skyrocketing energy costs and support for education.
Walker’s approval ratings are higher than Governor Parnell in recent polls and Walker is counting on this trend to continue.
“The kind of momentum that we’ve perceived has been confirmed in the polls. The last poll has us up by 9, another poll by 13 last night. Every indicator we’ve seen gives us reason to be confident.” - Bill Walker
But Walker’s apparent lead could shift in the final days before the election and Parnell may still have some tactics to play. As The Washington Post recently suggested, “it can be hard to maintain that momentum once the GOP starts pegging you as the de facto Democrat.” The race could prove to be extremely close.
Should the Walker-Mallott bid be successful in Alaska, it will be interesting to watch if it becomes the start of a trend for similar unity tickets in other races. A new era of non-partisanship may await us.