Parnell's camp concedes the race is looking close, but is convinced the unity ticket will end up damaging Walker because it more closely associates him with an unpopular Democratic brand. "With Bill Walker and Byron Mallott joining together, you've now got a Republican versus a Democrat," said Parnell campaign spokesman Luke Miller. "More specifically, you have a Republican in Governor Parnell, and a candidate, Bill Walker, who is endorsed by Mark Begich and the Democratic Party."
Public polling conducted since early September shows the race looking like a toss-up, with Parnell trailing Walker in roughly half of the head-to-head matchups (Alaska has a reputation for being difficult to survey.) An internal poll conducted for Parnell by Basswood Research in late September showed him up five percentage points over Walker, 46 to 41 percent.
The unique situation and independent streak of the players involved has led to an exhausting and delicate balancing act. Walker, who now has the support of Alaska Democrats after welcoming Democrat Byron Mallott to his ticket, may benefit from Begich's strong ground game even though Walker has not explicitly endorsed Begich. Begich has voiced his support for Walker.
While Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski has come out in support of Begich's opponent, Sullivan, she won't say who she'll vote for in the governor's race. (A further twist: Mallott cochaired Murkowski's successful write-in campaign in 2010 after she lost the GOP primary.) In a question-and-answer session with reporters in her Anchorage office last month, Murkowski said of the governor's race: "Alaskans are of a mind that they don't get particularly caught up with the party label, and this will be, I think, a very insightful election to see how true that really is."
Sullivan, for his part, served as attorney general and natural resources commissioner under Parnell, but he barely mentions the governor on the campaign trail.
Last year, Parnell approved a new law changing the way oil and gas taxes are structured. The measure proved controversial enough that a referendum to repeal it landed on this year's August primary ballot, where it narrowly failed. But consternation over the law's implications for much-needed oil-tax revenue has resulted in frustration with Parnell because opponents fear it will leave the state with massive revenue shortfalls.
The second issue at play is Parnell's handling of the assault scandal within the National Guard. After years of alleged cover-ups of reported abuse, a damning federal report requested by Parnell came down in early September, one day after Walker's unity ticket formed. The report revealed cases of fraud, "actual and perceived favoritism," and "ethical misconduct," and concluded that the Alaska National Guard "is not properly administering justice."