Things have been looking up in recent months for Alaska Senate nominee Dan Sullivan, whose position against Democratic Sen. Mark Begich has improved since his difficult primary ended. But the state's other big-name Republican on this year's ballot has been moving in the other direction. Like a number of governors in other often-safe red or blue states this year, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell has been looking more vulnerable with each passing week.
It's one of the biggest themes of the 2014 elections: While the national mood has taken hold of Senate races and wrenched many of them toward Republicans, a slew of local issues has endangered gubernatorial parties in power, from Democrats in deep-blue Hawaii to Republicans in ruby-red Kansas. Now it's happening in Alaska, where the Democratic candidate dropped out and joined an independent "unity ticket" with Bill Walker, a onetime Republican, unifying Parnell's opposition.
The Alaska Senate race is colored with more local flavor than most, but Begich has been continuously bedeviled by an unpopular president and some of his federal policies. Meanwhile, two singularly local issues are giving Parnell trouble: a local oil and gas tax measure passed in 2013, and Parnell's handling of a sexual-assault scandal inside the Alaska National Guard. And to top it all off, the cacophonous Senate race may be keeping Parnell from getting his side of the story out.
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."
Parnell has since fired a handful of top Guard members, but questions remained over why he didn't act sooner. His administration refused requests for documents that would shed light on what he knew about the reported abuse and when, adding to public uncertainty over how the situation was handled.
Zack Fields, the communications director for the Alaska Democratic Party, said, "If you had called any political observer in Alaska in August about whether Sean Parnell would lose, they would have said there was a zero percent chance." But now, Fields thinks there are "better than even odds that he'll lose."
Alaska-based consultant Jim Lottsfeldt, the senior adviser for a super PAC backing Begich this year, thinks the long-simmering undercurrent of the oil-tax issue and recent coverage of the National Guard scandal are forming an anti-Parnell wave that could be strong enough to push him out. Meanwhile, the Senate campaign is dominating the airwaves—partly thanks to Lottsfeldt's group, Put Alaska First, which by itself has broken Alaska's old Senate independent-expenditure record—giving Parnell relatively few opportunities to defend himself.
According to data compiled by the Wesleyan Media Project, 51,041 Senate-related commercials had aired on Alaska's broadcast TV stations by Oct. 9. The figure in the governor's race: just under 1,300 spots for the duration of the cycle. And Parnell's ads have accounted for only 170, all of which aired this month.
"I don't see how [Parnell] pulls it out right now," said Lottsfeldt. "You could hand the guy $2 million right now and I don't see how it'd be felt because the airwaves are choking with other messages. I don't see this wave changing."