The three leading candidates for governor in next year’s elections have begun their campaigns, soliciting donations and endorsements.
Incumbent Gov. Mike Dunleavy is the lone Republican in the race, and independent candidate Bill Walker and Democratic candidate Les Gara are each vying for the support of Alaskans who oppose Dunleavy’s policies. That’s principally the state’s Democrats and independents.
Walker was governor before Dunleavy, and Gara was a longtime Democratic state legislator from Anchorage.
Alaska has a new election system that will send four combined governor-lieutenant governor tickets — regardless of political party — to a November ranked-choice election, and candidates can enter the race as late as May, which means the campaigns could change significantly in the coming months.
The Gara and Walker campaigns say that means they’re not in competition, but the basics of a political race haven’t changed: All candidates are vying for financial contributions, attention and the chance to be voters’ first choice.
“What Les’ campaign and our campaign have in common is that we’re not Dunleavy’s campaign,” said Heidi Drygas, a former Democrat who is Walker’s lieutenant governor candidate. “I think you can plug in any other candidate there. We happen to be the ones that have already stepped forward.”
Libertarian candidates have also signed up to run but haven’t announced major campaign events.
Former Gov. Tony Knowles and Alaska Constitution drafter Vic Fischer are among those who say they support Gara. Some others on a list of Gara endorsements said they intend to vote for Walker first and Gara second under the state’s new ranked-choice voting system.
During a Monday night fundraiser benefiting Walker, former AFL-CIO president Vince Beltrami said he likes Gara, but he’s endorsing Walker and putting him first.
At a pair of fundraisers in late September, Dunleavy was hosted by U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson and former Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, among others. At an event Monday in Fairbanks, supporters included former state Rep. Jay Ramras.
Former President Donald Trump endorsed Dunleavy in 2018 and opposed the Dunleavy recall but hasn’t yet commented on the 2022 governor’s race.
Gara said early endorsements by political leaders don’t mean much. He called them “window dressing” and “inside baseball.” Others disagree: Early endorsements can mean financial contributions and opportunities to bring other voters onboard a campaign.
“Any campaign is looking for those validators who can go and talk to their communities about why they’re choosing certain candidates,” Drygas said.
She said she wasn’t just talking about geographical communities, but political and social ones as well. The Walker campaign has gotten endorsements from independents and Republicans, including former Senate President Cathy Giessel, a Republican from Anchorage.
Giessel said she disagrees with the direction Dunleavy has taken on the Permanent Fund dividend and believes Walker’s goal is to do what’s best for the state, regardless of the political cost.
“That’s what he did when he vetoed part of the dividend. So that’s why I chose to back him,” she said, referring to an action Walker took when he previously served as governor.
That dividend veto remains controversial. Another former Republican Senate president, Rick Halford, served as a co-chair of Walker’s transition team in 2014. Now a leader of a group called the Permanent Fund Defenders, Halford declined to say whether he’d endorse Walker again.
Andy Josephson, who served with Gara in the state Legislature, said he thinks the former legislator would be a fine governor, but he respects Walker and thinks Walker has a better chance to win against Dunleavy.
That matters, he said, because Alaska has 65,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats. Republicans almost always win statewide elections here, and that registration edge gives Dunleavy an advantage as long as there are no other Republican candidates.
“The way I describe it to people is it’s the 100-meter dash, and your opponent’s on the 10-meter line when the gun goes off, and you just can’t catch up,” he said.
Gara said he intends to fight his way into the governor’s race by appealing to voters directly. He thinks he, not Walker, is a better match for the beliefs of Democrats and progressives, particularly on abortion and gay marriage.
“My feeling is that Walker still has a lot of Republican tendencies, and that’s why I’m going with Gara,” said Kim Metcalfe, a Democratic organizer in Juneau.
Former state Sen. Beth Kerttula, also from Juneau, waited to endorse Walker until other prospective Democratic candidates, including former U.S. Senate candidate Al Gross, decided against a run for governor.
Gross confirmed that decision on Monday and declined to endorse a candidate. Mike Navarre, a former mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough, had also been rumored as a possible Democratic challenger; he has endorsed Walker.