Three-way race for governor complicates campaign strategies

Gov. Bill Walker, left, former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, center, and former state Sen. Mike Dunleavy, right, are running for governor. Supporters of Walker and Begich expressed concern about the three-way race. (Walker photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO, Begich and Dunleavy photos by Skip Gray/360 North)

In many ways, the three-way race for governor is complicated for voters. But it’s also keeping campaign strategists busy as they try to clear a path to victory for their candidates.

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Elections with two candidates are simple. But in Alaska’s governor’s race, there are three major candidates: independent Gov. Bill Walker, Democratic former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and Republican former state Sen. Mike Dunleavy.

And while three is only one more than two, for political strategists, that extra candidate makes things a lot more complicated.

Jim Lottsfeldt is an Anchorage political consultant who has worked with Democrats and other left-of-center politicians. He said it’s a challenge for campaigns that want to go on the attack.

“When you’re Candidate A and you attack Candidate B, imagine, it’s like giving them an electronic zap and some of those voters clinging to them fall off after they get zapped,” Lottsfeldt said. “And in a two-person race, those voters don’t have anywhere to go, but back to the person doing the zapping.”

For Walker, any strategy that appeals to voters on the left or right sides of his coalition risks alienating those on the other side. He has said his administration has been able to do what it sees as right for Alaska, because it hasn’t had to cater to the political parties.

A Walker ad with pipefitter Brandon McGuire makes this point.

“When I look at Gov. Walker, I see somebody who is going to make the tough decisions, versus somebody who’s worrying about their next campaign,” McGuire said.

But a group backing Walker, Unite Alaska, is more combative. It has started criticizing Dunleavy in its ads:

“When you vote for governor, will you choose a leader, or a quitter? When Alaska needed him most, Gov. Walker made the tough decisions. Mike Dunleavy? He quit the Senate, abandoned his constituents and left others to do the hard work.”

One organization supporting Walker is the Alaska AFL-CIO, a labor federation.

Joelle Hall, its political director, said these ads will make Alaskans aware of Dunleavy’s positions.

“These are just perspectives and worldviews that the majority of Alaskans just don’t hold,” Hall said. “They view them as really, really extreme. And once people kind of figure this out, I just don’t think they’re going to think that he’s quite, you know, not standing so tall anymore.”

The strategy’s been a little different for Mark Begich.

Jim Lottsfeldt – who’s worked with Begich in the past – said this year has seen Begich “unleashed.”

“Begich is pounding away on choice and women’s right to choose, and then the governor — who is pro-life — comes out and says, ‘I’m pro-life, but my administration is kind-of pro-choice. It’s all fine.’” Lottsfeldt said. “Why does he do that? Mark Begich.”

Begich has made a straightforward appeal to Democrats and the political left.

“I’m the only candidate who will protect the PFD and school funding in the state constitution, taking them out of the hands of politicians,” Begich said in a radio ad.

But Joelle Hall said Begich’s stands won’t appeal to Alaskans who are currently backing Dunleavy.

“Mark has really tacked to the left and so maybe that’s not where most Alaskans are comfortable,” Hall said. “Most Alaskans are kind of in the middle. So I think when they come off Dunleavy, they go to the governor.”

Four years ago, Walker and Begich appealed to many of the same voters – but they were running for different offices. While Walker won, Begich lost re-election to the U.S. Senate. Now they’re fighting for the same voters for the same office.

John Wood is advising the group Dunleavy for Alaska. He anticipates groups on the left will try to pressure either Walker or Begich to endorse the other, depending on their poll numbers.

“The strategy is to try and get the public perception that one or the other – Begich or Walker — is pulling away from the other person, and that if they don’t narrow it down to one of the two of them against Dunleavy, they’ll both lose,” Wood said.

One sign of Dunleavy’s campaign’s strength is the large early lead for Republicans in requests for absentee ballots. By the end of September, there were nearly six times as many Republican requests as Democratic. Four years ago that ratio was 2-to-1.

John Wood said Dunleavy for Alaska has been effective at delivering its message, including through the colorful campaign signs, throughout the state.

“It did it in probably the most professional manner that Alaska campaigns have ever seen up to date,” Wood said.

His campaign has also benefited from funding from the Republican Governors Association through the group Families for Alaska’s Future. Its ads have sharply criticized the Walker administration’s performance, including this one:

“Alaska’s economy is last in the nation. Unemployment is nearly twice the national average. It’s time for a change.”

Another sign that the campaign strategies of Dunleavy and the groups backing him are working is poll results. He had a 15-point lead in results released last week by Alaska Survey Research. Begich was second, 6 points ahead of Walker. Libertarian candidate Billy Toien wasn’t included in the poll.