On Tuesday afternoon, former Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich announced that he will–in fact–be staying in the race for Alaska’s governor, setting up a high-stakes three-way showdown between the Democrat, independent Gov. Bill Walker and Republican Mike Dunleavy.
“It’s a three-way race, get used to it,” Begich told reporters at the announcement.
The announcement came amid rampant speculation and pressure for either Begich or the governor to step away from the three-way race in order to allow the other to head into a more winnable head-to-head battle with Dunleavy.
That wasn’t to be, and now we’re off to what’s set to be a wild 60 days until the general election.
Here are three things to watch.
Now that a competitive three-way race for governor is the set-in-stone reality, the Begich and Dunleavy campaigns both have a razor-thin margin of error when it comes to cobbling together a plurality on Nov. 6 (we doubt anyone will win an outright majority, which is a problem for another day).
To capture the win any candidate—including Dunleavy—will likely need to solidify about 45 percent of the vote, a figure that would likely leave the two opponents without enough available votes to overcome. There’s no run-off system in Alaska. Whoever captures the most votes becomes governor.
Dunleavy’s the nearest to that figure as it stands, and most polls of a three-way race put him somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of the vote currently while head-to-head polling against either Begich or Walker put Dunleavy in the low 40s. That means there’s about 60 percent of the electorate that’s up for grabs, but an even split between Walker and Begich leaves Dunleavy with the victory.
Walker’s in a tough position with Dunleavy to his right and Begich to his left. His campaign will have the difficult task of fighting on both fronts, but there’s plenty to suggest there’s winnable battles on either front.
Walker will likely be looking to the 32 percent of Republicans that voted for Mead Treadwell in the Republican gubernatorial primary as well as the 18 percent of voters who cast a vote in the party’s congressional primary, but skipped over voting for Begich altogether. Geographically speaking, Fairbanks will likely be a strong source of votes for Walker as its progressives have had a tepid reaction to Begich’s entry.
What happens to the union money?
The AFL-CIO has already endorsed Walker and—as we’ve previously noted—can bring big union spending to the race. In 2014, unions were responsible for about a million dollars in independent expenditure spending backing Walker’s “Unity Ticket” with Byron Mallott.
That spending has yet to materialize this year despite the endorsement, and both Walker and Begich have independent expenditure groups at their back (as well as Dunleavy, who already has more than three-quarter million dollars in an independent expenditure campaign).
It’s possible that with the uncertainty surrounding the governor’s race at this point, some of that attention, energy and money could be diverted to critical legislative races. Instead of battling a what some are already calling a foregone conclusion on the governor’s level, unions could make big plays in support of candidates like Fairbanks Democratic Rep. Scott Kawasaki, who’s challenging Republican Sen. Pete Kelly, or any number of potentially competitive House races like Liz Snyder, Amber Lee, Pat Higgins and Lyn Franks in Anchorage; Kathryn Dodge and Grier Hopkins in Fairbanks; or Paul Seaton in Homer and Andi Story in Juneau.
Wins in any of those seats currently held by Republicans along with holds for Democratic seats could be a significant backstop for progressives against a Dunleavy administration.
Focusing on the differences
Finally, now that the speculation about the dynamics of a three-way race have been settled, Alaskans will need to make up their mind about who will be the state’s next governor. Though many hands have been wrung over the likelihood that Begich and Walker would split the vote, a Begich administration would be different from a Walker administration. Just how different, we don’t really know, but it’s an important question that Begich needs to start answering beyond top-level policy goals like a protected PFD and less crime.
But of course this is politics. So as much as we’d like to see candidates explain in fine detail their plans if elected, we can also expect them to spend much of the next two months explaining in finer detail the plans and pitfalls if their opponents get elected. This dynamic will be particularly interesting when it comes to a three-way race.
Does Begich focus his attacks on Dunleavy or Walker? What does Dunleavy and his brother’s deep pockets do? And for that matter what do the national groups like the Republican Governor’s Association do?