ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CN) – With Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, the nation’s only independent governor, abruptly dropping his bid for re-election, the race for the Last Frontier’s top spot just got a whole lot tighter.
Polls prior to Walker’s announcement had Republican candidate Mike Dunleavy ahead by a good margin, with Walker and Democrat Mark Begich predicted to split too many votes and few others going to Libertarian candidate Billy Toien.
The most recent poll, released Tuesday, shows only four points between leader Dunleavy and Begich.
Although the gap has narrowed, Begich will have to educate voters about Walker’s departure from the race since the governor’s name will stay on the ballot. Never mind the 3,076 completed absentee ballots that had already come out of 22,562 mailed, according to the Alaska Division of Elections.
Election officials say absentee voters who had already turned in their ballots before Walker’s withdrawal will not be able to change their vote. However, anyone who had already voted an absentee ballot but not yet mailed it back can contact the division for a replacement ballot.
Walker threw his support behind Begich, explaining there are more policy areas where they agree than disagree. Walker stated fears of losing the expansions he made in Medicaid and in reducing the fiscal deficits with a Dunleavy win.
Begich, a one-term U.S. senator and former Anchorage mayor jumped into the race at the June 1 deadline. Dunleavy came having served four years in the Alaska Senate after a career as a public school teacher in rural Alaska. He won a crowded Republican primary over six other candidates including former Lt. Gov. Mike Treadwell.
Begich and Dunleavy differ most on health care and whether the Medicaid expansion, put in place three years ago by Walker, should remain.
More than 44,000 residents received health care under the expansion, according to state data.
As a member of the U.S. Senate, Begich voted in favor of the Affordable Care Act and favors Medicaid expansion. He acknowledges, however, that the program’s efficiency is hampered by an overabundance of paperwork.
“We need to enhance it to make sure it works for the people, getting access and better care every single day,” Begich said at a recent debate with Dunleavy.
Dunleavy, who served in the state Senate when Walker approved the expansion, believes Medicaid programs need a closer look. He said Medicaid providers are overpaid and private and market approaches need consideration.
“We need to make sure the programs we have in place are managed well,” Dunleavy said. “That’s important. We have a number of programs in place that aren’t managed well.”
Begich’s campaign is also focused on securing the Permanent Fund Dividend from oil revenues – Alaska residents’ annual share of the state’s oil wealth – but he has not promised a return to full dividend days. He said he’s concerned about the fiscal future of Alaska, combating crime and funding public education.
Dunleavy promises to pay the full dividend to residents, reduce the size of government and make criminals do jail time.
Other issues that divide the candidates pit natural resources against each other – fish and other wildlife versus oil and minerals.
Pebble Mine, located in proximity to the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery and Donlin Gold, a large undeveloped gold deposit in northwestern part of Alaska, are slogging through the regulatory process. Drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and climate change are also regular topics of discussion among the candidates.
Begich supports protection of salmon waterways, while Dunleavy is all for mining and oil drilling interests.
“Begich,” said Anchorage resident Susan Gray when asked who she plans to vote for. She expressed respect for Walker’s decision to step down and said Begich has her vote because she supports the protection of the state’s salmon.
Juneau resident Dana Leask-Ruaro said she plans to vote for Dunleavy. “[Dunleavy’s] wife is Native and he will fully fund our [permanent fund dividend],” she said
Rachel Drinkard, who will be voting by absentee ballot, said she planned to vote Begich before Walker dropped out. “Begich knows the policy issues and can look at the big picture, and I was never too warm on Walker,” she wrote via email from out of state.
Meanwhile, several endorsements are up for grabs as labor and Alaska Native organizations realign their support. Alaska’s two largest labor organizations, the AFL-CIO and the National Education Association-Alaska, shifted their support from Walker to Begich.
Calista Corporation, one of 13 Alaska Native regional corporations, moved their support from Walker to Dunleavy given its contracts and members near the Donlin Gold project. Alaska’s Republican representatives to Washington – Rep. Don Young and Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski – threw their support behind Dunleavy as well.
The other major race, for Alaska’s at-large congressional seat, pits Young and Alyse Galvin, running as an Independent. Young is currently the longest-serving representative in Congress, having first taken his seat in 1973.
A mother of four, Galvin worked with Great Alaska Schools campaigning for more public education funding, and is the first challenger to run against Young as an Independent. Increasingly, Alaskans are not affiliating with a political party.
“That’s who I am, and that’s who 56 percent of Alaskans are,” Galvin recently said in an interview with KTUU TV Channel 2. “We’re like that. We like to be able to choose our candidate based on whether or not they have integrity, whether we think they have the grit, whether we think they understand us.”
Galvin appears to have tapped into something that works, as polls show a neck-and-neck race between her and Young.
“I’m voting Galvin for House because she’s level-headed and balanced, but she’s also young and energetic and I believe she would actually represent my interests and the interests of Alaska,” Drinkard said.
“I think we need a change from the old guard. Since Trump didn’t ‘drain the swamp’ on his end, I hope we can at least begin to drain our own Alaskan swamp and usher in a new era of progress, innovation and prosperity.”
Early voting began in Alaska on Monday, and with less than two weeks to go before Election Day the saying “every vote counts” means just that in the 49th state.