3 well-funded conservatives are running for Alaska governor. 1 will likely not survive the primary.

Three white men in three different photos side by side.
Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce, incumbent Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Wasilla Rep. Christopher Kurka are vying for a top-four seat in the gubernatorial primary on Tuesday, August 16. (Photos by Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media, Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media, Facebook screen capture)

When Mike Dunleavy ran for governor four years ago, he was the conservative candidate, running far to the right of the incumbent. Now, as he vies for re-election, Dunleavy has got two well-funded candidates running to the right of him: Wasilla Rep. Christopher Kurka and Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce.

Next week’s primary election is going to pare the list of 10 gubernatorial candidates to four, and it’s unlikely that Kurka and Pierce can both survive. The challengers are trying to distinguish themselves from each other, and from Dunleavy primarily on performance and commitment.

At a campaign event in Willow last weekend, Pierce said Dunleavy’s record shows a “lack of urgency to get anything done.”

“I look at what the current administration has accomplished and I think the list is short,” Pierce said. 

Under Dunleavy, Pierce said, the state budget has been “out of kilter.” He said he put the Kenai Peninsula Borough on a solid fiscal path.

“If you look at my record as a mayor, I went into office with a $4.5 million deficit. Certainly fewer zeroes than the state deals with but nevertheless, similar problems,” he said. 

Pierce sees himself as more conservative than Dunleavy, but not as right-wing as Kurka.

“What I would say is that, you know, I’m not an extreme far right Republican. I’m a conservative. I’m a Republican,” Pierce said. “I’ve lived by those principles in my life.”

Pierce chose Edie Grunwald as his running mate. She’s from the Mat-Su and rose to prominance as the mother of murder victim David Grunwald. They’ve reported raising nearly $200,000.

Kurka is a past board member and director of Alaska Right to Life, a nonprofit that advocates against abortion rights. He was first elected to the Legislature two years ago. His running mate, Paul Hueper of Homer, was part of a throng of Trump supporters who were at the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 attack but says he did not go inside. The FBI later searched Hueper’s home in what was likely a case of mistaken identity.  

Kurka and Hueper have raised close to $170,000.

Kurka said Dunleavy hasn’t lived up to promises he made ahead of his first term, such as delivering a so-called statutory Permanent Fund dividend and significantly reducing the state budget. 

“When I got elected to the state House, I was expecting to go down to Juneau and back him up,” Kurka said in an interview on Tuesday. “And there was nobody to back up. He’d abandoned the field. He was no longer in the fight.”

Dunleavy has raised far more than the other two: $1.7 million. He also has the endorsement of the Alaska Republican Party. 

In four years as governor, Dunleavy has backed off on some of the more aggressive policies he started office with. In 2018 he proposed a budget that would have cut the state ferry system budget by more than two-thirds and made sharp spending reductions to the university system, public schools and Alaska Pioneer Homes.

The budget passed this year is the sixth largest in state history, in part because oil revenue is up. It includes a PFD and energy relief payment expected to total about $3,200 for each eligible Alaskan. The PFD amount is lower than what would have been set by state statute, but it’s among the highest on record. And while Dunleavy campaigned on a statutory PFD plus “back pay” — the thousands of dollars he felt Alaskans were owed since the previous administration vetoed part of the dividend — he’s now pushing for a 50-50 plan that would split spending between Alaskans and the state government. He wants the plan to go before Alaskans for a vote.

COVID is another area in which Dunleavy’s opponents think he fell short.

While Dunleavy decried federal vaccine mandates and declined to enact statewide policies like a mask mandate, his GOP competitors argue he didn’t go far enough to oppose COVID mitigation strategies put forward by the Centers for Disease Control and Dunleavy’s own chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink. 

Kurka’s platform includes firing Zink “on day one”, while Pierce said more should have been done to make unproven “off-label” medications like ivermectin available for COVID treatment. 

Dunleavy disagrees with his opponents’ characterizations. 

“I think I’ve kept my promises actually, really well,” he said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “We’ve brought down the crime rate … With the exception of education [and] public safety, our agency budgets are lower than they were when I first got in … We navigated a pandemic without locking people in their houses or mandating masks or vaccines.”

Dunleavy said he’s relying on his record.

“I’m sure there are people in this state that think I am very conservative. I’m sure there’s probably a handful that don’t think I’m conservative enough,” he said. “We’re focused on governing for all of Alaska. And we’re pretty confident and certain in our grounding and our values and principles.”

Dunleavy argues Kurka’s year and a half as a legislator and Pierce’s five years as a borough mayor don’t compare to his experience as governor.

“In some respects, you’re comparing apples and oranges,” he said. 

Alaska Public Media’s Liz Ruskin contributed to this report from Willow.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated that this year’s payout to Alaskans was the largest in state history. In 2008, Alaskans received a combined PFD and resource rebate that totaled $3,269.

For more elections news visit alaskapublic.org/elections.

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Kavitha George is the host of Alaska Morning News at Alaska Public Media. She also reports on business, labor and the economy. Reach her at kgeorge@alaskapublic.org.