Can Gara or Walker unseat Dunleavy in the race for Alaska governor? Analysts say both have a tough, but possible road to victory.

two men side by side
Democrat Les Gara and independent Bill Walker are two progressives in the 2022 race for Alaska governor. (Photos by Mizelle Mayo and Valerie Kern/AKPM)

Democratic former legislator Les Gara and independent former Gov. Bill Walker are progressive opponents in the race for Alaska governor. But they have one big thing in common — they’re trying to unseat incumbent Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy. 

Gara and Walker finished second and third behind Dunleavy in one of the closest outcomes in last month’s primary. With just 550 votes separating them, Gara finished with 23% of the vote and Walker with 22.8%.

Each thinks he’s the only candidate who can beat Dunleavy in Alaska’s Nov. 8 ranked-choice general election.

“Gara and Walker are kind of in a prisoner’s dilemma right now,” said Burke Croft, an analyst with Ship Creek Group. “They know they’re relying on each other’s second-place votes to win.”

Ship Creek Group is consulting for Democrat Mary Peltola’s U.S. House campaign this election.

Conservative candidates pulled in more than half of the primary vote, compared to Walker and Gara’s shared 46%. Analysts like Croft say historically, more progressive voters show up for general elections. And that means Walker and Gara both have tough, but realistic paths to victory in November.

But, Croft says, the ranked-choice voting system requires them to differentiate themselves as candidates without alienating each others’ base. 

At the same time, they’re both vying for a second-place finish in order to make it to a final runoff against Dunleavy.

“Both campaigns also know that if they have less first-choice votes than the other, they’re going to be eliminated in the second round, and they [won’t] even have a chance to go up against Dunleavy head-to-head.” Croft said.

Neither candidate has engaged in negative campaigning so far, and they don’t appear likely to start.

The bruising campaigns run by Republicans Nick Begich III and Sarah Palin in the special U.S. House election to replace the late Rep. Don Young serve as a cautionary tale of how negative campaigning can play out in a ranked-choice election. Many Begich and Palin voters chose not to rank the other second, contributing to Peltola’s win last week. Both Palin and Begich refused to withdraw from the general-election race on Monday’s deadline to do so, setting up a second three-way contest against Peltola in November.

In fact, Walker and Gara have a lot of overlap in their platforms. Both are known for working across the aisle. They both want to reform the state retirement system and increase funding for schools. Both are opposed to a constitutional convention.

Both criticize Dunleavy’s plans for the PFD, including his original promise of a $6,700 payout. Gara said he would like to keep the PFD at over “$2,200 and growing” but with cuts to oil tax credits to balance out the budget. Walker said he’d work with the legislature to come up with a new PFD formula to replace the decades-old one in statute — he is also in favor of the “highest dividend we can pay” without levying new taxes or cutting essential government services.

But for now, hoping to lock in those first-place votes, Gara and Walker are focused on traveling across Alaska, giving their best pitch to voters. 

Gara has positioned himself as the “only pro-choice candidate” in the race.

“I will ask judges if they support our current court precedent on the right to choose because that’s how we’re going to lose the right to choose in this state, is by appointing judges — just like at the federal level — who are willing to take it away,” Gara said.

Walker, who is pro-life, said he would defend Alaskans’ constitutional right to access abortions, though he told the Alaska Beacon in May that he would not screen judges the way Gara says he intends to. Critics, including Gara, have pointed out that while governor, Walker defended a law that intended to limit Medicaid-funded abortions. The Alaska Supreme Court later declared the law unconstitutional.

Gara says he expects a larger swath of progressive, pro-choice voters to turn out in November and carry him over the finish line. 

Meanwhile Walker is positioning his bid, along with his lieutenant-governor pick Heidi Drygas, as the strongest “unity ticket” on the ballot. 

“I come from the right to the middle and Heidi comes from the left to the middle and that’s why we have the kind of support we have, a broad base of support because … we are moderates. And I think the vast number of Alaskans are also moderate,” Walker said.

Walker’s team points to a July poll by Hays Research Group that asked 600 voters how they would vote in a head-to-head match-up against Dunleavy. In a Walker vs. Dunleavy race, respondents were almost evenly split. In a Gara vs. Dunleavy race, 45% chose Gara and 55% chose Dunleavy. 

But polling results vary. Alaska Survey Research Group polled 1,200 voters in July in a mock ranked-choice election for governor. In the second round, the results showed Gara ended up second after Dunleavy, four points ahead of Walker. The poll didn’t include a final runoff to determine a winner.

The ranked-choice field is hard to predict, says analyst Burke Croft. The special election for U.S. House last month showed that political leanings don’t necessarily correlate with how Alaskans vote. 

“We would expect a lot of Gara/Walker voters to rank each other. But I think it’s very possible that some people might vote differently,” Croft said. “You can imagine a Gara/Dunleavy voter who really cares about the PFD or imagine a Walker/Dunleavy voter that’s a bit more in the independent range of things or even a little bit center right.”

Both Walker and Gara say they plan to rank each other second on their ballots.

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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.