August and November seem a long way off but the political winds will be stirring soon for the primary and general elections.
The hot topics for the primary election, which is often a snoozer in Alaska, is the ballot referendum on Senate Bill 21, the oil tax reform bill passed by the Legislature last April, and the square-off between Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, former Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan and 2010 Republican Senate nominee Joe Miller for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Democrat Mark Begich.
Whoever wins in the Treadwell-Sullivan-Miller primary will face Begich in November.
However, there is one other primary contest featuring a Dan Sullivan, this one Anchorage’s current mayor, who is running for lieutenant governor in the Republican primary against Anchorage state Sen. Lesil McGuire.
Gov. Sean Parnell is standing for reelection in 2014 and so far has no primary challenge in August, but he faces two challengers in the November general election, one being former Valdez Mayor Bill Walker, running as an independent, and the other the Democrat candidate Byron Mallott.
Walker and Mallot are likely to run energetic, lively campaigns, and Parnell may benefit from a three-way race where his opponents may split votes while he enjoys a consolidated base.
Mallott, an Alaska Native leader from Southeast, is likely to draw heavy support in rural Alaska. Parnell’s support in rural areas, on the other hand, may be weakened by his recent decision on expansion of Medicaid, which would have benefitted tribal health organizations, and his administration’s policies on the powers of tribal courts in family cases.
However, Parnell is also credited by many rural leaders for his strong support for measures to reduce domestic violence and to increase law enforcement and security in villages.
Walker will focus his campaign, as in a previous run for governor in 2010, on Parnell’s success, or lack thereof, in goading North Slope oil and gas owners to proceed with a large Alaska gas pipeline project.
The governor has been frustrated by lack of progress by the large companies, but if things start happening in early 2014 Walker’s criticisms may be muted.
The battle over SB 21, the oil tax reform bill, will draw a lot of attention in the August primary, when the ballot referendum to repeal the tax change will appear.
Supporters of the repeal will charge Parnell with a tax giveaway to the big producers and will highlight the major reduction in state revenues this year.
Opponents of the repeal, and Parnell, will have to explain that the revenue hit would have happened anyway, arguing the tax change had nothing to do with it. It’s a complex issue that doesn’t lend itself to simple explanations.
On the other hand, if industry activity is ramping up in response to the tax change and voters sense that more Alaskans are going to work, opponents of the repeal will have a big campaign tool.
Another initiative on the August ballot would require the state Legislature to approve any plan for large scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed, an effort that was recently certified and is aimed at stopping the Pebble mine.
The campaign to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich in November will attract a lot of national attention, and money from Republican national groups hoping to pick up another seat in the Senate.
That Alaska is a conservative state where Republicans dominate may not seem to bode well for Begich, but Begich is also a veteran campaigner who, as a two-term former mayor of Anchorage, has also learned how to play to the middle.
As a Democrat he will also carry some baggage for having to defend some of President Barack Obama’s policies in Alaska.
However, either Sullivan or Treadwell will carry some baggage, too, from their associations with the Parnell administration and policies, such as tribal rights, that are unpopular in rural parts of the state. Miller will have to deal with the baggage from his mistake-plagued 2010 campaign against Sen. Lisa Murkowski after he won the GOP primary but lost the battle against her as a write-in candidate during the general election.
No matter what, the airwaves will be awash in political advertising as Republican and conservative groups pour money into Alaska to try and unseat Begich and Democratic national groups, particularly labor, pour in resources to support him and preserve the Democratic seat in the Senate.