Alaska seemingly regrets the governors it elects more than any other state, since the Last Frontier ranks last in the percentage of reelected chief executives in the 50-state history of the U.S.
The reelection of Gov. Mike Dunleavy, sworn in on Monday, somewhat narrows what is still a vast gap between the next-lowest states. But he is only the fifth of Alaska’s 12 governors to win reelection, a success rate of 41.7%, while no other state has a rate below 50% since 1948, according to a study by the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University and recent election data.
Furthermore, Alaska’s rate includes Sean Parnell winning reelection 15 months after succeeding Sarah Palin when she quit in mid 2009, meaning only one-third of Alaska’s governors have been elected to two consecutive terms. Dunleavy is only the second Republican to win a second election besides Jay Hammond in 1978 and first governor to do so since Tony Knowles in 1998.
“I think it’s dependent on the culture of the state that seems to like the bright shinny ball in front of us,” said Kris Knauss, managing partner of the political consulting firm Confluence Strategies and deputy chief of staff to former Gov. Frank Murkowski, who lost his reelection bid in 2006 when he had one of the lowest approval ratings in the country.
But that voter culture is largely linked to the price of oil since it largely controls the state’s fortunes — and, fairly or not, affects a governor’s odds for being reelected, Knauss said.
“Governors as the chief executive are held responsible and have become expendable as well because of that, unfortunately,” he said.
Another significant factor is likely the relative weakness of the major political parties in Alaska compared to other states, along with the high percentage of voters not registering as Democrats or Republicans, which is evident in the number of independent and third-party candidates elected governor, Knauss said.
Additionally, plenty of turnover among the state’s chief executives has occurred due to scandals and other odd circumstances such as Palin’s sudden resignation, said Ivan Moore, owner of Alaska Survey Research.
“It’s sort of a combination of people not running for reelection for one reason or another, or they just became super unpopular,” he said, “Probably there is a certain amount of a kind of impatience and a lack of staying power of Alaskans in general. They tend to get tired and get unhappy with people that get elected, perhaps.”
Marc Hellenthal, owner of the Anchorage polling firm Hellenthal and Associates, and a consultant for Republican candidates including Dunleavy, said the individual and often unusual circumstances of each of the state’s governors and their reelection campaigns explains the low reelection rate rather any generalization of voters. Murkowski, for instance, began his plunge from being a state titan to political afterthought from the time of his inauguration when he appointed his daughter, Lisa, to succeed him in the senate, upsetting a broad swath of the party’s power structure.
“There were just a number of faux pas politically his first months in office,” Hellenthal said.
The Eagleton Institute study, examining reelection rates for all states between 1948 and 2013, ranks Alaska second-lowest at 44% based on four of nine incumbents prevailing, with Alabama last at 43% with three of seven incumbents winning second terms. But two Alabama governors have won reelection since then, putting that state’s rate above 50%, and every other state that already had a majority of incumbents reelected at the time of the study has stayed above that threshold since.
The following are among the notable successes and (sometime epic) fails of Alaska’s governors in seeking a second (and occasionally beyond) term:
– William Egan won a second term as Alaska’s first governor as a Democrat in 1962 and lost his bid for a third term in 1966, before the current two-term limit was imposed. He won a third term in 1970, but lost another reelection bid in 1974 by 0.3% to Republican Jay Hammond, with Joe Vogler as the nominee of the newly formed Alaskan Independence Party is considered a significant factor in the outcome by getting about 5% of the vote.
– Wally Hickel resigned three years into his first stint as governor in 1969 when the Republican was appointed U.S. Secretary of the Interior by President Richard Nixon. He would go on to play key roles in subsequent elections leading up to his ultimately winning his second term in office as an Alaskan Independence Party candidate in 1990.
– Hammond easily won reelection in 1978 with only 39% of the vote, thanks a four-way split where Hickel got 26.4% of the vote as a write-in candidate, Chancy Croft 12% as a Democrat and Tom Kelly 12% as an independent.
– Bill Sheffield, elected as a Democrat in 1982 after Hammond was term-limited out, failed to even win his party’s nomination four years later after facing threats of impeachment over a state lease awarded without a contract bid, losing the primary to eventual election winner Steve Cowper. Cowper, in turn, did not run for reelection in 1990 as he was going through a divorce and his popularity took a downturn at a time when Alaska was emerging as a Republican stronghold, setting the stage for Hickel’s national headline win as the nominee for the Alaskan Independence Party.
– Tony Knowles has the distinction of winning both the closest and most lopsided gubernatorial races in state history. The former Democratic mayor of Anchorage, after Hickel announced he wouldn’t seek reelection in 1994, won the closest race in state history that year by 0.24% over Republican Jim Campbell. As with the 1974 election, a third (and possibly fourth) candidate played a notable role as Independence Party candidate Jack Coghill got 13% of the vote and Patriot Party nominee Ralph Winterrowd got 0.3%. But Knowles enjoyed a historic landslide in 1998 as Republican nominee John Lindauer ran perhaps the most self-destructive campaign in Alaska’s history, collapsing in an array of scandals and finishing with less than 18% of the vote as his party official disowned him.
– Murkowski, an icon as a U.S. Senator from 1981 to 2002, suffered his own collapse after succeeding the term-limited Knowles with 56% of the vote, a record for a Republican at the time. Murkowski’s appointing of his daughter as his senate successor set a tone (along with his heavy use of a jet) that would see his approval drop to one of the nation’s lowest at 19% in 2006 when Sarah Palin trounced him the primary.
– Palin, whose exit from the governor’s mansion is among the best-known political folklore in modern U.S. history, quit after two-and-a-half years, citing the costs of ethics investigations by what she deemed political foes. But some analysts and her subsequent actions suggest she opted to take advantage of her newfound celebrity as the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008 to pursue more lucrative and high-profile activities in the national spotlight.
– Bill Walker, who in 2014 thwarted Parnell’s bid for reelection to a second full term after succeeding Palin, won a narrow race as an independent by getting Democratic nominee Byron Mallott to join the ticket as a running mate. But that move imploded as Walker, already unpopular among many voters for backing a policy that lowered Permanent Fund Dividends, withdrew three weeks before the 2018 election when Mallott resigned due to “inappropriate comments” made to a woman. Walker’s endorsement of Democratic nominee Mark Begich made the race somewhat competitive, but Dunleavy still prevailed 51.4% to 44.4%.
– Dunleavy, whose controversial early actions in office triggered a unsuccessful recall effort, rebounded this year only candidate in a statewide race to get a first-choice majority under the new ranked choice voting system. His win is largely credited by some analysts to a huge upward spike in oil prices that, along other things, allowed for generous allocations for programs in the state budget as well as the second-highest PFDs in history when adjusted for inflation. But Hellenthal dismisses that theory in favor by stating the governor “stayed in his lane. He didn’t get involved in other people’s elections” such as, for instance embracing potentially controversial candidates back by former President Donald Trump such as U.S. Senate hopeful Kelly Tshibaka. Also, the COVID-19 pandemic meant recall supporters were unable to successfully participate in signature gathering efforts, Hellenthal said.
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