Juneau Democrats divided over Begich campaign

Juneau Democrats divided over Begich campaign

In state’s bluest district, discontent and requests for Democratic candidate to withdraw

Juneau is normally a Democratic stronghold, but when it comes to this year’s race for governor, it is a town divided.

With days remaining until the deadline for a candidate to withdraw from a race, dozens of Democratic supporters in Juneau have signed a petition urging their party’s candidate, Mark Begich, to withdraw from the race.

They are among 700 people, including some sitting lawmakers, who have signed the petition.

“I think the Democratic Party and those who are affiliated with it … are quite divided,” said former Juneau mayor Bruce Botelho, one of the people who signed the petition.

This year, instead of supporting the Democratic Party’s candidate, Botelho has signed up as a regional co-chair for the re-election of independent Gov. Bill Walker.

He’s not alone: Walker signs dot lawns across the capital city, and fundraisers for the governor have taken place in the homes of families who traditionally vote for Democratic candidates.

Kim Metcalfe has seen the division closer than most. She used to lead the Tongass Democrats, the Democratic organization for Juneau. Now, she’s director of Begich for Alaska, an independent expenditure group intended to support Begich’s run for governor.

“You’re going to start to see things, I think, start to swing in favor of Begich,” she said.

She supports the Democratic candidate even though members of her own family have signed the petition.

“That petition, I don’t know how much good that does anybody,” she said.

“I think it’s kind of juvenile.”

In House District 33, which covers Haines, Skagway, Douglas and downtown Juneau, 23 percent of registered voters are registered as Democrats. That’s a higher proportion than any other district in Alaska.

Statewide, there are just under 75,000 registered Democrats in Alaska. There are more than 140,000 registered Republicans. In order to win statewide office, a Democrat needs to win over a significant fraction of the state’s nonpartisan and undeclared voters while holding on to their base.

Begich did that in 2008, when he was elected to the U.S. Senate over longtime incumbent Ted Stevens. (There were other factors in play as well. Stevens was convicted in a criminal trial just before the election, only to see the convictions subsequently reversed.)

This time around, Democrats are divided for two main reasons.

In 2014, Walker joined Democratic gubernatorial candidate Byron Mallott in a “unity ticket” for governor.

Mallott became lieutenant governor, and he brought many Democrats into the new administration.

“The Juneau Democrats, overall, I think adopted well to the unity ticket in 2014 and would like to see a continuation of the efforts reflected in that unity ticket,” Botelho said.

The second factor is that many Democratic voters are thinking strategically in the general election.

Polls throughout the summer have indicated that a three-way race among Begich, Walker and Republican Mike Dunleavy will result in the election of Dunleavy.

In early July, when the first of those polls was released to the public, Begich traveled to Juneau and said Walker’s performance in the polls was declining and Dunleavy’s was stagnant.

Now, the latest polls show Dunleavy has slightly improved, while the performance of Walker and Begich has held firm. While polls variously show Walker leading Begich or vice-versa in a three-way race, Dunleavy is consistently in the lead.

That changes if the three-way race shrinks to two. Polls predicated on that condition show Begich and Walker each beating Dunleavy if they are his only major-party opponent.

Neither Begich nor Walker have shown any signs of bowing out, however.

“It’s scary, but he’s a numbers guy and he’s looked at those numbers and has figured there’s a way to win,” Metcalfe said.

A Begich spokeswoman said Friday that Begich intends to remain in the race, and both Walker and Begich have campaign events scheduled well past Tuesday, the withdrawal deadline.

• Contact reporter James Brooks at jbrooks@juneauempire.com or 523-2258.

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