Parnell's challenge adds spice to GOP rift

Posted: Sunday, March 16, 2008

The best political fight in Alaska right now isn't between the Democrats and Republicans.

It's all within the GOP.

The infighting escalated Friday when Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell stunned delegates at the state Republican convention in Anchorage, saying he was challenging U.S. Rep. Don Young for the congressional seat.

No Republican in the room was more shocked than Don Young, who has been in that office since 1973.

"This is good stuff; it's fun," said Gerald McBeath, political scientist professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "This is what people have been waiting for."

If there were going to be any fireworks from the convention, most political observers said they would have come from party reformists trying to unseat GOP Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich.

That didn't happen. On Saturday, delegates voted 167-133 to table a call for Reudrich to resign.

Parnell's announcement so far is the most decisive act in a festering split in the state's most dominant party, and has further driven a wedge between up-and-comers and the old guard, a faction beleaguered by an ongoing federal corruption investigation.

And the two candidates quickly made known to which end of the party split their loyalties lie.

Shortly after his announcement, Parnell officially filed for office with Gov. Sarah Palin at his side. And she later offered her ringing endorsement of Parnell.

Within hours, Young's campaign issued a news release, in which he invoked the name of U.S. Ted Stevens, the longest serving Republican in Senate history: "Senator Stevens and I have been a winning team for some time now."

If any member of the administration were to have made the leap into higher politics, many thought it might have been Palin. She has been rumored to be a possible GOP vice presidential candidate, while others expected her to challenge Stevens for his Senate seat.

However, her own stunning announcement earlier this month - she's seven months pregnant - may quell that speculation.

Palin remains the most outspoken critic of her own Republican party, undaunted in questioning established party leaders and congressional members.

Last year, Palin went against the grain and some say the GOP's 11th Commandment - never speak ill of another Republican - when she said Stevens should explain to Alaskans why federal agents raided his house in Girdwood. Stevens is under investigation for remodeling work done at his house. Former VECO Corp. CEO Bill Allen has testified he sent employees for the remodeling; Stevens says he's paid every bill presented to him, and hasn't been charged.

This year, Palin wanted the same type of answers from Young, whose campaign spent nearly $850,000 on legal fees last year, but he won't explain why. Young said it was his business; Palin said the state's citizens deserve answers.

Recently others have joined the spat, siding with Palin.

Last week, regional party official Joe Miller of Fairbanks began a push to have Ruedrich step down as party chairman during the convention or face a potential vote to oust him.

Ruedrich survived the attempt to oust him in a raucous convention that wrapped up Saturday night in Anchorage. Ruedrich's detractors failed to win approval of a resolution calling for his resignation.

Parnell on Friday shook off the shackles of invisibility that inevitably come with the lieutenant governor's job, and joined the fray against the Alaska GOP's old guard.

Parnell says he's concerned about the state's reputation on Capitol Hill.

"Other members of Congress are running away from Alaska's congressman because they don't want our Alaska congressman's excess hanging round their necks," Parnell said. "We have to work on mending wounds in Alaska and America."

Eloquent statements notwithstanding, Young says he knows where Parnell will be working in a year's time, and it won't have a Washington, D.C., zip code.

"If you wanted to run for this job, you should have done it two years ago instead of running for lieutenant governor," Young said. "You wanted that job. Stay where you are, and that's where you're going to be."

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