ANCHORAGE - Republican Frank Murkowski, who has been Alaska's junior senator for 22 years, rolled to victory Tuesday to become Alaska's next governor.
In what some expected to be a close race, the former Fairbanks banker beat Democratic Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer of Juneau by a 56-41 percentage margin.
Heavy campaigning by Republicans and Democrats left four smaller parties with an insignificant number of votes. Because they won less than 3 percent of the ballots in the governor's race, several of the parties will have to work harder to place future candidates on the ballot.
In a state with a surplus of more than $2 billion that hasn't collected an income tax in a generation, Murkowski said the election turned on his stance not to raise taxes despite dour predictions about the state's finances.
"The bottom line is that we are not going in there with the intention of taxing," Murkowski said. "Alaskans expect that and we are certainly not going to permit that."
For more Juneau Empire coverage of the November 5 general election, please visit the Juneau Empire Elections Guide.
Murkowski becomes the first Republican governor elected since 1978, although longtime Republican Walter Hickel won in 1990 by running on the Alaskan Independence Party ticket. Murkowski also will be able to appoint the successor to his two-year unexpired Senate seat under a law passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature.
He gave no hint Tuesday night about who he might appoint to his Senate seat.
The 69-year-old Murkowski was led into the Sullivan Arena in Anchorage by a throng of supporters waving campaign signs that read, among other things, "vote to protect your wallet."
Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles leaves office after eight years due to term limits, and Murkowski's overriding theme was that the state economy stagnated during that time.
"I think the show of support and enthusiasm of all Alaskans is evidence that our campaign had a message of growing the state. It's the right message," Murkowski said.
He faced a spirited challenge from Ulmer, a former Juneau mayor and legislator. Ulmer was vying to be the first female elected governor in Alaska and the first from Southeast. She had never lost an election before Tuesday.
With 99 percent of the precincts reporting today, Murkowski had 56 percent of the vote to 41 percent for Ulmer. In Juneau, voters favored Ulmer with 57 percent of the vote compared to Murkowski's 41 percent.
As the state Division of Elections posted election returns at a gathering in Sullivan Arena, Ulmer braced for defeat.
"The numbers look like Sen. Murkowski has won. But I feel as though we've won in some important ways in making the issues education, economic development and solving the fiscal gap," Ulmer said at a gathering of supporters at the Sullivan Arena.
Murkowski, who had turned down past pleas to run as the Republican candidate, was heavily favored in this race. Despite holding statewide office, Ulmer was unknown to a fourth of the state in early polls.
How Juneau voted
Governor: Fran Ulmer won her hometown with 57 percent of the vote compared to Frank Murkowski's 41 percent.
Ballot Measure 2: Almost 96 percent of Juneau voters opposed the move with 4 percent voting for it.
The other candidates in the governor's race were Libertarian Billy Toien, Green Party candidate Diane Benson, Raymond VinZant Sr. of the Republican Moderate Party and Alaskan Independence candidate Don Wright.
None of the candidates won the 3 percent of the overall vote needed to retain his or her group's status as a recognized political party in Alaska, which makes it easier to put candidates on future ballots. The AIP, however, has more than 3 percent of registered voters signed up as members, so it maintains its official party status.
Benson was the most successful small-party candidate with 1.23 percent of the vote. Wright was next with 0.93 percent, VinZant with 0.63 percent and Toien with 0.45 percent.
Ulmer and Murkowski sparred on many issues, but the constant theme was Alaska's budget problems. Murkowski, who made a career in Washington, D.C., out of promoting development of the state's natural resources, made that theme central to his plan to dig Alaska out of the fiscal doldrums.
Alaska relies on oil for about 80 percent of its revenues, and as North Slope fields age and production declines the state coffers are often short. The state's $2.1 billion Constitutional Budget Reserve is expected to be drained within the next governor's first term.
While Ulmer pledged to tackle the budget problem by moving away from the state's reliance on oil, Murkowski took the opposite approach, pledging to spur a 3 percent increase in oil production annually by 2005.
Amid dire predictions by Democrats who warned that the state's Permanent Fund Dividend Program was threatened without a plan to increase revenues, Murkowski said more belt-tightening was needed.
Ulmer proposed a "parachute plan" that automatically triggers new taxes when the state's reserve falls below $1 billion. Alaska, which hasn't paid a statewide income tax since 1980, is largely anti-tax and that message was resonating at the polls.
Empire staffer Ed Schoenfeld contributed to this report.