Who's Next?

Early speculation favors Ulmer, Murkowski in the 2002 race for governor

Posted: Sunday, December 03, 2000

When one election cycle ends, positioning for the next one begins.

And so in Alaska despite the presidential campaign that wouldn't die attention has been slowly but surely turning toward the open race for governor in 2002, when Democrat Tony Knowles must leave office after two terms.

Political consultant Dave Dittman of Anchorage confirms that he has done some polling on the 2002 race already, although he's not at liberty to say for whom.

Meanwhile, former House Speaker Gail Phillips of Homer said she will announce her intentions in January, once she has formally left the Legislature. Phillips has long been considered likely to run for governor.


When decisions are made by Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer and U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, the race could take shape quickly.

Ulmer's name is usually the only one mentioned for the Democrats.

"There's nobody else out there, is there?" said Clive Thomas, political science professor at the University of Alaska Southeast.

Any Democrat pondering the race would first have to consider Ulmer's possible candidacy, said Democratic state party chairman Chris Cooke of Bethel.

"There is no Democrat in this state that could beat her in the primary," said party activist Rich Listowski of Juneau.

Ulmer, 53, a former member of the House and former mayor of Juneau, said she has been thinking about running for governor ever since working for Republican Gov. Jay Hammond in the 1970s.

"I expect I will run for public office again," she said this week. "I don't know what and when. ... Part of it's timing. If you make that decision too early, sometimes you make the wrong decision. ... I still am in the position of listening to people."


Meanwhile, Murkowski, a Republican, remains the subject of ongoing speculation. Although his Senate term isn't up until 2004, the 20-year veteran might be looking for an earlier return to Alaska, observers say.

"He doesn't like Washington, D.C.," said Anchorage pollster Marc Hellenthal. "He wants to be governor, and he wants to come back to Alaska."

Without Murkowski, there isn't a consensus front-runner in the Republican field. With him, there might be no contest.

"It would certainly make it difficult, I think, for any name except possibly (former Anchorage Mayor Rick) Mystrom to kid themselves into thinking they realistically have a shot" at the nomination, Hellenthal said.

But it might be questionable whether Murkowski, chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, would give up a powerful position in Washington to be the governor of one of the least-populated states. Only 12 senators in American history were later elected governor, although it happened three times in the 1990s, according to the records of the National Governors Association.


Murkowski has not ruled out a run for governor in 2002.

"You never say never in this business," he said during a recent teleconference with Alaska reporters. "Someday we'd like to come back to Alaska, and someday we will. In what capacity, I don't know."

The outlook for Republicans

Republicans, in addition to their veto-proof grip on the Legislature, start out with an advantage in statewide races. Among registered voters, they lead Democrats by 24 percent to 16 percent.

But "it's really under the surface where Republicans have their real advantage," said Dittman, the pollster. Independent voters in Alaska typically lean Republican, he said.

Some Republicans consider the current Democratic administration a fluke, noting that Knowles' 536-vote victory in 1994 came when Alaska Independence Party candidate Jack Coghill presumably siphoned off conservative votes from Republican nominee Jim Campbell. In 1998, Republicans self-destructed with the scandal-plagued candidacy of nominee John Lindauer, who was disavowed by the party after he was caught in lies about the source of his campaign money, triggering the last-minute write-in candidacy of Republican Sen. Robin Taylor of Wrangell.

"I think Tony Knowles would have been defeated two years ago with a good candidate," said Anchorage Sen. Loren Leman, the new Senate majority leader and a potential gubernatorial candidate in 2002.


But Dittman said Republicans shouldn't overestimate their edge going into the next campaign. "If there's anything the electorate hates, it is to be taken for granted."

Cooke, the Democratic chairman, said Republicans could overreach themselves in the Legislature by continuing to make budget cuts that put more strain on local governments and drive up property taxes. "It seems that could cause a backlash."

Moderates vs. conservatives

Republicans also must try to unite the moderate and conservative wings of the party.

One thing that could change party dynamics is a closed Republican primary, which could be in effect for the governor's race for the first time in 2002.

Ulmer, in her capacity as overseer of elections, issued an emergency order creating a two-ballot primary this year, one for Republicans and one for everybody else. That was in response to a court ruling against blanket primaries and in favor of a party's freedom of association. The emergency regulation has expired, however, and now it is up to the Legislature to decide what to do about primaries in 2002 and thereafter.

Some Republicans say their closed primary would cut down on potential mischief by Democrats crossing over and trying to nominate the weakest Republican candidate. Such mischief explains the nomination of Lindauer, said Taylor, who finished second in the 1998 primary. With a closed primary, Democrats and members of other parties would have to change their party registration in order to vote Republican.

But some Democrats counter that the closed primary would make Republican conservatives more powerful and increase the chance of a hard-right nominee, who then could be defeated by a centrist Democrat.


Republicans mentioned as possible conservative candidates for the nomination are Taylor, Leman and Anchorage lawyer Wayne Anthony Ross, a 1998 gubernatorial candidate known for strong pro-gun and pro-life views. Among those touted as moderates are Mystrom, who finished up two terms as Anchorage mayor earlier this year, Phillips, and Sen. Drue Pearce of Anchorage.

Mystrom, a former assembly member who also headed up Anchorage's bid for the Olympics, has been a longtime public figure in Alaska's most populous area and is presumed to have a head-start in name-recognition among Republican primary voters.

Mystrom, 56, who owns and manages 20 apartment buildings, previously owned an advertising agency. During his six years as mayor, Anchorage became a cleaner and safer place to live, he says. He plans to make a decision about the gubernatorial race next summer.

"I think Rick Mystrom is looking at the Tony Knowles model," Listowski said, referring to the governor's background as an Anchorage businessman and former mayor steering a middle-of-the-road course.

Ross said, though, that Mystrom shares with other Republican hopefuls the stigma of being a professional politician. "If I run, I'd see myself as a new face in a tired crowd," Ross said.

"I don't think Mystrom has the statewide appeal of any of the other candidates," said Wev Shea, a Republican activist from Anchorage. "That's not to say he's not a quality individual."

Bow out of office for six months, Mystrom "is losing his name-recognition every day," said Gerald McBeath, political science professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Taylor said the challenge for Republicans is to unite behind a single, viable candidate and not be distracted by "anybody with a million dollars falling off a turnip truck."

"If they're able to pull it together, they'll likely win," McBeath said.


Ulmer's stature

Ulmer, widely praised as intelligent and capable, presents herself as the most active lieutenant governor in state history. She has had leading roles on information technology, fisheries, rural infrastructure, telecommunications and children's health and safety, among other issues.

Hellenthal, the pollster, said Ulmer has high name-recognition numbers statewide and a "very, very small negative." Leman said he would regard her as "a formidable opponent."

But some doubt her electability.

"I think she's a very competent woman," McBeath said. "(But) I don't think she has the kind of personal skills our most recent governors have had to make the broad connections. She certainly doesn't have the Knowles magic."

Conversely, Ulmer will suffer from the governor's failure to make progress on subsistence and a long-range fiscal plan, McBeath said.

Cooke said, though, that the Knowles mix of pro-development and pro-safety net policies is "a balanced approach" that would serve Ulmer well.

Thomas of UAS said: "I think it boils down to this: If Fran gets the nomination - and she's head and shoulders the most articulate politician in the state, except for the governor ... - it'll boil down to a personality thing. ... It'll boil down to a personality contest between the two candidates."

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