In 2002, Alaska could become only the second state in at least 30 years to have two women running as major party candidates for governor.
Even as Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer is considered a prohibitive favorite for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2002, early speculation mentions either of two prominent women as a potential Republican nominee. Gail Phillips of Homer, former speaker of the House, and Drue Pearce of Anchorage, former president of the Senate, are said to be thinking about bids for the Republican nomination.
"There could be two women candidates," said Clive Thomas, political science professor at the University of Alaska Southeast.
"I think it could be very exciting," said Arliss Sturgulewski of Anchorage, so far the only woman ever nominated by a major party for governor in Alaska. "To me, it's a coming of age" for the state.
Gerald McBeath, political science professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, remains skeptical that Alaskans will get to choose between two women. "I don't see it as likely. I see Ulmer running against some old white guy."
With last month's election, there soon will be five women governors, bringing to 18 the number of women who have held the post.
Connecticut's Ella Grasso, elected in her own right in 1975, was the first not to succeed her husband. In 1986, Kay Orr defeated Helen Boosalis for governor of Nebraska, the only time since at least 1970 - and perhaps ever - that both the Democratic and Republican nominees have been women, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Some Alaskans probably aren't ready yet for a woman governor, but it is not an insurmountable obstacle, said Anchorage pollster Marc Hellenthal. Ulmer is a virtual shoo-in on the Democratic ticket if she chooses to run, he said.
Ulmer said she doesn't feel her chances of winning the general election are diminished by her sex.
"I can't speak with any data," she said. "I can only tell you based on my personal experience, the state is open and willing to accept women in leadership positions."
A conservative woman might do better than a liberal, according to Anchorage pollster Dave Dittman, because she would pick up some votes from liberal women even while keeping the conservative base.
Both Phillips and Pearce are perceived as moderates within the Republican party. While that might help in the general election, they probably would face competition from conservatives in the primary.
In addition to Sturgulewski's two bids for governor, women have run for other statewide offices in Alaska, also without success. Democrat Peggy Begich, widow of U.S. Rep. Nick Begich, took on her late husband's successor, Don Young, in the 1980s. Democratic Sen. Georgianna Lincoln also failed against Young, in 1996. Democrat Theresa Obermeyer lost in a landslide to U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens that year, finishing third behind the Republican incumbent and the Green Party nominee.
The Green Party has fielded a woman congressional candidate, Joni Whitmore, in 1994, and a woman gubernatorial candidate, Desa Jacobsson, in 1998. Other minor parties have had statewide candidates, as well.
Alaska is one of six states that never has sent a woman to the U.S. Senate or the House, and three of the others New Hampshire, Vermont and Delaware have elected women governors. That leaves Alaska with Mississippi and Iowa as the states that haven't had a woman in Congress or in the governor's mansion.
But Sturgulewski, a Republican, said she's not sure if being a woman hurt her campaigns for governor, against Democrat Steve Cowper in 1986, and against Democrat Tony Knowles and Alaska Independence Party candidate Walter Hickel in 1990, a race won by Hickel. She said she might have been defeated because she was on the unpopular side of some issues.
And Rich Listowski of Juneau, a longtime Democratic activist, said there isn't a barrier to women.
"I don't think that is something that matters any more here or in any state," Listowski said. "I think Fran Ulmer would make a wonderful governor. ... If we had to have a Republican governor, I wouldn't mind Gail Phillips."
"I think Gail Phillips is a real fine candidate," agreed Republican activist Wev Shea of Anchorage.
Phillips and Ulmer "represent the best this state has to offer, on both sides," Shea said. "I think Alaska is ready for something like that. I certainly feel at this time it (being a woman) is certainly not a disadvantage, and because of the quality of these two ladies, it may be an advantage."