The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker abruptly suspends his campaign for reelection

The independent, who had trailed Republican Mike Dunleavy, said he hopes his departure will help Democrat Mark Begich

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker (I) announces he will drop his reelection bid while addressing the Alaska Federation of Natives conference in Anchorage on Friday. (Mark Thiessen/AP)

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker ended his underdog bid for a second term Friday, ensuring that either Democrats or Republicans will take back an office that had been held by the nation’s only independent state chief executive.

“When I said I ran for governor to do the job, not make the decisions to keep the job, I meant exactly what I said,” Walker said in a statement, after making the announcement to voters in Anchorage. “Absentee ballots have already been mailed, and Alaskans are already voting. In the time remaining, I believe we cannot win a three-way race."

On Tuesday, Walker’s lieutenant governor resigned over “offensive comments,” though his office did not say what they were. A new lieutenant governor, Valerie Davidson, had been in office for just days before Walker made his announcement

Walker, who was elected in 2014 after convincing that year’s Democratic nominee to become his lieutenant governor, urged Alaskans to reject Republican front-runner Mike Dunleavy and back Democratic nominee Mark Begich, who served as U.S. senator from 2009 to 2015 and jumped into the governor’s race four months ago.

Dunleavy, Walker said, threatened to unravel Alaska’s Medicaid expansion, enact budget cuts and worsen relations between the state and Native Americans.

“It is my belief that despite my many differences with Mark Begich, his stance on the important issues I have listed above more closely align with my priorities for Alaska,” Walker said in his statement.

Republicans reacted to the news with scorn, saying that Walker had given up on a race he clearly could not win. Tracking polls had found Walker polling under 30 percent and falling into third place behind Begich.

“Bill Walker taking the coward’s way out changes nothing,” said Republican Governors Association spokesman Jon Thompson. “Ballots are printed, absentees have been mailed. Republicans will win the governorship on November 6 and clean up Bill Walker’s mess.”

According to the nonpartisan United States Election Project, 22,745 voters had already requested ballots for the November election; as of Friday morning, 1,184 had mailed them back in.

Walker, who won the 2014 election by just 2.2 points over a Republican incumbent, had become unpopular within months of taking office. The state spent most of his term in a recession, exacerbated by low oil prices. Walker raised taxes and cut back spending, in a fiscal plan that included cuts to the state’s yearly Permanent Fund Dividend, checks sent to all Alaskans.

“I reduced the PFD in 2016 so that the Legislature would find the courage to pass a fiscal plan compromise,” Walker explained in a July column for the Anchorage Daily News. “It has allowed us to forward fund education rather than pink-slipping our teachers at the end of every school year. It has allowed us to bring on badly needed prosecutors and troopers in the fight against opioids.”

Democrats, encouraged by Begich’s uptick in the polls, said Walker’s decision could give the party its best shot at the governor’s office in 20 years. Independents, who had held up Walker as a model for what could be done outside the party system, said he had fulfilled his campaign promises. Unite America, a group formed to elect more independents, had endorsed Walker for a new term and created an independent expenditure group to help him.

“We salute Governor Walker for always putting the interests of his state above any personal or partisan interest, including in his decision to suspend his campaign,” said Charles Wheelan, the founder and co-chair of Unite America. “Governor Walker will remain a role model of independent leadership to others across the country, and Unite America was proud to have supported him.”