Republican Gov. Sean Parnell managed to lose his seat in a red state in a red year.
On Friday, multiple media outlets called Alaska's gubernatorial race for independent Bill Walker. More ballots still need to be counted but Walker currently holds a 48-46 percent lead over Republican Gov. Sean Parnell, who has conceded. Parnell is only one of two Republican governors to lose during what was an incredibly good year for his party. His defeat is all the more notable since Alaska Republicans defeated Democratic Sen. Mark Begich the same night.
This was one of the stranger races of a very turbulent election year. At the beginning of the cycle Parnell looked like the heavy favorite to win, but there were signs that Alaskans wanted a change. A Public Policy Polling survey from February of 2013 found Parnell leading each of his hypothetical Democratic challengers, but only sporting a 46-44 job approval rating. Parnell's poor relationship with the legislature, his huge tax cut for oil companies, and his eventual decision to reject the Medicaid expansion led to a general sense of fatigue with the incumbent. While voters in this red state weren't necessarily ready to turn the governor's mansion over to a Democrat, they were willing to consider alternatives to Parnell.
Where did things go wrong for Parnell? Head over the fold to find out.
With the polls showing Parnell destroying the competition, the governor did not adequately prepare for a real race. This proved to be a major mistake. From the beginning of the 2014 cycle it was clear that both parties would drop enormous sums of cash on the U.S. Senate contest, and that any other statewide campaigns would need to raise and spend real money to get their message through the clutter. There was no way that any state-level candidate could compete with all the spending that would go into the nationally watched Senate race, but a smart campaign could at least ensure that it could get its message out. But Parnell didn't make the preparations he needed to make, calculating that he was safe.
And for a time it looked like he was. Democrats were fielding Byron Mallott, the little-known former director of the Alaska Permanent Fund, while Walker was running as an independent. Walker, a former mayor of Valdez, had lost to Parnell 50-34 in the 2010 Republican primary and he seemed credible enough to split the anti-Parnell vote but not strong enough to win a three-way race. PPP's February 2014 poll confirmed this, finding Parnell leading Mallott 41-26, with Walker at 15. Parnell's approval rating was only 44-41, barely changed from a year ago, but the governor still looked certain to win another term.
However, in early September Parnell's life got a whole lot more difficult. After initially resisting Walker's calls to drop out of the race, Mallott ended up doing just that. The Democrat joined Walker's ticket as his running mate, forming an anti-Parnell unity ticket. As a Republican-turned-independent, Walker could reach out to voters who didn't like Parnell but didn't like Democrats either. Polling data conformed that the deal had transformed this into a real race. In August Parnell led Mallott and Walker 37-22-20 respectively; in September PPP found Walker leading 42-41.
Parnell's campaign began to cut ads for this suddenly competitive contest, but it was too late. Both parties and their allies had purchased so much ad time for the Senate race that Parnell couldn't buy much space when he finally decided he needed to. In mid-October, National Journal reported that while 51,041 spots had aired in the Senate contest on state broadcast TV, only 1,300 had aired in the gubernatorial race. To make matters worse for Parnell, only 170 of those ads were his.
Parnell ran a hard-hitting commercial against Walker but could only air it in the Juneau media market, where just 12 percent of the state lives. Ongoing questions about how Parnell handled sexual-assault cases in the state National Guard only made things worse for the governor. A group affiliated with the Republican Governors Association aired some ads for Parnell in late October, but they couldn't buy many more eyeballs than Parnell could.
PPP's final poll, released days before the election, found Parnell sporting a 44-45 job approval rating, not all that different than the 46-44 rating they had found almost two years ago. However, Walker had emerged from the campaign with a 45-26 favorable rating, much better than the 31-19 score PPP initially gave him in August. If Parnell could not improve his own image he at least needed to damage Walker's, but few voters ever saw his anti-Walker messaging.
Parnell's mediocre approval ratings were nearly enough to win him another term in a red state in a red year. But in the end, Alaskans fired him even as Begich was losing his own seat. This type of bipartisan incumbent loss is incredibly rare: Eric Ostermeier of the University of Minnesota's Smart Politics blog tells us that the last time a sitting senator and governor from opposite parties lost re-election at the same time was in 1990 in Minnesota, when Democratic Gov. Rudy Perpich and Republican Sen. Rudy Boschwitz were both tossed. Ultimately, Parnell's weak campaign turned what probably could have been a close win into a close loss.
Parnell's defeat offers a few lessons. Incumbents should be careful about being misled by optimistic early poll match-ups. Parnell's initial approval rating proved to be much more important than his leads against hypothetical opponents. It's notable that Parnell's approvals barely moved during the entire campaign, even as the horserace numbers did.
Candidates should also be ready for the unexpected to happen. Mallott dropping out and joining Walker was certainly a surprise but it was never out of the realm of possibility. Indeed, as early as July, Walker began arguing that he could beat the governor if Mallott would drop out. This arrangement looked unlikely back then but Parnell should have prepared for it. If he had purchased ad time back in July he could have gotten his message out instead of being frozen out in the fall.
However, Parnell's biggest mistake wasn't that he didn't prepare for the unpredictable, it was that he didn't prepare for the predictable. Parnell and everyone else knew from day one that the Senate race would be a titanic affair. Even if he thought he was safe, it made sense to raise enough money and purchase enough early ad time just in case things went south. It's always better to waste money on an easy re-election than to not have funds for a competitive race.
In the end Parnell failed to notice the early signs that he was vulnerable, failed to acknowledge that the three-way race could suddenly turn into a two-way fight, and failed to recognize that the Senate race could cause him problems. Lazy pundits will claim that Sarah Palin's late endorsement won the race for Walker, but the reality is that had Parnell taken his re-election seriously from the start, he would almost certainly be the winner rather than one of the few Republicans to lose in 2014.