No other state, except for Arkansas, has fewer registered Democrats than Alaska. Democrats make up just over 13% of the Alaska electorate.
Alaskans have sent Republican candidates to the governor’s office for the last 24 years, with the exception of independent Bill Walker in 2014, who is running again in 2022.
Yet Les Gara, a former state lawmaker, insists that his Democratic bid for governor is not quixotic but competitive.
“My views are very mainstream,” Gara said, identifying his support for gun rights, mining and the oil and gas industry.
“I fish. I believe in the right to bear arms. I believe in funding the police. I’m pro-development,” Gara said in an interview last week with the News-Miner.
In 2022, five of the seven announced Alaska gubernatorial candidates are Republicans, including incumbent Gov. Mike Dunleavy. Gara is the singular Democrat.
“I don’t go by party labels,” Gara said. “People care what you do, not what party you belong to. I believe in strong public schools. I believe in building an economy with jobs again.”
Gara said his pro-choice, pro-development campaign could draw from that large swath of Alaska voters, at nearly 60%, who are nonpartisan or undeclared.
Under ranked choice voting, all candidates appear on the same ballot regardless of party affiliation.
The Alaska Democratic Party state convention in Seward is weeks away, with highlights that include a dinner cruise in Resurrection Bay. But can the Democratic Party make a comeback in the Alaska governor’s race?
Fairbanks Democrats in state office
Fairbanks voters have elected several Democrats to state office, including Rep. Grier Hopkins and Sens. Scott Kawasaki and Adam Wool.
“Fairbanks Democrats are more pragmatic, moderate and we all work together better here no matter the party,” Hopkins said. “That comes from the understanding that when it’s 40 below and your car breaks down, it doesn’t matter which party you’re registered [to]; we put on our boots and help each other.”
Said Kawasaki: “While partisan numbers are much higher for Republicans than Democrats, the overwhelming majority of Fairbanksans and Alaskans remain independent and nonpartisan, and they vote for the person and not the party.
“The new ranked choice vote will also allow for a diversity at the polls which will help independent-minded candidates much more this year,” Kawasaki said.
Wool said that “Fairbanks is a university town and those with degrees in higher education tend to vote Democrat in higher numbers.
“There are also pockets in Fairbanks, such as Ester and Goldstream, that are known to be liberal and that tend to attract like-minded individuals,” Wool said.
Asked if he is endorsing a candidate for governor, Wool replied: “I am endorsing Bill Walker for governor, who is an Independent.”
Crossover and nonpartisan votes
Gara noted the significant number of crossover and nonpartisan votes he’s drawn in past elections as a Democratic state lawmaker from west Anchorage.
“We always receive the bulk of independent and a large number of Republican votes as well,” Gara said.
As a gubernatorial candidate, Gara’s agenda includes support for public education, job training and natural resource development with limits.
“Mining done responsibly is great. I support our oil industry. But there is a mine in western Alaska, the Pebble Mine. That is a mine too far, a danger to the world’s greatest remaining salmon runs, and I have fought that longer than anyone in this race,” Gara said.
“Gov. Dunleavy is one of the few remaining people in the state who supports it,” Gara said. ”He is supporting a Canadian mining company over the people of the region and the state’s fish.”
Gara served as an assistant attorney general prosecuting Exxon in the civil case over the Valdez oil spill.
As candidate for governor, his economic agenda includes support for oil and gas drilling, a pillar of the Alaska economy. Gara said he would end the state’s tax credits for major oil companies that do business in Alaska.
“This state does not have the money for schools or the university that helps hold the Fairbanks economy together or a construction budget that puts people to work, because this governor has given away $1.3 billion in oil tax subsidies to some of the wealthiest companies in the world,” Gara said.
Gara asserts that the money the state forgoes in tax credits could help fund K-12 education, which has not had a per-pupil budget increase since 2017.
He said the money also could replenish the University of Alaska budget after several years of cuts and fewer programs and courses.
“People are leaving the state, because they don’t see a commitment to public education and to their kids. And they don’t see jobs for their kids in the future or for themselves,” Gara said. “I want to change that.”