With nachos and margaritas on the menu, and a view of the Chugach Mountains from the window, well over 100 Alaskans gathered here this week in the unlikely setting of a Mexican restaurant. They had come to support the gubernatorial candidacy of Bill Walker, an independent who has teamed up with his Democrat rival to form a so-called “unity ticket” against the current Republican governor of Alaska, Sean Parnell.
There have been independent governors in other US states, but Mr Walker believes this is the first example of two former opponents campaigning as running mates. Perhaps even more remarkable is the support that Mr Walker and his Democrat sidekick, Byron Mallott, have received from one former Alaska governor: Mr Parnell’s Republican predecessor, Sarah Palin.
The endorsement from the 2008 US vice-presidential candidate and self-described “Mama Grizzly”, who hosted a reception for the pair at her Wasilla home this month, was unexpected. “There have been lots of surprises in this whole process,” Mr Walker told The Independent. “But that was a good surprise.”
The state that produced Ms Palin also voted overwhelmingly for Mitt Romney in 2012, but Alaskan politics have rarely been as simple as red versus blue. Fifty-three per cent of Alaskan voters are unaffiliated with either of the main parties – a higher proportion than in almost any other state in the US. The polls currently favour Mr Walker to win next week’s election.
Ms Palin’s reasons for endorsing Mr Parnell’s opponents are as much personal as political. Mr Parnell served as her lieutenant-governor until her resignation in 2009, but he was never her first choice as deputy. And since taking over as governor, he has reversed her signature legislative achievement, cutting the hefty taxes she imposed on oil and gas companies operating in Alaska. This summer, Ms Palin backed a failed ballot measure to have the tax rises reinstated. Meanwhile, Mr Parnell has presided over a deepening state deficit.
Not all the voters at Mr Walker’s fundraiser welcomed Ms Palin’s support. “I was hoping she would just be quiet and not endorse anybody,” said Cheryl Eluska, 43, a sales administrator, as her friends nodded in agreement. “Sometimes she does more harm than good.”
Even before she stepped down 17 months early to make a reality TV show, write bestselling books and become a regular pundit for Fox News, Ms Palin was a divisive figure in Alaskan public life. Bob Weel, 62, a retired Rotarian, said: “A lot of people in Alaska have very hard feelings about her abandoning ship like she did. And that’s how Sean Parnell got into office in the first place.”
A recent survey by Public Policy Polling found that more than half of Alaskan voters had an unfavourable opinion of their former governor. The same poll also found that 30 per cent blamed Ms Palin’s family for allegedly starting a brawl at a birthday party in Anchorage in September.
For a brief period early in the Obama years, Ms Palin was the new face of the Republican Party. Today, she is not so much a politician as a celebrity – and, to some in Alaska, a liability. She wields far more influence on the national stage than in her own state.
Shannyn Moore, an Alaskan journalist whom Ms Palin once threatened to sue for allegedly spreading defamatory rumours about her, wrote a column calling for a unity ticket to defeat Mr Parnell a year before Mr Walker and Mr Mallott joined forces. “There are Democrats who say, ‘I can’t vote for someone Sarah Palin is voting for,’” Ms Moore said. “But my attitude is: even a blind squirrel finds a nut.”Reuse content