JUNEAU -- Few political observers were surprised by Gov. Sean Parnell’s decision to seek re-election on Friday, despite speculation that he'd also be a leading candidate to challenge Democrat Mark Begich for the U.S. Senate.
"He's done in my opinion a good job since he's been in there, so it didn't surprise me or shock me," said House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, who had previously been considering a run for governor himself. Now, he said, four more years of Parnell could give the state some much-needed consistency in state government policies.
"It may bring some stability, you are not constantly at odds or trying to figure out what a new governor may have in store" when you have a governor serve for eight years or more, he said.
Another influential Republican, Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, echoed that. "I'm very happy he's running for re-election, I think its good for Alaska," he said.
"There's things he started that we need to finish," he said, citing continued work on energy issues, especially for Interior Alaska, and Parnell’s Choose Respect campaign that's trying the deal with the state's epidemic of domestic and sexual violence. "Choose Respect is not just a slogan with him, he really wants to help people who are in those circumstances," Coghill said.
Four more years as governor may mean Parnell is able to win the kind of lasting victory that escaped former Gov. Sarah Palin after she persuaded the Alaska Legislature to reform oil taxes following a corruption scandal -- but then resigned office following two-and-a-half tumultuous years that included a vice-presidential run.
Parnell initially continued to support Palin's Alaska's Clear and Equitable Share oil tax plan, but later reversed course and said taxes needed to be lowered to bring about more oil production. Democrats criticized that switch, which led to this year's Senate Bill 21.
“Governor Parnell took a $5 billion surplus and turned it into billion dollar deficits. Alaska can’t afford another four years of an oil lobbyist as governor,” said Mike Wenstrup, chair of the Alaska Democratic Party. “Don Young said it best when he nicknamed Parnell ‘Captain Zero.’”
Earlier in his career, Parnell served as a lobbyist for ConocoPhillips, the state's largest oil producer.
So which Republicans will oppose Begich?
Democrats do not yet have an announced candidate for governor, said Zack Fields, spokesman for the party.
Parnell's decision leaves a wide open race for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, to challenge first-term Democrat Mark Begich. Early polling suggested that Parnell would have been the strongest candidate to take on Begich in the heavily Republican state.
Following Parnell's announcement Friday, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell announced on his Facebook page that he was "intensifying" his look at running for Senate, but said he had not yet made any decision.
"We are intensifying our exploratory effort for the U.S. Senate. I've received great encouragement from all across Alaska, We need a credible conservative candidate who can defeat Mark Begich in 2014. If I get into the race, I will be in it to win," Treadwell said.
Treadwell ran for office with Parnell as a team, but appeared to have had differences later. At one point Parnell sent Treadwell a letter, leaked to the press, telling him to confine himself to his lieutenant governor duties, and not meddle in other areas.
Also possibly interested in seeking the Republican Senate nomination may be Joe Miller, who won it once before, against incumbent Lisa Murkowski.
That startling defeat for Murkowski showed a strong divide between mainstream and Tea Party Republicans in Alaska, but Murkowski ran as a write-in candidate in the general election and came back to reclaim her seat.
Parnell became governor in 2009 when then-Gov. Sarah Palin resigned with a year and a half left in her term. Parnell ran for election as Palin's lieutenant governor, as the two vowed to restore credibility to the Republican Party shaken by corruption scandals and some unpopular positions taken by former Gov. Frank Murkowski, who Palin handily defeated in the Republican primary. Palin and Parnell then defeated another former governor, Democrat Tony Knowles, to win office.
Following Palin's surprise resignation, Parnell kept much of her staff and policies as he filled out the four-year term of office to which she'd been elected, but he followed up by winning his own term, easily defeating Democrat Ethan Berkowitz.
A former legislator himself, and a former co-chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, Parnell knew legislative processes, and following last year's redistricting effort, the solid Republican control of the Legislature ensured more success with his agenda.
Many of the issues that Parnell has said are important to him, including fighting what he calls the federal government's encroachment on Alaska affairs and opposing national initiatives such as ObamaCare, are more federal than state issues.
Parnell has run for national office once before, when as lieutenant governor he challenged - and came within a hair of defeating - longtime U.S. Representative Don Young.
In that campaign, Parnell had the backing of Tea Party activists, many of who expressed suspicion of Young's establishment ties, as well as then-wildly popular Sarah Palin. Young fought back aggressively to hold onto his seat, however, including coining the term "Captain Zero" to denigrate the low-key Parnell during the campaign.
'A terrible legacy'
Democrats in the Legislature said they, too, had expected Parnell to run for re-election.
"I'm not surprised," said House Democratic Leader Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau. While she said she personally liked Parnell, she doesn't agree with his stance on oil taxes. Parnell's tenure as governor "is going to be a terrible legacy unless we can get the referendum passed, she said.
Kerttula and other opponents of Senate Bill 21 are supporting a citizen referendum to overturn the bill by public vote. If enough signatures are gathered to qualify, the referendum could be on the ballot the same time as the gubernatorial primary featuring Parnell and Walker.
Former Valdez mayor Bill Walker has already announced he'll challenge Parnell for the Republican nomination, and Friday's news serves as an unofficial campaign kickoff.
Walker: Parnell will hopefully 'show up' to defend oil-tax policy
Walker was thrilled to hear that he'd have the opportunity to challenge Parnell in the Republican primary; Friday evening, he was quick to go on the offensive against the popular incumbent, calling the governor's oil tax policies "disgraceful" and a giveaway of the state's valuable natural resources to profiteers.
"I’m surprised he's running. I thought he'd already given away everything he could give away," a jab at Parnell's signature legislative victory, the recently-passed oil tax reform known as Senate Bill 21, which adjusts the state's royalties and returns on oil, revenue upon which the state's government and public services are heavily dependent.
"Parnell transferred over $1 billion to the oil companies but asked for nothing in return. Shame on him and shame on us," Walker said, adding that SB 21 in his view takes Alaska from being "an owner state to an owned state."
"We need someone who understands how the (state's oil and gas leases) and who understands the Prudhoe operating agreements" Alaska has entered into with producers.
Walker was very fired up and excited to take on Parnell over his oil-and-gas policies.
Walker said there was one last "giveaway" Parnell could yet achieve, the "gasline," a massive project to deliver Alaska's natural gas reserves to market. Parnell has been actively trying to jumpstart the stalled project, negotiating with the companies that control leases to develop Alaska's natural gas.
"I just hope he'll show up for the debates this time," Walker added, alluding to the governor abstaining from debate with Republican primary challengers in the 2010 contest.
Alaska Dispatch staffers Alex DeMarban and Eric Adams contributed to this report. Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com