In what might have been Anchorage’s best-kept secret, Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell used the Alaska Republican Party’s recent convention as his platform to launch a primary bid against embattled Rep. Don Young.
At least it was enough of a secret that it did not come up during breakfast chatter at the convention on March 14, where Parnell and Young shared a table
prior to the lieutenant governor’s announcement that he would challenge the 18-term Alaska legend.
“Parnell sat at breakfast that morning with Young at the convention and didn’t talk about it at all,” said Young campaign spokesman Mike Anderson. “And it obviously wasn’t a spur of the moment decision.”
Anderson said Young was not informed via phone call or other means that his fellow Republican would reveal his plan to challenge the incumbent at the convention.
“The bottom line is that it took a lot of folks for surprise and obviously the governor and [lieutenant governor] had fathered it through,” Anderson added.
Alaska Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich said he, like everyone else in the room, was surprised to hear Parnell’s announcement.
“I’ve known him for a long time, and I consider him to be one of our most capable people in the party,” Ruedrich said of Parnell.
Young already had drawn one challenger, state Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux (R), but many local observers doubted whether she could mount a competitive challenge to Young’s machine.
Parnell, on the other hand, has served in both the state House and co-chaired the state Senate Finance committee. His father, Pat Parnell, lost to Young in the 1980 general election.
Parnell also is closely tied with the very popular Gov. Sarah Palin (R), who has some of the highest approval ratings in the country. Known for her 2006 outsider candidacy and mission to reform the state’s Republican politics, Palin reportedly went with Parnell to file his candidacy in an effort to show her support for him.
“He is her lieutenant governor,” Ruedrich said. “He helped her get elected. Returning the favor seems the appropriate thing to do.”
Ruedrich himself has a tenuous history with Palin. When both were serving on the state’s oil and gas conservation commission, Palin reportedly investigated and exposed ethical violations committed by Ruedrich on the job. The Associated Press reported that as a result, Ruedrich had to pay the state’s largest ethics fine, and the two have not spoken since she took office more than a year ago.
But according to state party policy, the Alaska GOP will not participate in this statewide Republican primary. The Alaska Republican Party will support whichever candidate emerges from the GOP contest set for Aug. 26.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, however, takes a different position on the Young challenge.
“Don Young has been a tireless advocate for the people of Alaska and has a record of accomplishments for his home state,” NRCC spokeswoman Julie Shutley said.
It is NRCC policy to support GOP incumbents, including Young, with strategic advice and in-house resources, but the committee will not put financial resources into any GOP primary.
The NRCC also will not meet with any Republican who challenges an incumbent member, such as Parnell or LeDoux, unless either wins the Republican primary.
What’s more, there might be room for a few more challengers to join the race. State Speaker John Harris (R) has also been mentioned as someone who might be interested, along with a handful of other elected officials.
Anderson maintained that primary challenges like those from Parnell, LeDoux or others are good for democracy and that Young is using this as an opportunity to talk more about the issues at hand in Alaska.
“The Congressman does not take this as a personal offense,” Anderson said. “The Congressman sees this [as] an opportunity. It’s not about him. It’s not about Sean Parnell. It’s about Alaska.”
But for Young, this race marks the first time Democrats have mounted a serious challenge against him in recent years. In 2006, underfunded nominee Diane Benson (D) kept Young to 57 percent, his lowest winning total since 1994.
Democrats appear to favor former state House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz to win, though Benson and former state Democratic Chairman Jake Metcalfe are also running in the Democratic primary.
And given Young’s bad press across the state from his ethics investigation, Democrats might rather face the incumbent in the general election than one of his challengers.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Doug Thornell said, though, that regardless of the candidate, Alaska voters are looking for a change.
“It’s clear the people of Alaska are hungry for change, and Republicans are offering more of the same failed Bush policies,” Thornell said. “We are high on this seat and believe we can win regardless of who ends up winning the GOP nomination.”