Large campaign contributions shape Alaska’s governor race
By Iris Samuels
Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy had a cash advantage going into the final month before the election thanks to large contributions from two loyal supporters allowed after a court invalidated Alaska’s campaign contribution limits and both lawmakers and state officials failed to put in place a new ceiling on money pouring into state races.
Dunleavy had more than $900,000 in his campaign account with 30 days to go until election day, campaign finance reports showed, compared to nearly $450,000 in the account of independent candidate Bill Walker and nearly $360,000 in the account of Democrat Les Gara. Republican Charlie Pierce, giving a feeble run at the governor’s seat, had just over $6,000 in the bank.
Between July and September, Dunleavy received just over $600,000 in campaign contributions. And a third of it came from just two people: $100,000 from his brother, Francis Dunleavy, who lives in Texas, and $100,000 from Bob Penney, an Anchorage real estate developer and sport fishing advocate.
This is the second $100,000 check Dunleavy has received from Penney in this campaign, along with another $200,000 from his brother — for a total of $500,000 from the two. The outsize contributions are allowed after a court decision earlier this year removed Alaska’s $500 individual campaign contribution limit per candidate and the Legislature failed to pass a bill that would have put in place new limits.
During Dunleavy’s first gubernatorial run in 2018, Penney and Francis Dunleavy also spent hundreds of thousands to support Dunleavy’s bid. But then, that money went to an independent expenditure group barred from coordinating with the candidate.
Despite the windfall in campaign contributions, Dunleavy’s campaign has faced criticism for relying on unpaid volunteers rather than paying a full staff. The Alaska Public Offices Commission, a state watchdog agency, has scheduled a hearing for Wednesday after two groups filed a complaint against Dunleavy’s campaign alleging it engaged in a “scheme” to finance the campaign using public funds and coordinate with an independent expenditure group. The emergency hearing was called after representatives of the independent expenditure group and the Republican Governors Association did not respond to a request for information from the commission.
Dunleavy’s campaign has called for the complaint to be dismissed. Campaign manager Jordan Shilling until recently had been working for the campaign on a volunteer basis while also getting tens of thousands of dollars for a no-bid contract with the governor’s office. Recent campaign finance reports show that Shilling is now on the campaign’s payroll, with a single $10,000 payment made to Shilling from the campaign on Oct. 3.
Dunleavy campaign spokesperson Andrew Jensen, who is also working for the campaign as a volunteer while holding a state job in the governor’s office, said Shilling joined the campaign as a paid worker “after the primary,” which was held Aug. 16, and that Shilling’s contract with the governor’s office ended Sept. 24.
Gara, the Democratic former lawmaker challenging Dunleavy, brought in a smaller sum in the three-month reporting period compared to Dunleavy and Walker — less than $290,000. His largest contribution was $25,000 from Anchorage consultant Mark Foster. Gara said he had the largest number of individual contributions from Alaskans, and that he would support reinstating campaign contribution limits “because your voices shouldn’t be drowned out by $200,000 and bigger donations.”
Jensen, with Dunleavy’s campaign, said that the governor had been “consistent” in his favorable view of larger campaign contributions, which he said are preferable to contributions funneled through independent expenditure groups.
Meanwhile, Pierce — the former Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor who has been largely absent from the campaign trail — has appeared to be largely absent from the fundraising trail as well. He raised less than $8,000 in the reporting period, and none of his individual contributions exceeded $500.
Walker courts support from election reform advocates
Dunleavy wasn’t the only candidate taking in large checks from individual donors. Former Gov. Walker received more than $300,000 in campaign contributions from Outside supporters who favor Alaska’s new election system.
The contributions from out-of-state supporters make up more than three-quarters of the money Walker raised between July and September.
Alaska voters narrowly adopted ranked choice voting and open primaries by ballot measure in 2020. The ballot measure was written by Anchorage attorney Scott Kendall, Walker’s former chief of staff. Now, some of the same people who gave money to the Alaska independent expenditure group that supported ranked choice voting are giving money to Walker’s campaign.
In the coming legislative session, lawmakers can put forward a bill to change or repeal parts of Alaska’s new voting system. Republican lawmakers have indicated that they intend to introduce such bills when the session begins in January, which means the fate of the new voting system could rest in the hands of the state’s next governor.
Walker, who was previously registered as a Republican but is now running as an independent, stands to benefit from the new voting system, which did away with partisan primaries and allowed him to advance to the general election without support from either major party.
Dunleavy, the Republican incumbent, said in a candidate forum on Tuesday that he is opposed to ranked choice voting, while Walker and Gara said they support the new voting system. Dunleavy has not said if he would actively work to repeal the new voting system, but he has hired an aide — Brett Huber — who previously ran a campaign opposing the ballot measure that put ranked choice voting in place.
Among Walker’s supporters in the recent fundraising quarters are Marc Merrill, a California gaming company executive and board member of Unite America, a group that advocates for ranked choice voting and nonpartisan primaries. Merrill gave Walker $100,000. His other top supporter is Jason Carroll, a New York City trading company founder who contributes regularly to Unite America and gave walker $50,000 this quarter. John and Laura Arnold, Texas-based philanthropists who have supported ranked choice voting to the tune of millions, gave Walker a combined $50,000 this quarter.
Another top donor is Harrison Miller, who gave Walker $25,000 and in 2020 gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to the group supporting ranked choice voting in Alaska. Kent Thiry, a Colorado executive who supports election reform in his native state, gave Walker $25,000 after giving the Unite America PAC $50,000 earlier this year.
Walker credited the campaign contributions to his time as the only independent governor in the nation and the attention he and his running mate — lieutenant governor candidate Heidi Drygas — have drawn for coming together from opposite sides of the political spectrum.
“A lot of people and groups asked me to come speak to their groups that are looking at another way — how does a nonpartisan unity ticket, how can that happen?” Walker said. Regarding ranked choice voting, Walker has said he voted in favor of the ballot measure that put it in place and would like it to remain in place for several election cycles before determining whether to change it.
Also key in determining the fate of Alaska’s new voting laws will be members of the Legislature. Backers of the election reform are hoping for bipartisan coalitions in the state House and Senate that may be more favorable to protecting the state’s new voting system. To that end, many of the election reform backers who donated to Walker also gave large sums to an independent expenditure group backing middle-of-the-road legislative candidates this year.
A group called Putting Alaskans First Committee has received in the most recent quarter $100,000 from the Unite America PAC, $50,000 from John and Laura Arnold, $30,000 from Thiry, $25,000 from Merrill and $25,000 from Carroll.
That money is going to candidates in competitive legislative races that could determine whether a bipartisan coalition will be formed in both the House and Senate, according to Joelle Hall, director of the Alaska AFL-CIO — the state’s largest labor organization — who is also involved in running the independent expenditure group.
“The democracy defense groups are very interested in making sure that lawmakers get supported who will protect the decision that voters came to two years ago,” Hall said. “It just so happens that the candidates who happen to be pro-ballot measure two often tend to be pro-coalition candidates as well as pro-labor candidates.”