By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) – Alaska Governor Bill Walker, a political independent, halted his re-election campaign on Friday and said he would support his Democratic challenger, ending a three-way race in which the Republican candidate had appeared to possess an insurmountable lead.
Walker’s withdrawal came three days after his former running mate, Byron Mallott, abruptly resigned as lieutenant governor over admitted but unspecified “inappropriate comments” in a scandal that threw the governor’s campaign into disarray.
The latest announcement came at the annual convention of the Alaska Federation of Natives, a powerful constituency in the state, just before Walker had been scheduled to participate in a three-way gubernatorial debate with Democrat Mark Begich and Republican frontrunner Mike Dunleavy.
Even before the eruption of Tuesday’s scandal surrounding Mallott, Walker was facing a tough challenge from Dunleavy, a former state legislator, and Begich, a former U.S. senator and Anchorage mayor.
Walker and Begich, whose positions on most issues are very close, were widely seen as taking votes away from each other. And public opinion surveys indicated Begich might be a stronger candidate in a two-way race against Dunleavy, who was running well ahead of the two other men in the polls.
In his announcement Walker, who changed his party affiliation from Republican to independent before launching his successful 2014 campaign for governor, said his supporters would have to decide for themselves who they favored in a two-man race but said he planned to vote for Begich.
Walker’s campaign spokesman previously acknowledged that representatives for the governor and Begich had been in talks on a “path forward” even before Mallott stepped down from office.
(Reporting by Yereth Rosen in Anchorage; Writing by Steve Gorman)