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Why Alaska's gubernatorial race is suddenly a lot more interesting

Alaska Independent gubernatorial candidate Bill Walker, right, laughs while awaiting election results, Nov. 4, 2014, in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Michael Dinneen/AP)
Alaska Independent gubernatorial candidate Bill Walker, right, laughs while awaiting election results, Nov. 4, 2014, in Anchorage, Alaska.

By all appearances, Alaska's gubernatorial race was on track to produce predictable results. That changed quite dramatically late Friday.

Incumbent Gov. Bill Walker (I) was seeking a second term despite a low approval rating, and he was facing two major-party rivals: former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich (D) and former state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R). There hasn't been a lot of polling, but the writing was on the wall: Walker and Begich were poised to split the center-left, making Dunleavy the clear favorite.

As the Anchorage Daily News  reported, the race now looks very different.

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker announced Friday he is dropping his bid for re-election, and threw support to Democrat Mark Begich over Republican Mike Dunleavy.Walker, elected as an independent, made the surprise announcement at the Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention, three days after former Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott abruptly stepped down from both his office and the re-election campaign over unspecified "inappropriate comments" he made to a woman.

Referring to the Democratic nominee, the outgoing governor said, "On balance, it is my belief that despite my many differences with Mark Begich, his stance on important issues that I have listed are more closely aligned with my priorities for Alaska."

As for Dunleavy, the Republican nominee, Walker added, "I think Alaska is going to be hurt if he is successful."

Begich's odds have obviously improved as a result of the news -- he's likely to pick up the bulk of Walker's supporters -- but he's hardly a shoo-in. Alaska tends to be a rather "red" state, as evidenced by Donald Trump's 15-point victory in the state two years ago, and it's been a couple of decades since a Democratic candidate won a gubernatorial race in the Last Frontier.

But Friday's news changes the nature of the contest dramatically. What was a three-way race that a Republican was all but certain to win is now a two-person contest that's much harder to predict.

Complicating matters is how late in the process Walker decided to exit the stage. As the Anchorage Daily News' article added, more than 23,000 absentee ballots have already been mailed to voters and "some Alaskans have already sent in their voted ballots."

Votes for Walker will still be counted, of course, and it's too late for those Alaskans to switch their support to one of the two remaining candidates.

As for recent history, Walker won four years ago after partnering with a Democratic rival, creating a rare "fusion" ticket with former Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott. Over the last two weeks, Mallott resigned and Walker gave up on his re-election bid. It's quite a turn of events.