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By BECKY BOHRER
ANCHORAGE — Republican Mike Dunleavy held an edge over Democrat Mark Begich in early returns in the Alaska governor's race late Tuesday.
Dunleavy, a conservative former state senator, had been the presumed front-runner for much of the race, which, until mid-October, included Gov. Bill Walker.
Walker, an independent, ended his campaign days after Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott resigned over what Walker described as an inappropriate overture to a woman. Walker, who was elected with Democratic support in 2014, said he voted for Begich. Walker said he worried that Dunleavy would unravel some of his major policies, such as expanding Medicaid to cover more lower-income Alaskans.
Begich is a former Anchorage mayor and one-term U.S. senator. For much of the campaign, there was angst among some Democrats and independents who feared Walker and Begich would split the vote and hand the race to Dunleavy.
Begich said he had momentum heading into Tuesday's election but worried voters might be confused since Walker's name remained on the ballot. Walker quit the campaign after the deadline to withdraw had passed.
Begich said those votes could make the difference. Early results showed Walker receiving a small percentage of the votes so far tallied.
Dunleavy cast himself as tough on crime, saying public safety would be a top priority. He called for reduced spending and limiting the growth of government, though he was criticized for not offering many details on what he would cut.
He also said he supported a full payout of the check Alaskans receive from the state's oil-wealth fund, the Alaska Permanent Fund, and paying Alaskans the amount they missed out on when checks were capped. Preliminary budget estimates suggest that could cost $4.3 billion. The payout has been limited since 2016 amid a state budget deficit.
Begich called Dunleavy's dividend proposal a ploy for votes that could threaten the long-term future of the program. Walker called it irresponsible. But Dunleavy countered his proposal was a way to help restore Alaskans' trust in state government.
Oil prices, which were in freefall when Walker took office in 2014 and hit as low at $26 a barrel in early 2016, have moderated, jumping above $80 a barrel at points this fall. But paying a full dividend at current prices would leave a budget gap and could limit the state's ability to repay the billions of dollars in reserves the Legislature went through to help plug the deficit, said David Teal, a legislative fiscal analyst.
Dunleavy argues that Alaskans should get a say via vote before any changes to the dividend program are made.
Dividend checks are paid using permanent fund earnings, which lawmakers this year also began using for government expenses, setting the stage for a political fight over the checks.
Begich and Dunleavy differed on a ballot initiative that supporters said would protect salmon habitat but opponents said could hamper development. Begich supported the initiative; Dunleavy opposed it.
Libertarian Billy Toien also ran in the race.
Third-party independent expenditure groups helped boost Dunleavy, with two groups reporting combined contributions of $4.7 million to support his run.
July Leslie, who voted at an Anchorage elementary school, said she voted Republican across the board, including for Dunleavy.
"I don't necessarily like him but he's the better of the options," she said.
Ryan Hansen, of Anchorage, said he trusts Dunleavy. Hansen's top concerns are crime and natural resource development.
"I think we're too dependent on oil and we need to diversity a little bit and I think he might be able to do that," said Hansen, who voted for Walker in 2014.
Therese Thibodeau of Juneau said Medicaid expansion and the state's fiscal situation were important issues for her in the governor's race. She backed Begich, saying voting for Dunleavy was not an option for her.