In just under two hours, the Alaska Congressional race will finally begin to resolve. It took more than two weeks from election day to finally get the result, but we will have the result, nonetheless. The election was caused due to the tragic death of the late Rep. Don Young, who had held the seat since 1973 in a special election to replace Nick Begich, who also passed away in a plane – albeit in a crash rather than from a heart attack.
A contentious primary
In the special election primary, we had forty-eight candidates running for the Congressional seat including Santa Claus of North Pole – yes, that actually happened. But only four candidates advanced from the primary on to the August special general election. Those candidates were former Governor Sarah Palin (R), small business owner Nick Begich III (R), former Senate nominee Al Gross (I), and former State Rep Mary Peltola (D). Ultimately Al Gross decided to drop out of the general election and asked for Tara Sweeney (R) to take his place in the top four. However, he dropped out too late in the process to have his spot on the ballot replaced.
In first place in the primary election came former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, a name most everyone nationwide knows due to her stint as John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 Presidential election. However, in Alaska she’s still just Sarah. Palin served first as Wasilla Mayor then in 2006 set her sights on defeating unpopular incumbent Republican Governor Frank Murkowski, which she did, beating him and other Republicans with 50.59% of the vote; incumbent Murkowski finished a distant third in that primary with 19.09% of the vote. Palin then went on to face former Governor Tony Knowles in the general election and held the seat for Republicans in what was, nationwide, a disaster for the Republican party. Palin won her first and only statewide election up until this year with 48.3% of the vote to her opponent’s 41.0%.
Palin, while being portrayed as an extreme right individual and in some words “Trump before Trump” through her rhetoric, was quite middle-of-the-road as Governor, bucking the party line on some issues. As Governor, Palin led a signature 50% gas tax increase due to the oil industry’s domination over the state, a measure later repealed by her successor Sean Parnell. She also increased the state budget and was vehemently anti-school choice at the time, so much so that when the late Senator John McCain picked Palin as his running mate, the National Education Association (NEA) put out a statement praising her selection. Palin’s view as very right-wing to the nationwide audience comes much more from how she acted on the campaign trail in 2008 and her rhetoric/behavior since leaving office, but in terms of policy, she was much like other Alaska Republicans – a moderate at heart.
Nick Begich III (R) came second in the special primary election and to any Alaskan his name is one that commands power, but not within his political party. The original Nick Begich I who held the seat before his premature demise was an institution in Democratic politics. He left a legacy that allowed his son Mark to run for office as Mayor of Anchorage and then US Senator in the hotly contested 2008 US Senate race, ultimately flipping the seat to the Democrats. Mark was defeated in 2014 against current Senator Dan Sullivan (not to be confused with the former Mayor of Anchorage). Tom Begich (D), who is also related to Nick Begich III, currently serves at the Minority Leader in the state Senate. In other words, Begich is the most powerful Democratic name and family in Alaska, so why is Nick Begich III a Republican?
Don’t worry – it’s about to get a lot weirder. When Nick Begich passed away, the grandparents of Nick Begich III believed that Nick was killed by his wife (their sister in law). Due to these allegations and other reasons, they fled Alaska and moved to Florida. Nick Begich III was raised as an extreme anti-government Republican. He even served as President of his College Republican Federation. Nick then went on to found a tech company called Farshore and moved back to Alaska (Chugiak, to be specific, which is a suburb north of Anchorage). Nick became the treasurer of the Alaska Republican Party and served as a co-chair to Don Young’s 2020 re-election campaign. In October 2021, Nick Begich III announced he was running against Don Young and challenging the longtime incumbent from the right.
Finally, in third place in the primary we had former Rep. Mary Peltola (D). She was born in Anchorage and as a Native Alaskan, spent her life living in rural Alaska and the tribes largely concentrated in Bethel. Peltola got her start in politics challenging incumbent Ivan Martin of the 39th district in 1998 and winning, she then represented the district until 2009.
While in the legislature, Peltola worked in multiple committees but ultimately found massive success in rebuilding the bipartisan Bush Caucus, which focused on the needs of rural Alaska and worked to ensure the interests of the rural areas were heard. Peltola served as the chair of the Bush caucus for eight years and while in office helped craft legislation around fisheries, school safety, inhalant abuse and judicial districts. Peltola enough developed a good relationship with Palin – they bonded over being pregnant mothers at the same time, and in fact Palin bequeathed her backyard trampoline to Peltola while she was on the campaign trail. The two were close enough in fact that recently Palin called Peltola “a sweetheart” and Peltola said of Palin, “I think she’s great”. Once again, this race proves itself to be a true anomaly in the chaotic order of the political system, and it gets even stranger.
This election will be the first time Alaska has used their new Ranked Choice Voting system, which will clue us into how the races will shape up in the future as we get our first look at how the Alaskan electorate utilizes their new voting system. Ranked Choice Voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, with “exhausted” candidates shedding their votes to the front-runners until, ultimately, a winner emerges from the final two candidates standing.
I got to experience first hand how Alaskans grappled with this new voting system. I had the opportunity to join a friend out in Alaska and spoke to some of the voters there. While this trip was mostly focused in Anchorage, I found a few things that stuck out to me. The first being what could ultimately decide this race: the absolute hatred I found between the Republican campaigns against one another as opposed to their attacks on the Democrat. As I mentioned earlier, Palin and Peltola like each other quite a bit. However, that is not the case with Begich and Palin.
Split on the Right
Everywhere I went when I found a Palin voter I would hear a sentiment echoed about Nick Begich. Simply put, it was an accusation of a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”. Palin voters argued he would show his true colors as the, in the words of one voter, “son of a Begich he is”. There was a large lack of trust with Nick Begich, and a larger share of the Palin electorate than you would suspect told me they were planning on voting for just Palin and not Begich. For Begich, voters the sentiment wasn’t any better. Begich spent his campaign and cash working to bring Palin down. His campaign asserted that Palin abandoned Alaska, while Begich had not.
While visiting I found a common theme among people I spoke to, if they figured out I was out of state they did not want to talk about politics. They would gladly give me recommendations for great hikes, places to eat at and things to do, and we could discuss all manner of geographical anomalies around the state. But when it came to politics, if they knew I was out of state then they were out of the conversation. Palin leaving the state absolutely took its toll on the voters, and a significant share of the Begich voters also told me they were planning to single-shot it or even rank Peltola as their second choice as to keep Palin out. Meanwhile, among Republicans I found almost no angst for Peltola specifically.
The Final Count
Peltola ran as the “only candidate who isn’t a millionaire” and allowed Begich and Palin to go after themselves while she sat in the back and rode into first place in the special general election. On August 16 we had the first round of the special general election. Peltola finished first with 39.64% of the vote, Palin at 30.94% of the vote, and Begich at 27.84% of the vote. Because Begich came in third, his votes will be distributed to the other two candidates.
While conventional wisdom would assume the Nick Begich (R) votes would largely transfer over to the other (R) candidates in the race, this election has been anything but conventional and will likely produce an unconventional result. According to Alaska Survey Research, almost 1/3rd of Nick Begich (R) voters planned to rank Peltola as their 2nd choice, which is almost exactly what Peltola would need to emerge victorious. While on the ground, the hatred from Palin voters for Begich and vice versa was palpable, so much so I started throwing up the alarm bells to some of my friends working in Alaskan Republican politics.
If Republicans do ultimately lose this election, they will have no one to blame but themselves. Alaska will also have its first federal Democratic representation in over seven years and its first Alaskan native representation at the federal level.