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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

September 1: How a Democrat Beat Sarah Barracuda in Alaska

Here’s my take from New York on the very special House election in Alaska that concluded with a ranked-choice vote tabulation on August 31:

Alaska voters spurned a comeback bid by former governor and vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin and instead sent Democrat Mary Peltola to Washington to fill a vacancy in the U.S. House until January. Peltola will be the first woman and the first Alaska Native to hold the state’s one U.S. House seat, albeit temporarily. She’s the first Democrat in that position since 1973, when Republican Don Young, whose death in March necessitated this special election, first won the seat.

Peltola’s victory was made possible by Nick Begich III voters’ unwillingness to make fellow Republican Palin their second choice under the state’s new ranked-choice system. In the top-four primary on June 11, Palin finished first, Begich was second, independent Al Gross was third, and Peltola — who had a mere 10 percent of the vote — was fourth. But Gross soon dropped out, creating a top-three general election with Peltola drawing a lot of Gross’s supporters.

The general election took place on August 16, but the final results were only announced on August 31. Peltola won 40 percent, Palin 31 percent, and Begich 29 percent — eliminating him from the contest and reallocating his voters’ second preferences. In a special ranked-choice tabulation live-streamed by state election officials, it was revealed that only 50.3 percent of Begich voters backed Palin, while 28.7 percent supported Peltola and another 20.9 percent left the ballot line for a second preference blank. This gave Peltola the victory by a margin of 51.5 percent to Palin’s 48.5 percent.

Some observers will attribute the upset to the ranked-choice voting system itself, which Palin bitterly denounced as “crazy, convoluted, confusing” after her defeat was made clear. But while Gross’s withdrawal definitely ensured Peltola would make the final round, it’s not entirely clear things would have turned out differently with the traditional system had Palin won a Republican primary, then faced Peltola. A July poll from Alaska Survey Research showed Palin with a 37-60 favorable/unfavorable rating while relatively little-known former legislator Peltola rang in at 37-16. Peltola hit some progressive themes as a general-election candidate including support for abortion rights, ocean productivity, and food security. But as the Associated Press noted, she was able to rise above the fray as Palin and Begich pounded each other.

The winner has a uniquely Alaskan background, as CNN observed:

‘Peltola, who turned 49 on Wednesday, is the daughter of a Yup’ik mother and a Nebraskan father who had moved north to teach school and later became a bush pilot.

“She had spent a decade in Alaska’s House of Representatives, from 1999 to 2009, where she chaired the bipartisan “bush” caucus of rural lawmakers and overlapped with Palin, her leading opponent in the special congressional race, who was governor from late 2006 through mid-2009. Peltola later became a Bethel City Council member, a lobbyist and a salmon advocate as the executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.”

Peltola’s authenticity may have subtly fed on resentment of Palin’s perceived abandonment of the state after Palin’s abrupt resignation as governor in 2009 following her failed national campaign, followed by a peripatetic political and pop-culture career mostly taking place in the Lower 48. Palin jumped into the House special-election race late (Begich had already been running against Young) and only gained steam when Donald Trump endorsed her.

For the moment, Pelota is a surprise addition to the Democrats’ fragile House majority from a very red state (Trump defeated Biden in Alaska by 10 points in 2020). It’s possible that Peltola’s service and the much higher name ID she will soon gain will make her a formidable candidate in November. In the regular primary for a full term in Congress (which took place the same day as the special general election), Peltola again finished first with Palin second and Begich third. A fourth candidate, Republican Tara Sweeney, was far behind, and, like Gross in the special election, she has indicated that she plans to withdraw. After losing the special election, Palin immediately vowed to fight on to November. “Though we’re disappointed in this outcome, Alaskans know I’m the last one who’ll ever retreat,” she said.

But you have to figure that Republicans unhappy with Palin losing a House seat that the party controlled for 49 years, and looking at her unfavorability numbers, may be tempted to consolidate their support behind Begich to give Peltola a stronger challenger. How the two Republicans behave toward each other and what national Republicans frantic to win the seat do to boost the odds of victory may do a lot to determine the outcome. But at the moment, Mary Peltola’s political future looks a lot brighter than Sarah Barracuda’s.

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