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News / Northwest

Democrat Mary Peltola wins special U.S. House election, will be first Alaska Native elected to Congress

By Iris Samuels, Anchorage Daily News
Published: September 1, 2022, 8:22am

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Democrat Mary Peltola was the apparent winner of Alaska’s special U.S. House race and is set to become the first Alaska Native in Congress, after votes were tabulated Wednesday in the state’s first ranked-choice election.

Peltola topped Republican former Gov. Sarah Palin after ballots were tallied and after votes for third-place GOP candidate Nick Begich III were redistributed to his supporters’ second choices. Peltola, a Yup’ik former state lawmaker who calls Bethel home, is now slated to be the first woman to hold Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat.

If results are confirmed as expected by the state review board later this week, she will succeed U.S. Rep. Don Young, the Republican who held the office for nearly five decades — since before Peltola was born. The special election was triggered by Young’s death in March.

“I feel like I need to catch my breath for a minute,” Peltola said in the moment after results were announced in a live video by state election officials in Juneau. Peltola was surrounded by family and campaign staff at an Anchorage office.

“What’s most important is that I’m an Alaskan being sent to represent all Alaskans. Yes, being Alaska Native is part of my ethnicity, but I’m much more than my ethnicity,” she said.

It is an outcome largely seen as an upset. Peltola would be the first Democrat to join Alaska’s three-person congressional delegation since U.S. Sen. Mark Begich lost reelection in 2014. And she defeated two Republicans to do so. Combined, Palin and Nick Begich III, nephew of Mark Begich and grandson of former U.S. Rep. Nick Begich, commanded nearly 60% of first-place votes.

The special election, held Aug. 16 with mail-in ballots counted over the past two weeks and the ranked choice standings announced Wednesday, determines who will serve out the remainder of Young’s term, which ends in about four months. Another election in November will determine who holds the seat for the full two-year term that begins in January.

Both Palin and Begich said after results were announced Wednesday that they intend to remain in the November race.

Begich was the first candidate eliminated, after no other candidate exceeded the 50% threshold needed to win under Alaska’s ranked-choice voting system. The second-choice votes of Begich’s supporters were then tallied in what is called an instant runoff. Only half of Begich’s voters ranked Palin second — not enough for her to overtake Peltola.

Peltola had 39.7% of the first-choice votes to Palin’s 30.9%. In the instant runoff, Peltola ended up with 91,206 votes to Palin’s 85,987, or 51.47% to 48.53%. A small number of additional ballots have not yet been counted by election officials, likely not enough to change results.

Palin, the Trump-backed celebrity who became a household name during her 2008 vice presidential run, said she “wasn’t surprised” by the results.

Palin vowed to fight on to November and repeatedly called on fellow Republican Begich to drop out. Her greatest scorn, though, was reserved for Alaska’s “weird” ranked-choice voting system, which she said had “disenfranchised” too many Alaskans and, by sending Peltola to Congress, effectively empowered President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “to lock up our state.”

“We can’t be disheartened, in fact, I think God prepared me for an outcome like this, believe it or not,” she said. “I think God has kind of given me peace all along. No matter what the outcome was, we’re running to expose the strange things going on in our politics that are harming our nation and our state.”

Surrounded by campaign volunteers, family and friends at her South Anchorage campaign headquarters, Palin said she didn’t expect to file a legal challenge to the unofficial results, saying that it was “a legally sanctioned process” and “it would probably be futile, anyway.”

Peltola ran a largely positive campaign as Begich and Palin traded barbs in the final weeks before the Aug. 16 special election, emerging as the victor with a platform that highlighted her position as the only candidate on the ballot who supports abortion access — an issue that has become important to voters with the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision removing federal protections for access to the procedure (the procedure remains protected under the Alaska Constitution).

Peltola has also said she is “pro-fish” and emphasized her plans to protect subsistence fisheries in Alaska as salmon stocks decline in the region where she has fished throughout her life.

Peltola, who was raised in rural villages, served in the state House between 1999 and 2009, representing the Bethel region. During her time in the Legislature, she led the Bush Caucus, bringing together lawmakers representing communities in Alaska off the road system and building a reputation as someone who can work across party lines.

While in the Legislature, Peltola’s path overlapped with Palin’s as governor. Both politicians were pregnant while in office. They traded friendly text messages on election day earlier this month.

An hour before results were announced, Peltola and Palin were set to take the stage together for a candidate forum put on by an oil industry organization. The two women embraced and spoke for a few minutes before answering questions on natural resource development.

“I take a lot of pride in getting along with people, and those of us on the campaign trail know exactly how hard (it is) on families and your support group,” Peltola said after results were out. “And so I think I feel a lot of camaraderie and fraternity with the people that I’m in the race with.”

After leaving the state House, Peltola worked in community relations for Donlin Gold, a mining project on the Kuskokwim River. Before announcing her congressional bid, she worked on fisheries management and rural food security as executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. Peltola, a mother of four and grandmother of two, turned 49 on Wednesday.

Peltola emerged as the winner from an original field of 48 primary race candidates, which included several sitting and former lawmakers, Alaska Native leaders and Santa Claus.

Peltola is now set to head to Washington for just four months, serving out the rest of Young’s term. Peltola, Palin and Begich are all set to advance to the November election that will determine who will hold the seat for the new term that begins next year.

Peltola said she is still focused on November and winning the two-year seat. She said she would prioritize setting up constituent services for Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat that were discontinued in recent weeks, in addition to reaching out to future colleagues in the House and to Alaska Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan. She said she did not yet have an itinerary for traveling to the nation’s capital.

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Political observers believe the outcome of the special election will shape the November race. After just a few weeks to prove her legislative might in Washington, Peltola will enter the November election as the incumbent, with the associated fundraising advantages and visibility. Republicans will likely be galvanized to hone their messaging under the ranked-choice voting system — which was narrowly approved by voters through a 2020 ballot measure — and encourage their supporters to rank both GOP candidates on the ballot.

Sarah Erkmann Ward, a political consultant who ran a campaign to encourage Republicans to “rank the red” — meaning all Republican candidates on the ballot — said the results could be “a big wake-up call to Republicans.”

“Today’s reels should illustrate to Republicans very clearly that when they choose not to rank, there’s a good possibility that when their favorite candidate is eliminated, then their vote will no longer be in the mix. That appears to be what happened here,” she said. “A certain segment of Republicans elected not to rank. That’s the consequence of not continuing on down your ballot.”

Palin, who ran with an endorsement from former President Donald Trump and spent some of her campaign in the Lower 48, has consistently attacked ranked-choice voting as a “whack system” that “must be changed.” Begich had the support of many Alaska Republican Party insiders, and attacked Palin for her decision to quit as governor in 2009. Palin responded by calling into question Begich’s Republican bona fides, pointing to his support for his Democratic uncle’s Senate campaigns in 2008 and 2014.

The animus between Palin and Begich was on full display in the candidate forum held just before results were announced. Begich attacked Palin for a policy she advanced as governor that increased taxes on oil companies. Palin called him “Negative Nick” and said he’s “what’s wrong with politics today.”

Palin, at an event with campaign staff Wednesday afternoon, reacted to the results by calling on Begich to drop out of the November race. She said she does not anticipate filing a legal challenge to the election results, and that her focus would now be to explain to Alaskans how ranked-choice voting works so she can win in November.

In a written statement after results were out, Begich said the biggest lesson from the results is that “a vote for Sarah Palin is in reality a vote for Mary Peltola.” He said he would continue his campaign for the two-year term, “making the case that this election is about a choice between Mary Peltola and Nick Begich.”

“Sarah Palin cannot win a statewide race because her unfavorable rating is so high,” he said.

Polling before the election showed Palin to be a polarizing figure; three in five Alaskans had a negative view of her, according to more than one poll. But her fame, name recognition and harnessing of Republican messaging on oil drilling propelled Palin ahead of Begich, who was running his first statewide campaign for public office after building a career in private business.

More than a quarter of Begich voters ranked Peltola second, crossing party lines. One fifth of his voters did not rank any candidate as their second choice.

Some ballots from rural communities remain uncounted as of Wednesday. They will be counted when they reach the Division of Elections’ Juneau office, spokesperson Tiffany Montemayor said. The Alaska Board of Elections is scheduled to certify the results Friday, but that could get delayed if rural precinct ballots remain uncounted.

“Those precincts not arriving in time for the board to certify is something we’ll have to address if that happens,” Montemayor said by email.

A recount can be requested by a candidate or group of voters up to five days after results are certified. A lawsuit challenging the results can be filed up to 10 days after certification.