With the recent death of Alaska GOP Rep. Don Young, the state's at-large Congressman for basically my entire lifespan, the seat went to a highly contested primary (for November) and special election (for the rest of Young's term) with ranked choice voting. Our old friend Sarah Palin threw her hat into the ring, along with Nick Begich III, the Republican nephew of former Democratic Sen. Mark Begich and grandson of former Democratic Rep. Nick Begich. Two of Alaska's most powerful political families clashed in a battle for the ages.
And when the smoke cleared this week, the race went to the Democrat.
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 led Republican former Gov. Sarah Palin after ballots were tallied and 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.
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-place 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-place 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.
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.
And Moose Lady?
She lost again. Not by much, and Peltola will have to immediately start campaigning as Palin almost certainly will be her top opponent in November. But Begich will be back too. We could see this all over again in a couple of months.
But for now, an Alaskan Native Democrat represents The Last Frontier.