Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola on Wednesday became the first Alaska Native to win a full term in Congress, securing reelection along with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who both defeated challengers endorsed by former president Donald Trump after state officials finished a final round of vote-counting.
At a victory party at a downtown Anchorage brewery Wednesday night, Peltola told reporters that Alaskans have given her a “a two-year contract.”
“And I will be happy to work for Alaskans again, as long as they’ll have me,” she said. Her win, she added, shows that Alaskans “wholeheartedly embrace nonpartisanship and working together.”
In the race for governor, Republican Mike Dunleavy won reelection with over 50 percent of the votes, avoiding the ranked-choice process.
Peltola and Murkowski had crossed party lines to endorse each other ahead of the election, forming an alliance rooted in the similar space they occupy on the political spectrum. Their wins cap an election season in which voters across the country tended to show a preference for incumbents in battleground races.
“I am honored that Alaskans — of all regions, backgrounds and party affiliations — have once again granted me their confidence to continue working with them and on their behalf in the U.S. Senate,” Murkowski said in a statement Wednesday night. “I look forward to continuing the important work ahead of us.”
The outcome marked another blow to Trump in this year’s midterm elections. Many candidates affiliated with the former president and his polarizing positions fell in defeat in battleground contests, and his overall record was mixed in competitive races where he endorsed. That list includes former Republican governor Sarah Palin, who challenged Peltola with Trump’s backing, and Republican Kelly Tshibaka, a former state and federal official who ran against Murkowski with the former president’s support.
After the final round of ranked-choice voting, Murkowski had 53.7 percent of the vote to 46.3 percent for Tshibaka. In the House race, Peltola had 55 percent of the vote to Palin’s 45 percent.
Peltola ran a locally focused campaign with both traditional and unconventional Democratic platform planks — she touted her support for abortion rights and “pro-fish” views, along with her endorsement of a new Alaska oil project and the large gun collection that she and her family maintains.
Peltola’s win secures her first full two-year term on Capitol Hill and follows her victory in August to temporarily fill her state’s only seat in the U.S. House — one that was vacated after the sudden death of longtime Republican Rep. Don Young. Peltola beat Palin in that race, too, becoming the first Alaska Native member of Congress and her state’s first woman to fill the seat.
Peltola is the first Democrat elected to Congress in Alaska since 2008, when Mark Begich unseated Republican Sen. Ted Stevens just a few months after Stevens was indicted for allegedly making false statements related to his financial disclosures.
Murkowski, meanwhile, will soon begin serving her fourth six-year term in the Senate, following her 2002 appointment to the chamber by her father, then newly elected governor Frank Murkowski. Her campaign highlighted her work to bring infrastructure money to Alaska, her support for the state’s oil and fishing industries, and her close relationships with Alaska Native constituencies.
Trump had long vowed to unseat the senator, predicting in 2018 that she “will never recover” politically for voting against one of his Supreme Court nominees, Brett M. Kavanaugh. Tshibaka joined Trump at a rally held in an Anchorage arena in July.
Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee, also appeared with Trump in July. She lost both the special and general elections after splitting the conservative vote with Nick Begich III, a Republican from a prominent Alaska Democratic family. (Begich is a nephew of Mark Begich and a grandson of Nick Begich Sr., who held Alaska’s U.S. House seat before a plane carrying him across the state disappeared in 1972.)
Jim Lottsfeldt, a centrist political consultant who worked with pro-Murkowski and pro-Peltola super PACs, said he’s not sure that Trump’s endorsements offered Palin and Tshibaka much help. Alaska, he said, is small enough that many people who follow politics judge candidates on personal interactions.
“We all have these opinions we’ve earned by looking someone in the eye,” Lottsfeldt said in a phone interview Tuesday. “Donald Trump’s not going to tell me anything about Sarah Palin that I don’t already know.”
This year’s elections were Alaska’s first under the state’s new voting framework, which residents narrowly approved in a 2020 citizens’ initiative that was partially funded and run by Murkowski allies. The system overhauled primary elections by eliminating partisan races and advancing the top four vote-getters from a single open ballot to the general election.
In the general election, voters are allowed to rank candidates based on their preferences. If no candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate with the lowest vote totals is eliminated, and that candidate’s supporters’ votes are reassigned to their next choices. The process repeats until there are two candidates left and a winner can be declared.
A number of Alaska conservatives, led by Palin, have attacked the new system as complicated and untrustworthy, though there has been no evidence of any technical problems or foul play. At an event last week, the former governor was the first person to sign a new petition to get rid of the system.
The repeal campaign might face an uphill battle. One path for critics is a repeal by Alaska’s legislature — where a number of seats will now be filled by candidates who won races this year at least partially because of the new voting process.
Residents could also repeal the system through a citizens initiative. But polling released by supporters after the August primary election showed that more than 60 percent of Alaskans approve of it.
Even if the new election system remains intact, Peltola’s allies expect she’ll face serious challenges from Republicans when her term expires two years from now.
One dynamic boosting Peltola this year was a national Democratic network that helped her raise more than $5.5 million through mid-October — more than triple the $1.7 million and $1.6 million that Palin and Begich respectively collected in campaign contributions.
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