Alaska is having the wildest election of 2022

Jungle primaries. Ranked-choice voting. Four dozen candidates, including Sarah Palin and Santa Claus. Is Alaska the next frontier in American elections?

Cars head down Minnesota Drive to and from downtown Anchorage.
(Ash Adams for The Washington Post)
Cars head down Minnesota Drive to and from downtown Anchorage. (Ash Adams for The Washington Post)
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ANCHORAGE — On March 18, Rep. Don Young (R) was headed from his expansive office on Capitol Hill — where the walls are adorned with vintage firearms and the pelt of a grizzly bear that Young claimed to have strangled with his own hands — to America’s biggest congressional district, encompassing all of Alaska, which is larger than Texas, Montana and California combined. Young was his usual self onboard the first of three flights, from DCA to LAX: boisterous and chatty with the passengers and crew.

Young was in reelection mode, running to retain his seat as he had done 24 times before. His challengers at that point included a libertarian fishing guide who refers to the Patriot Act as “Stalin’s wet dream,” a jovial Mat-Su Valley independent named Bob whose tattoo of the Cheshire cat declares in ink “WE’RE ALL MAD HERE,” and Young’s former campaign co-chair, Nick Begich III, a Republican member of an Alaska family known for its Democratic politics. At 88, Young had guided Alaska’s transformation from an Arctic kingdom colonized by prospectors and military commanders into a pluralistic, oil-juiced experiment in modern manifest destiny. Young himself evolved from a frontiersman enticed by the lupine prose of Jack London into a political chieftain who wrestled with Washington on behalf of 734,323 Alaskans, from enlistees on brief tours through lonely military bases to tribes that have subsisted for millennia on whales, caribou and salmon. Nearly a half-century into Young’s tenure, Alaska was under attack “on all fronts,” as he’d put it — alluding to environmental policies that curb resource development — and it was “not the time to take risks on someone untested and unproven.”

But on the second flight, during the descent into Seattle, Alaska’s only congressman lost consciousness. After the plane landed at Sea-Tac, the dean of the U.S. House was carried to the jet bridge and, after resuscitation attempts, pronounced dead.

And that is how Alaska became the location of 2022′s most chaotic exercise in procedural democracy. A special election is happening now, almost entirely by mail, to fill the final four months of Young’s term. Alaskans have called it “the $100 lottery,” a nod to the easy filing fee and the state’s new voting system: an all-party, pick-one primary that advances the top four vote-getters to a ranked-choice general election. With the legendary congressman removed from the equation, a handful of candidates ballooned to 48. Six Democrats, 16 Republicans, two libertarians and 24 unaligned or independent candidates are smushed together on the same single-page ballot, which Alaskans need to postmark by Saturday.

Multiple combat veterans are running. Multiple members of Don Young’s inner circle are running. Multiple Indigenous leaders are running, and any would be the first Native member of the state’s congressional delegation. The man Young defeated to first take the seat in 1973 is running again, at 89 years old.

Sarah Palin is running, though many Alaskans would rather she weren’t.

A man named Santa Claus is running.

One bottom-tier candidate’s stance on abortion rights hinges on reversible vasectomies for “sperm creators.” Another lives in a remote town of five people and in 2017 pleaded guilty to threatening to assault employees of the Bureau of Land Management, because, he says, they were obstructing his mining ambitions.

The volume of candidates means that one could theoretically squeak into the finals with just a sliver of the vote, and so the race has become a poll rush, a modern-day chance at a big strike, the kind of haphazard opportunity that defines Alaskan mythology.

“I came into this with a calculation that I could get in the top four with not that many votes,” says state legislator Adam Wool over beers in Seward, where he was attending the state Democratic convention. He views himself as a “tough Democrat” who can attract just enough support around his conservative district in Fairbanks. In one poll last month, Wool was pulling 2 percent — which, in a race with 48 people, could be just a handful of points from making the final four.

“The margin between fourth place and fifth place is going to be small,” said Wigi Tozzi, organizing director for the Alaska Democratic Party, during an election-training session last month. “It might be two or three or five votes. Because of that, every spoiled ballot” — one that is marked incorrectly and therefore not counted — “is going to make a difference.”

“I predict there will be more spoiled ballots than in any other race in U.S. history,” says Suzanne Downing, who runs the conservative news website Must Read Alaska, since the state is “hustling through the fastest election possible” using an unfamiliar protocol.

Young’s death not only forced Alaska into an administrative emergency with its elections system, but also cracked the coalition of voters that had kept him in office to seduce and battle the federal government: the camps of pipeline workers, the anti-tax Democrats and pro-union Republicans and crude-friendly independents, the Yup’ik Natives out west and the Inupiats on the North Slope, the pothead gold miners in the Interior, the swashbuckling ice cutters at sea, the military vets who fled trauma for wilderness, the belly slitters on the slime lines in the Kenai Peninsula, the overworked and underpaid schoolteachers in Anchorage and Juneau, all the sundry tradesmen and artists and Teamsters and missionaries and suburban mama bears and leave-me-aloners scuttling on and off the grid in gorgeous, dangerous, “KEEP OUT” America.

“Don Young was the representative of all Alaska,” says Genevieve Mina, 26, the president of the Alaska Young Democrats. “For Alaskans, this is more than who’s going to be that one vote in Congress. It’s more who’s going to be that figurehead.”

For generations, Alaskans sent the same man to Washington, and thus the same message: Give us money and control of our land and then leave us alone. Now there is a chance to send a new person, and perhaps a new message, through a new experiment in democracy.

Alaska is an easy place to accidentally disappear in, or purposefully disappear to. It’s a place of abandon and abandonment. One vista: junkyard shanties that make you worry about America. Nearby: mountains that might make you believe in God. On a 1,400-mile drive around the state you can meet bar managers in Delta Junction who are hyper-fluent in local issues, such as barley production, but don’t actually know that Don Young is dead. You can meet miners in Fairbanks and National Guard members from Fort Greely who say their hidden work preserves the American way of life. You can visit a church in a Native village, out in Alaska’s “unorganized” boroughs, and watch a White pastor preach to a single Indigenous woman, collect a monetary offering from her and invite you back to chat at his homestead, whereupon you ask about the white flag with the red cross flying from his front door, and receive this answer: “Admittedly, it’s from the Crusades.”

Earliest Native settlers arrived from Asia around 12,000 years ago. The United States bought the land from the Russian empire in 1867 for $7.2 million. In 1935, in between the discovery of gold and the era of oil, Army Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell told a congressional committee something that would become a kind of state motto: “I believe that, in the future, whoever holds Alaska will hold the world.” Statehood swiftly followed a big strike of oil in 1957 because Alaska had become more than just a territory: It was a crow’s nest for the Cold War and a well of natural resources for a modern superpower.

These days Alaska is America refracted and exaggerated. Oil still drives a boom-and-bust economy, making the state a kind of war profiteer and a staging ground for climate change. Alaska sits on a large reserve of natural gas, and most House candidates want a pipeline built, though the state is warming two to three times faster than the rest of the country. Roads are buckling as permafrost melts. Villages are falling into rivers and bays, though Kodiak now runs on about 99 percent renewable energy.

Alaska is a red state with blue dots and purple streaks. It is pro-gun, pro-union, pro-extraction and pro-marijuana. It is suspicious of the federal government in spite (or because) of the fact that the federal government owns 60 percent of its land. Alaskans, among the least-taxed Americans, receive a yearly check with a dividend from the state’s oil wealth (last year it was $1,114 per person).

Alaska “is fiscally conservative, socially libertarian and very Alaska-nationalistic,” says Mark Begich, a Democrat who served in the U.S. Senate from 2009 to 2015, and whose Republican nephew is running to replace Young. Alaskans “have this contradictory philosophy. On the one hand, it’s ‘Federal government, we don’t want you here.' On the other hand, it’s ‘Please give us as much as we can get.' ”

Alaska has both rainforest and tundra. It is high-tech and low-infrastructure. Hundreds of Native villages are reachable only by plane, and some don’t have broadband internet or even running water. Clear Space Force Station has a new $1.5 billion radar to distinguish between types of missile debris in the upper atmosphere. The state — the sparsest in the union with an average of 1.1 people per square mile — has the highest concentration of military veterans in the country. Anchorage has some of the most diverse neighborhoods in the nation, with more than 90 languages spoken in the city’s school district. Minutes from civilization, in almost any direction, is unforgiving wilderness.

The biggest voting bloc in Alaska is undeclared or nonpartisan voters, who outnumber all registered Democrats and Republicans. Relying on this state trait, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) sidestepped a loss in the 2010 Republican primary and won reelection as a write-in candidate. The voting system that will be tested this year was conceived by attorney Scott Kendall, Murkowski’s counsel for that campaign. Kendall envisioned a system that would incentivize civility and pragmatism, dilute the influence of political parties and dark money, and deliver consensus winners with broad appeal. His solution was to remove partisan primaries and allow Alaskans to rank their preferences.

“It’s impossible to know how it will turn out, and that’s a good thing,” Kendall says. “Under the old system, the parties had the power to hand-select the two choices for voters. But instead we’ve got multiple candidates from both major parties, plus a number of independent and smaller-party candidates. Combining that with a seat that hasn’t been open for 50 years, plus doing a statewide election by mail for the very first time in Alaska’s history — there’s a lot of uncertainty but also more excitement and engagement.”

“I may be too Pollyanna, but maybe it’ll create a little more respect in the political process,” says Kim Reitmeier, president of an association of Native regional corporations that has endorsed Republican Tara Sweeney, a tribal member of the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope. “We continually try to encourage our Alaska Native people to run for seats; however, many shy away because of the ugliness of campaigning. So I would love some of the negativity removed.”

Alaska, in its 64th year of statehood, could serve as a model for a country in the stranglehold of two hyper-polarized parties, says Amy Lauren Lovecraft, a political science professor at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

“If we can get these elections right, we could be a demonstration to the rest of the country about how it’s not too difficult to go without just two parties,” Lovecraft says. “That you can figure it out. That it is possible to vote your conscience.”

She adds: “What will be interesting is: Do people actually understand how to vote, and will they do it correctly?”

Because Young died in office, Alaskans have to vote for someone to fill the remainder of Young’s term and then elect someone to begin the new term in January. This means four votes, using two methods, over three time periods, in two races, for the same seat: a special primary (pick one candidate of 48), a special general (rank any four of the finalists), a regular primary (pick one candidate of 31) and a regular general (rank any four of the finalists). The special general (rank four!) will take place the same day in August as the regular primary (pick one!).

Got it?

The remains of Nick Begich Sr., the last person not named Don Young to represent Alaska in the U.S. House, are probably near Hinchinbrook Island, perhaps at the bottom of Prince William Sound, according to the recent podcast “Missing in Alaska,” which over the past 10 years dug into the mystery of Begich’s disappearance in 1972, when his Cessna went down somewhere between Anchorage and Juneau.

His grandson, Nick Begich III, is now running for the same seat. Begich is a Club for Growth conservative who lent his campaign $650,000 and speaks the risk-reward language of a businessman, even as he addresses would-be supporters who parrot conspiracy theories they saw online.

On a Thursday in May, the hosts of a Begich fundraiser in Soldotna presented him as the clear, noncontroversial choice for Young’s seat.

“A serious candidate,” said former state GOP chairman Tuckerman Babcock.

“A normal person,” said local fishing-charter owner Cindy Glassmaker.

The Alaskans who showed up to the fundraiser want their next U.S. representative to impeach President Biden. They want all “our Jan. 6 people” out of jail. They want to know why the FBI appeared to mistakenly raid a house in nearby Homer last year to look for Nancy Pelosi’s stolen laptop.

“Forgive me if I sound angry, but I’m so angry,” an attendee in a floral blouse told Begich after his remarks. “I didn’t hear you say anything about corruption in Congress. … We’ve been duped. We have been abused. ... The Constitution has been trampled.”

Begich was co-chair of Don Young’s 2020 reelection campaign and declared his candidacy in October, when Young was still very much alive. This did not go over well. Young, gunning for an even 50 years in Congress, felt stabbed in the back. His allies fumed. Begich ran to the right of the sitting congressman, who had rankled the MAGA crowd by daring to work across the aisle, voting for Biden’s infrastructure bill and supporting Deb Haaland for interior secretary. But Young’s death required Begich to modulate. When asked over lunch about former president Donald Trump’s influence in Alaska, Begich cautioned about building policy, or a political party, around a single personality. He is not above tossing supporters a line about Hunter Biden, but he mostly targets the federal oversight that prevents Alaska from fully developing its resources.

“If we can have an articulate voice, even with just one person in the House, we can unlock the potential of Alaska,” he told the small gathering in Soldotna.

Ask Alaskans to predict which four of the 48 candidates will advance beyond the primaries and most will lead with Palin and Begich.

In a poll last month from Alaska Survey Research, Palin was barely the top choice in the pick-one primary, with just 19 percent of the vote. Begich came in second at 16 percent. Third place was occupied by Al Gross, a wealthy independent who lost his 2020 Senate race against Republican Dan Sullivan by 12 points. The poll indicated that the ranked-choice phase will benefit Begich and Gross, with Begich ultimately prevailing in four out of four simulations. Palin was eliminated each time in the second round.

Palin has racked up endorsements from the out-of-state MAGA crowd: Trump, Newt Gingrich, Ted Nugent. Begich has aired radio ads saying “Alaska isn’t for quitters,” an apparent swipe at Palin for resigning the Alaska governorship and pursuing fortune in the Lower 48. After Begich was endorsed by the state GOP, Palin decried it as an elitist “old boys’ network.” Begich rolled out an endorsement from Jim Palin, Sarah’s ex-father-in-law.

Last month the state Democratic Party called Gross “a proven loser,” in an attempt to clear some space for Christopher Constant, an Anchorage Assembly member endorsed by Begich’s uncles (both Democratic politicians), and Mary Peltola, a former state legislator who directed an intertribal fish commission out west in Bethel, off the Alaska road system. Also scrambling for that fourth spot are Anchorage attorney Jeff Lowenfels, perhaps best known for writing a gardening column for 45 years, and the two co-chairs of Don Young’s abbreviated 2022 campaign: Tara Sweeney, a former assistant secretary for Indian affairs at the U.S. Interior Department, and Josh Revak, an Iraq War veteran and state senator who has the endorsement of Young’s family.

When asked during a debate in Fairbanks which candidate they’d rank No. 2 on their ballots, the four leading Republicans all picked former state legislator John B. Coghill Jr., whose father co-wrote the Alaska state constitution and managed Young’s first campaign.

“In this new ranked-choice voting, the votes go uphill to somebody,” says Coghill over breakfast just south of Fairbanks. “The parties themselves have pegged their meters, in my view, to extremes. And what we need is America to work together.” The new voting system “might help that.”

The new voting system might also offer an advantage to the candidate whose fame (in a way) exceeds even that of Palin, and who took the fourth spot in the Alaska Survey Research poll.

That would be Santa Claus, of North Pole, Alaska.

“I have an advantage because of name recognition,” Claus explains over a vegetarian omelet at a diner in North Pole.

He was born Thomas Patrick O’Connor in D.C. and grew up mostly in New York. He says he graduated New York University just behind Martin Scorsese, and the university confirms this. He says he was a bouncer for a time at the Electric Circus, a psychedelic disco in the East Village; this fact is harder to check. He has photos on his phone of various plaques that suggest a strange and peripatetic work history. For less than a year in the early 1970s he was “special assistant to the deputy police commissioner” of the New York Police Department; he says that witnessing the suffering of children at crime scenes informs his life and work. He has a photo of a plaque from the Federal Emergency Management Agency dated September 1984 that designates him as “a member of the National Defense Executive Reserve.” For eight years, he says, he worked in an outfit called the Terrorism Research and Communication Center. “You can’t find it anywhere unless you actually know where to look,” he says. A 1985 government directory confirms its onetime existence as a six-person operation, led by one Thomas P. O’Connor, that catalogued “material on domestic terrorism.”

Most of his life seems spackled together by odd jobs, community service and the kindness of strangers. He says that, while walking down a snowy road near Lake Tahoe in 2005, he asked God how he could use his Kringle-like appearance to benefit the greatest number of children. He wondered, in prayer, if he should change his name to Santa Claus. Within moments, a white car slowed down and the silhouetted driver called out: “I love you, Santa!” Soon he was receiving commendations from governors for his child advocacy.

He completed his transformation nine years ago by moving to North Pole. He is now a city council member and a potential spoiler for at least four top-tier candidates in the House race. Claus is only running for the special election, as an independent who espouses the democratic socialism of Bernie Sanders. He seems to think that some good can come from four months as a lame-duck congressman.

Normal person? Serious candidate?

“Santa is a viable candidate with a real policy platform,” says a state Democratic Party official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to positively discuss a candidate who may prevent any Democrat from making the finals. “He’s a wonderful individual who’s supported a lot of Democratic candidates.” As for Claus’s democratic socialism, the official notes that “we all get a dividend from oil. The state already has elements of socialism.”

In Alaska’s previous voting system, Claus would probably have been weeded out in a primary. Now, out of the more likely fourth-place contenders — Claus, Constant, Peltola and Sweeney — Claus makes the strongest showing in a theoretical general election, according to data from Alaska pollster Ivan Moore. And candidates who see him as a novelty need to treat him like a threat.

“I’m waging a war on Santa,” Revak said last month in a playful ad that seemed like a lighthearted act of desperation. “This Bernie Bro legally changed his name to Santa and he wants Alaskans to accept his North Pole Marxist fantasies.”

“Santa Claus, I’m coming for you, because when I was 9, I was really good that year and I woke up to no Easy-Bake Oven,” jokes Sweeney.

“I’m sorry about Santa,” says Coghill, with a hint of embarrassment on behalf of Alaska. “When a guy changes his name to Santa Claus, you wonder what the motive is. Is it really to help people, or to aggrandize himself?

Claus says his motives are pure, that four months is enough time to “shake it up” in Congress, have an impact on child welfare and then cede the seat to the winner of the regular election. Some Alaskans are chattering about Claus as a protest vote, an expression of fatigue with politics in general.

“The fact that he’s serious is what is scary,” says one longtime observer of Alaska politics, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, perhaps to avoid the naughty list. “We’re going from one of the most powerful congressional seats, because of what Don Young made it, to like No. 435 in importance — and we’re going to give that to Santa?”

Santa’s chances may be slimmer than they appear. But his outsize presence in 2022′s strangest campaign is a reminder that we are in an interglacial period, both geologically and politically. The old figureheads are receding. Coalitions are melting. And even our most civilized exercises in democracy are not very far from the wilderness.

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