WASILLA, Alaska — In a dive bar a few miles from Sarah Palin’s house, Stu Graham nursed a Miller Lite to decompress from an hours-long city council debate.
Graham said he would like his representative in Congress to have that same attitude, which is how he made his choice in the special election primary to replace late Rep. Don Young (R) this month. He decided to cast his ballot for Nick Begich III, a Republican endorsed by the state GOP, and not Palin, who played basketball at his local high school.
“I consider Sarah a friend,” said Graham, a Republican running to unseat state Rep. David Eastman, a member of the right-wing extremist group Oath Keepers. “But I consider Nick to be a more effective politician.”
Palin, whose campaign did not make her available for an interview, showed in the primary that she is still a political force in the state where she ascended from municipal government to vice-presidential nominee in 2008. She advanced from a crowded field of 48 candidates with the most support. After outperforming some expectations by claiming about 27 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results set to be certified on Saturday, she is now a top target of her rivals in the next stage of the race — which culminates Aug. 16.
But at a moment of sharp polarization across America, some Alaskans in Wasilla and beyond said they are far more interested in deals that would benefit their far-flung state than political combat. With only one seat in the U.S. House and needs that are often different from the rest of the country, these voters said in interviews since polls closed June 11, they are eager to elect a representative who is willing to buck party lines and work across the aisle. That sentiment could pose a challenge for Palin, a combative conservative, as she gears up for a ranked-choice general election that experts said might benefit candidates with broad appeal.
“The theory is that it favors candidates who have strengths across the ideological spectrum,” longtime Alaska pollster Ivan Moore said, referring to the ranked-choice voting system. “And that is not the case with Sarah Palin, because she is polarizing.”
The new voting system was rocked by a surprise development this week, when independent Al Gross withdrew from the race after advancing to the general election as one of the top four finishers in the primary. State election officials later said he pulled out too late to be replaced on the Aug. 16 ballot, where Alaskans can select several candidates and rank them.
Palin, Begich and Democrat Mary Peltola have advanced to the general election in what is now shaping up as a three-way race. In the days since the June 11 primary results started coming in, Palin’s opponents have tried to distinguish themselves from her by focusing on their pragmatism and ability to find middle ground.
“I can make the business case for Alaska effectively down in D.C. on behalf of all Alaskans,” Begich said in an interview last week with The Washington Post. He added, “I can pull in not just folks from the right, but also the center and those left of center.” According to unofficial results, he finished roughly eight percentage points behind Palin in the primary.
Peltola, who has spoken out against negative campaigning, discussed her interest in working across the aisle.
“Right now, national politics is so divisive,” she said in an interview with The Post last week. “People are craving unity, working together, and building alliances and coalitions to make positive change.”
Palin, who is endorsed by former president Donald Trump, sounded some results-oriented notes of her own just after voting in the primary closed, saying on Twitter that she was “looking forward to the special general election so we can highlight our ideas for fixing this country.” Then when Gross withdrew his candidacy, Palin attempted to appeal to his voters by describing her mission as “strengthening relationships our State needs in order to get nationwide Congressional support for Alaska’s interests.”
But in public appearances since resigning from Alaska’s governorship 13 years ago, Palin has characterized politics in Washington as “war for the solvency, the sovereignty of the United States of America” and urged Republican leaders to “get on offense.” In her first television interview after announcing her run for Congress, she called Democrats on Capitol Hill “pretty wacko.” Voters like Graham said they have come to know Palin for her “hard right-wing speech” and as a “mouthpiece” for the most extreme bloc of the GOP.
Palin’s campaign did not respond to questions about the concerns some have voiced about her candidacy.
If she is to become Alaska’s next U.S. House member, Palin will probably need support from those who ranked one of her competitors first, some observers said. Under the new voting system, if a candidate gets a majority of first-choice votes, they win. If not, the last-place finisher is eliminated and each of their ballots is recast toward the voter’s next choice. That process is repeated until one candidate has a majority.
Moore’s firm, Alaska Survey Research, conducted a poll in May that showed Palin to be the top choice in the pick-one primary but losing to Begich in the general election due to whom voters ranked second and third. After the results of the primary, Moore says the two Republicans could be neck-in-neck in a ranked-choice election. He also said Peltola could be a contender with a newfound ability to consolidate first-place votes and financial support from the left.
To win in August, Moore said Palin’s base or hard-line Republicans will have to turn out with such force that they overpower the roughly 40 percent of Alaskans who vowed in the poll to rank her last.
John-Henry Heckendorn, a partner at an Alaska campaign management firm working for Peltola, argued that the ranked-choice system would spell trouble for Palin if Republican voters decide to break party lines for their second-choice vote because of their disdain for their former governor. But he also said he feels optimistic about Peltola, who would be the first Alaska Native member of the state’s congressional delegation, in a ranked-choice system.
Also on Aug. 16 is the pick-one primary for the full two-year term starting next year. Palin is also a candidate in that race, which will conclude with a ranked-choice general election in November.
A city of roughly 10,000 nestled in a deeply conservative region shaped by glaciers and three mountain ranges, Wasilla is home to the type of voter critical to a Palin victory. It was here that the mother of five launched her political career 30 years ago, edging out a Republican incumbent to become mayor and then winning reelection in 1999 with around 75 percent of the vote.
In Wasilla, a deeply conservative area where land is cheap and self-reliance is a virtue, Palin is expected to turn out many avid supporters. But after a losing vice-presidential bid, a rise to fame and an abandoned Alaska governorship, interviews with dozens of local residents revealed some potential vulnerabilities for her.
Walking around downtown handing out real estate business cards on a recent afternoon, Jetta Minerva, a self-proclaimed conservative, voiced worries that the government will take away the guns that make her feel safe as a single mom.
Minerva, 44, said she voted for Palin 16 years ago when she ran for governor, excited by the candidate’s focus on the Second Amendment and her deep community ties. But sometime between 2006 and last Monday afternoon, Palin lost Minerva’s support.
She said that Palin had become too “Hollywood” for the people of Wasilla and that her recent speeches seemed “so out of left field that it was bizarre.” Minerva said she wants a candidate who will deliver on the conservative policies she believes will best serve the region.
“I just don’t really think Sarah Palin is in it to help us anymore,” she said, crossing the parking lot at the center of this city on a highway. “I think she’s out for her own personal gain.”
That is why Minerva has decided to rank Begich first in August, she said, and Palin last.
There are plenty of Wasilla residents, however, who disagree with Minerva, and many of them showed up to vote in the June primary. Palin won around 44 percent of the state House district that includes Wasilla, roughly 20 percentage points more than Begich. Some who cast ballots for candidates not advancing to the general election said they would shift their first-choice vote to Palin.
Sam Elwell is one of those voters. The 24-year-old said he had a hard time taking the primary seriously with 48 choices and a candidate named Santa Claus in the running. So he decided to cast a “satirical vote” for Alaska Independence Party member John Wayne Howe, simply because he recognized the name from old cowboy movies he watched with his dad (though politician Howe has no known affiliation with the actor John Wayne).
“It wasn’t an intellectual decision,” Elwell said. “But now that it’s narrowed down to the top contenders, I am looking more into what they represent and whose values align with my own.”
Elwell still sees Palin as a member of his community. He said he ran into her at the local ice rink growing up, and again a few months ago at his favorite spot for chicken and milkshakes.
His second spot on the ballot is still up for grabs. A libertarian, Elwell is skeptical of Begich — a Republican candidate from a family famous for its Democratic politics.
Voters across party lines, in Wasilla and elsewhere, expressed similar reservations about Begich; some said they were not comfortable with Palin either.
Andy Josephson, a Democratic state representative who says he plans to make Peltola his first choice in August, has been wrestling with who, if anyone, to list after that.
He briefly considered ranking Palin for her willingness to criticize the mainstream Republican establishment, but decided she was too beholden to Trump and might not take the job in Congress seriously enough to represent Alaskan interests. He ultimately concluded that neither Republican in the race is worthy of a vote unless they speak out against the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob.
“We can disagree on 99% of the issues, but you gotta believe in democracy and rule of law,” he wrote in a letter to the editor of the Anchorage Daily News calling on the candidates to take a stand against the insurrection. “If they can’t, my pen will run out of ink.”
Gross’s decision to drop out, Josephson said, only made his ballot simpler.
As of late June, he planned to vote for Peltola and no one else.