ANCHORAGE — Democrat Mary Peltola has won a special election for the U.S. House in Alaska, defeating Republican Sarah Palin and becoming the first Alaska Native to win a seat in Congress as well as the first woman to clinch the state’s at-large district.
Peltola, who’s Yup’ik, is a tribal fisheries manager and former state representative who led in initial counts after the Aug. 16 election. But her win wasn’t assured until Wednesday, when Alaska election officials made decisive second-choice counts using the state’s new ranked-choice voting system. Republican Nick Begich III, who finished third, was eliminated, and his supporters’ second-choice votes were redistributed to the remaining candidates.
“It is overwhelming. And it’s a very good feeling. I’m very grateful Alaskans have put their trust in me,” Peltola said in an interview with The Washington Post shortly after her victory at the office of her campaign consultants, where she had to break away in the middle of the conversation to take a call from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). “I will be immediately going to work.”
Alaska’s special-election results come after other summer special elections for the House in which Democrats outperformed President Biden’s showing in their districts. Those outcomes, all following the Supreme Court decision to end a constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy, have been hailed by Democrats as encouraging signs for the November midterms that show voters are angered by the court’s decision and eager to vote for candidates supporting abortion rights.
The Alaska race adds another data point to the clues both parties are examining as they gear up for the stretch run to the Nov. 8 elections. But since it was decided under a unique new voting system, the Alaska race could be harder to read as an indicator of the national environment than the other contests.
For the moment, it helps Democrats expand their current narrow House majority and gives the party a better chance of winning the seat in the fall, according to at least one nonpartisan elections analyst.
Peltola had nearly 40 percent of first-choice votes after preliminary counts, which put her about 16,000 votes ahead of Palin. Half of the Alaskans who made Begich their first choice ranked Palin second, and 21 percent did not make a second choice. The remaining 29 percent — a surprisingly large fraction, even to some of Peltola’s supporters — ranked Peltola second, flipping from a Republican to a Democrat. The second-choice support for Peltola was enough for her to hold off Palin, leaving the Democrat about 5,200 votes ahead.
Peltola said in the interview that she thinks her win shows that Alaskans “want someone who has a proven track record of working well with people and setting aside partisanship.” She added, “I think it also reveals that Alaskans are very tired of the bickering and the personal attacks.”
Palin’s defeat comes in her first campaign since she stepped down as Alaska’s governor in 2009; former president Donald Trump endorsed her and held a rally on her behalf in Anchorage.
Peltola’s campaign focused on local issues, such as what to do about declining salmon returns. She is expected to be sworn in to office in mid-September.
The Democrat ran as a relatively moderate candidate with bipartisan bona fides; she conditionally supports hot-button natural resource projects like oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Ambler road, which would cross Gates of the Arctic National Park to access promising mining claims in the foothills of Alaska’s Brooks Range. But she also touted her abortion rights stance.
Asked in the interview about the significance of her soon becoming the first Alaska Native in Congress, Peltola said, “There’s maybe a little bit of personal significance, but really, I am a congressperson for every Alaskan, regardless of their background.” She added, “I am Alaska Native, but I am much more than just my ethnicity.”
Until she ran for Congress, Peltola was the executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which co-manages federal salmon fisheries in a partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Peltola’s Yukon-Kuskokwim region — named for two major salmon rivers that flow through the area — has seen unprecedented collapses of key subsistence salmon runs in recent years. Peltola pledged to tackle the issue if elected.
Peltola, who turned 49 on Wednesday, is the daughter of a Yup’ik mother and a father from Nebraska, who started in Alaska as a teacher in the village of Fort Yukon. There, he worked with Young, who also was a teacher before he ran for Congress. Peltola’s family was close with Young’s, and her father flew Young on campaign stops when he was first seeking statewide office; her mother also campaigned for Young while she was pregnant with Peltola, speaking in the Yup’ik language.
Peltola was in the Alaska state House for 10 years, ending in 2008, and served while Palin was governor. She was first elected to the state House at age 25, two years after losing her first attempt, which began at age 22.
Forty-eight candidates ran in a special primary election in June. That race narrowed the field to four — independent Al Gross later dropped out — before the Aug. 16 general election.
Meanwhile, a regularly scheduled election is playing out to decide who will hold the same U.S. House seat for the next two years, once the rest of Young’s term concludes. The primary for that race also was held Aug. 16, and Peltola, Palin and Begich are projected to advance, according to the Associated Press. There will also be a fourth spot on the ranked-choice ballot in November.
“Mary Peltola’s victory is a clear message from AK voters that they will not compromise their values or their rights at the ballot box. Mary is a pro-choice, pro-fish, common sense leader who knows what it takes to protect and create AK jobs. On to November!” tweeted former Democratic senator Mark Begich of Alaska. Nick Begich III is the nephew of the former senator.
Following Peltola’s win, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report moved the Alaska seat’s rating from “Likely Republican” to “Toss-up.”
National Democratic groups did not participate in the special election race even as Peltola was outraised by Palin, according to federal campaign finance reports. But party officials say they’re closely watching the general election race.
Palin and Peltola were at a candidate forum earlier Wednesday. Peltola mentioned the joint appearance in the interview with The Post and said that she had not yet heard from Palin, but “we are going to be reaching out to her.”
Asked what both campaigning for the seat and representing Alaskans in Congress would look like in the months ahead, Peltola said, “I don’t.” She added, “I will supposedly have the benefit of incumbency.” She added, “We’ll see how that works.”
Palin, Begich and other conservatives have sharply criticized Alaska’s new ranked-choice voting system, and the nonpartisan primary system that accompanies it. Palin, in an election night statement, called it “convoluted,” “cockamamie” and untrustworthy.
“The biggest lesson as we move into the 2022 General Election, is that ranked choice voting showed that a vote for Sarah Palin is in reality a vote for Mary Peltola. Palin simply doesn’t have enough support from Alaskans to win an election,” Nick Begich III said in a statement Wednesday.
The system’s supporters — some of whom are aligned with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski — argue that it will result in the election of more-moderate candidates and reduce the risk of third-party politicians “spoiling” an election, because their supporters will be able also to rank mainstream candidates.
In the congressional race, Alaska Republicans ran a campaign urging voters to “rank the red” and fill out ballots for both Palin and Begich, rather than just one of them.
John Coghill, a Republican former state senator who ran in the special primary, attributed Peltola’s win to negative campaigning between the two GOP candidates in the race — which, according to Coghill and multiple strategists, may have made Begich supporters less likely to rank Palin second.
“They started taking shots at each other, and the supporters of one would not dare vote for the other Republican, because of so many cross words,” Coghill said in a phone interview Wednesday. “It’s a new system, and people campaigned like it was the old system.”
Coghill served with Peltola in the Alaska Legislature and said that he was still somewhat pleased to see her elected even though he only ranked the two Republicans on his own ballot. “I think she represents a very good chunk of Alaskans, and she has a broad view,” he said. “She and I argued a lot. And I found her to be a formidable debater, but willing to work where you could.”
A previous version of this story inaccurately said the winner of the Alaska special election would serve until November. The story has been corrected to note the winner will serve out the remainder of the term until the new Congress is sworn in.
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