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The significance of Sarah Palin’s loss

Sarah Palin speaks as former president Donald Trump looks on during a “Save America” rally in Anchorage last month. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
5 min

The final special election before the November midterms is in the books. And while the race featured an unusual setup, this one might be more ominous for the GOP than its recent predecessors — for one key reason.

The headline from the Alaska special election is that Democrat Mary Peltola defeated former governor and 2008 GOP vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Peltola took 51.5 percent of the vote to Palin’s 48.5 percent, bringing at least a temporary end to Palin’s belated attempt at a political comeback.

The election was actually held two weeks ago, but the state’s new ranked-choice voting system requires it to wait to collect all ballots, then eliminate candidates from the bottom up. Ultimately, third-place candidate Nick Begich (R) was eliminated, with his voters’ lower-ranked choices being added to the totals, if they ranked one of the two finalists below Begich.

Peltola took 40 percent of the first-choice votes to Palin’s 31 percent and Begich’s 28.5 percent. But given that Alaska is a red state and that both Palin and Begich are Republicans, it stood to reason Palin should pick up most of his voters. Nearly 6 in 10 voters picked a Republican first, after all.

In the end she did, but barely — and not nearly enough. Almost as many Begich voters picked Peltola as their second choice (15,445) or didn’t rank one of the two finalists (11,222) as ranked Palin behind Begich (27,042). In other words, only about half of Begich voters were willing to also rank Palin ahead of a Democrat.

Crucially, it’s a pickup for Democrats, given the seat was previously held by the late longtime Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska). Democrats have also now overperformed their 2020 margins in all five special elections held since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June. And Peltola’s overperformance is the biggest yet.

Peltola turned a state Donald Trump won by 10 points in 2020 into a three-point win — a shift of 13 points. That’s more than Democrats’ previous biggest special election overperformance, in Nebraska’s 1st District shortly after the Roe decision.

And while there are some caveats, this one stings due to one specific characteristic: It was a trial run for a dynamic Republicans are confronting in the general election — divisive and extreme candidates who might alienate moderate voters. This is a particular problem in key Senate races in Arizona, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where Trump-backed nominees are far underperforming where they should be in what appear to be relatively neutral environments.

Palin certainly fits that mold, having seen her home state sour on her after an early resignation as governor, following her and John McCain’s loss in 2008. A pre-special election poll showed 70 percent of voters who preferred Begich as their first choice had an unfavorable opinion of Palin. She wound up getting about half their votes anyway. But that’s still half of voters for a Republican candidate being unwilling to rank another Republican as their backup.

It’s valid to ask whether this is transferrable to other races featuring divisive GOP candidates like Arizona’s Blake Masters, Ohio’s J.D. Vance and Pennsylvania’s Mehmet Oz. Alaska is not directly comparable, in that it was a special election, where recent races suggest Democrats have a turnout advantage that might not be replicated in November.

It also features a new ranked-choice system, in which voters who might have had hard feelings about Palin slugging it out with Begich didn’t have time between a primary and the final matchup to cool off and come around to supporting the red team. (These voters might not have fully understood how the state’s new system worked, either.) And Alaska has an independent streak; it’s a red state, but it has elected both a Democratic senator and an independent governor who aligned with Democrats in the recent past.

But under any circumstances, losing a state Trump carried by 10 points is hardly a good sign for the GOP. That’s especially in a year in which they appeared primed for big gains, and especially if moderate voters in other states show they’re anywhere close to as willing to cast aside Republicans they view as being a bridge too far.

We’ll also have to see whether Palin might still have a political pulse. All three candidates mentioned above are also candidates in the general election in November where, as we’ve said, turnout could be different. It also seems possible that enough Palin-first voters might move to Begich-first, now that Palin has lost — and lost a race that polls suggested Begich was in a better position to win if he made the final two.

Indeed, the smart play for the GOP would seem to be rallying behind Begich for November. But in some crucial Senate races that could determine the balance of that chamber, there is no such mulligan available.

And as a turning point in the 2022 elections, it’s quite possible — though hardly settled — that we could again look back on how Trump-backed candidates like Palin narrowly edged out other Republicans to make the final two.