ANCHORAGE — Speaking to a large conference room of Alaska Natives on Friday, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) had only words of praise for Rep. Mary Peltola (D), the first Alaska Native elected to Congress, who is also up for reelection.
Asked if she would rank Peltola first on her ballot next month in Alaska’s new ranked-choice voting system, Murkowski paused. After a full 18 seconds, she said, “Yeah, I am.” She then mumbled, “I’m going to get in so much trouble.”
Asked to respond to Murkowski’s de facto endorsement, Peltola said, “I’m voting for her, so we’re even-steven.”
Murkowski and Peltola represent different parties and different chambers of Congress, but both are embarking on the same difficult journey to win reelection in a red state. Both are running against more conservative candidates who have the backing of former president Donald Trump in a state he won by 10 points in 2020.
Despite being from different parties, Murkowski and Peltola are finding more things draw them together than drive them apart. They are running as abortion rights moderates who are independent-minded consensus-builders focused on Alaska’s needs, including juggling the impact of climate change and the state’s economic reliance on oil, not the partisan and culture wars playing out in the Lower 48.
They also share an intense focus on the Alaska Native population and a belief that those voters will be key to determining whether they return to Washington next year.
A key constituency
In an election in a state of about 600,000 registered voters where every vote and every ranking matters, Alaska Native communities are a critical voting bloc for both Murkowski and Peltola. Alaska Natives make up 15 percent of the state’s population — 22 percent including mixed-race natives — and have flexed their political muscle in the past.
Alaska Native leaders persuaded Murkowski to run a write-in campaign in 2010 when she lost her primary to a more conservative GOP candidate. They launched a massive voter education “fill it in, write it in” campaign to teach native voters how to clearly write Murkowski’s name. Their vote made up the margin by which Murkowski won, her campaign manager at the time, Kevin Sweeney, said.
The effort was particularly impressive considering historically lower voter turnout in rural Alaska. where many villages operate without a polling place, relying on mail-in votes that have to be delivered on small air carriers.
At the Alaska Federation of Natives annual conference last week, voters and native leaders in more than a dozen interviews proudly remembered their influence in the 2010 election.
This year, “they could be the deciding vote,” said Zack Brown, a former communications director for the late Rep. Don Young (R), whom Peltola replaced after winning a special election in August.
A new poll to be released Monday afternoon by Alaska Survey Research of 1,276 likely voters found that Peltola has a 52 percent positive rating from respondents, compared with 32 percent for Republican Nick Begich III and 33 percent for former GOP governor Sarah Palin, and that Peltola would win in the second round of counting with 51 percent. The survey also found that Murkowski has a positive rating of 44 percent, compared with 34 percent for Kelly Tshibaka but that it would probably take three rounds of counting for Murkowski to win.
Alaska Natives, who have an array of differences and political needs, are enthusiastically uniting behind both Murkowski and Peltola. The Alaska Federation of Natives, the largest organization representing Alaska tribes, endorsed both Murkowski and Peltola unanimously.
Another Alaska Native entity, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act regional association (ANCSA) also endorsed both candidates. Sealaska, an Alaska Native land ownership corporation, is teaching its members to rank both Murkowski and Peltola first on their ballots. (Alaska Natives’ land is divided by corporations and not the better-known reservation system in the contiguous 48 states.)
In the state’s new electoral system, voters rank their preference of candidates with the second- and third-place votes redistributed until a candidate reaches 50 percent plus one.
Tribal leaders are downplaying the significance of a cross-party endorsement during such politically polarizing times and emphasizing the work both women have done for Alaska Natives.
“She didn’t really sound like a Democrat; she didn’t really sound like a Republican; she sounded like an Alaskan. She has Alaskan priorities, Alaskan views,” Richard Peterson, president of the Tlingit and Haida tribes, said of Peltola. He noted his tribe last endorsed a political candidate in 2014.
“With Lisa, we’ve worked with her in the trenches,” Peterson said of Murkowski. “She’s been able to work and build relationships across party lines.”
Murkowski said she didn’t think her support for a Democrat would hurt her reelection chances.
“In Alaska, it’s different,” she said.
‘We are in Mary’s house’
At the AFN conference, where more than 5,000 Indigenous people, mostly from Alaska, gathered to discuss their agenda, issues and challenges, the November election was a steady theme throughout. Murkowski received a warm welcome, and Peltola was treated like a superstar.
Peltola was swarmed by supporters as she walked through the hallways of the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage. When she took the stage, the large room of Alaska Natives clapped, cheered and waved wooden sticks with Peltola’s face on them. When she finished speaking, the audience broke out in song.
Palin, the former governor of Alaska and vice-presidential candidate who is running against Peltola, said during a candidate forum: “We are in Mary’s house. I love her dearly and am proud of her, as all of you are.”
But Palin was disappointed when a reporter told her that Peltola was Murkowski’s first choice for the House seat. “Wow. People all know how much I love Mary, and I certainly do,” Palin said, “but she represents planks and a platform that I don’t believe are in Alaska’s best interests.”
Paul John from Ruby, a town on the Yukon River in the central part of the state, said he welcomes Peltola’s positive message of unity. “You see a lot of politics nowadays, it’s about dividing people. Hers is a positive message,” he said.
Fish is another reason John and many other Alaska Natives support Peltola. Fishing is not just a job for Alaska Natives, but how many survive. The fish that have sustained some tribes for generations are disappearing. Peltola, he said, understands the issue and the problems these communities face. One of her first tasks during her short time in Congress was to push forward the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the federal bill that oversees fishing in federal lands.
Peltola, who is a Yupik from Bethel, Alaska, has run a campaign of “pro-fish, pro-family and pro-freedom,” a catch phrase meant to address a large number of issues important to Alaskans and natives: abundant fishing, tribal self-determination and abortion access.
She is highlighting her close ties to Young, who represented the state for 49 years before his death earlier this year. Peltola hired Young’s former staffers, including one as her top aide. She received the endorsement of his daughters and a group of former Young staffers who released a letter of support.
“I think what we’re seeing is that the two spectra are widening, and it seems we’re even more middle-of-the-road because the left is so much further left and the right is so much further to the right,” Peltola said in an interview.
Murkowski, the top Republican on the Indian Affairs Committee, has also focused on issues important to rural Alaskans and natives, including playing a key role in funneling hundreds of millions of dollars to Alaska tribes in two pandemic relief bills, even though she voted against the Democrats’ American Rescue Plan in March of last year. On Friday, she gushed about the bipartisan infrastructure bill that can be used to build water and sewer systems and broadband networks for disconnected communities.
She travels the state throughout the year, including to remote villages.
“When it’s time for me to campaign, I feel like it’s less me going into a community and asking for your vote as much as it’s just reconnecting with people,” Murkowski said.
Gauging the importance of the Alaska Native vote
The impact of the Alaska Native vote is difficult to quantify and compare from cycle to cycle. The state doesn’t differentiate between a rural Alaskan and a Native Alaskan, so there is no data on native voting. That’s something Michelle Macuar Sparck, a member of the Qissunamiut Tribe of Chevak and director of strategic initiatives at Get Out the Native Vote, a nonpartisan organization that works to educate native voters, is working to change.
“I think she’s going to turn out the vote, her and almost her alone,” Sparck said of Peltola. “It is very exciting.”
Ivan Moore, a pollster with Alaska Survey Research, said that Alaska Natives make up 50 percent of rural Alaska, but noted turnout in rural districts is usually lower than in Alaska’s cities.
“But Mary Peltola is a total game changer, and that’s good for Murkowski,” Moore said. “They both come to the table with the same base of supporters,” he said, including women, Democrats, nonpartisan voters and Alaska Native voters.
Peterson, the tribal president, said another motivating factor for his tribe to endorse was that the other candidates “take hard lines.”
Murkowski’s opponent, the Trump-backed Tshibaka, who also spoke at the AFN candidate forum, reading most of her responses on Alaska Native specifics from prepared notes.
Tshibaka has the support of the Alaska Republican Party, which censured Murkowski last year after she voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial. But the Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC associated with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has spent $5.5 million in advertisements attacking Tshibaka.
Tshibaka said in an interview that Murkowski is “functionally a Democrat” and she slammed McConnell, who she said she wouldn’t support for Republican leader next Congress, for “not listening to the people of Alaska.”
“Mitch McConnell is not listening to the people of Alaska,” Tshibaka said. “In fact, Mitch McConnell is not listening to the people of America when we’re saying that this isn’t a person who represents us. She does not represent the best interest of the people of our state.”
The unknowns of ranked-choice voting
Both Murkowski and Peltola have sizable war chests. Peltola raised more than $2 million in the third quarter, and Murkowski raised just over $1 million. Begich, who is running for the House seat against Peltola, raised just $53,000 in the third quarter, and Palin is not running any television ads.
Other than Murkowski’s help from the Senate Leadership Fund, this election is almost entirely funded by the candidates. Neither the official House nor Senate Republican campaign committees are investing in the races. The House Democrats’ campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, isn’t investing because Peltola has raised so much money on her own and they are using those finite resources elsewhere.
The new ranked-choice voting system is adding a degree of uncertainty to the House and Senate races. Alaska used it for its primaries and the special election to fill Young’s seat, but turnout in both elections was quite low, registering no more than 29 percent. Turnout is expected to be much higher in November.
Begich — who comes from a long line of Alaska politicians and whose uncle, former senator Mark Begich (D), donated to Peltola’s campaign — is advocating less government spending and fewer dollars flowing to Alaska.
He is encouraging conservatives to “rank the red,” to choose him and Palin first and second to make it more difficult for Peltola to win.
But Palin, who has shown her frustration with Begich throughout the campaign, has not fully endorsed that plan.
“Because I’ve thumped Nick three times now, and I’ll thump him again, he should have supported my candidacy,” she said in an interview.