Republican Rep. Don Young, who was first elected in 1973 to Alaska’s sole House seat, died Friday at the age of 88 after losing consciousness while on a flight. Young’s 49-year tenure made him the longest-serving sitting member of either chamber of Congress, as well as the body’s oldest member. Young additionally holds the record for longest-serving Republican in congressional history.
The contest to succeed him this year will mark the first time that the Last Frontier has held an open seat statewide race since 2002, when Democrat Tony Knowles was termed out as governor. It will also be the very first congressional race in the state without an incumbent running since Young himself first was elected in a 1973 special election. However, while Republicans begin as the clear favorites in a state that Donald Trump carried 53-43, it remains to be seen both what the rules of the contest will be and when it will occur.
State election authorities say they're still trying to determine if a special election would take place under the old laws, where parties nominate candidates and it takes a plurality to prevail general election, or under the new top-four system that voters approved in a 2020 referendum. Under the latter rules, which will be used in the regularly-scheduled 2022 contests, all the candidates will face off on one primary ballot, where contenders will have the option to identify themselves with a party label or be listed as "undeclared" or "nonpartisan.” The top four vote-getters will advance to the general election, where voters will be able to rank their choices using instant-runoff voting.
As for the timing of a special election, Matt Acuña Buxton of the Midnight Sun wrote Friday evening right after Young’s death was announced, “State law requires the seat to be filled in a special primary election to be held between 60 and 90 days to serve the remainder of Young’s term with a special election to be held 60 days after that. How that interacts with the state’s regular primary, which is 151 days away, isn’t immediately clear.”
The ultimate winner, as Young’s very lengthy career demonstrates, could be in office for a long time to come. The future congressman, who grew up in Northern California, came to Alaska in 1959 soon after it became a state, and he held a variety of jobs including teacher, tug and barge pilot, and gold prospector. He got his start in elected office in the early 1960s on the city council in Fort Yukon, a small community located less than 10 miles away from the Arctic Circle, and he went on to serve as mayor and in the state House and Senate.
Young, though, would later describe how unhappy he was in the legislature, but that he wouldn’t resign because he refused to quit at anything he did. His wife, Lula, suggested that he instead challenge Democratic Rep. Nick Begich with the understanding that he couldn’t possibly win. The couple was right to be pessimistic: While Richard Nixon had narrowly carried the state in 1968, Democrats remained a formidable force in statewide politics. Begich himself had won in 1970 by a 55-45 margin against Frank Murkowski, the state’s future Republican senator and governor, and he wanted to pull off a strong re-election win to set himself up for a 1974 primary bid against Sen. Mike Gravel. Young very much seemed to be just the unlucky Republican who was in Begich’s path, and he later recalled a call with the congressman where, in Young’s words, Begich told him, “I don't know what you are doing.”
However, state politics changed forever three weeks before the election when the plane carrying Begich and House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, a Louisiana politician who was coming to campaign for him, disappeared between Anchorage and Juneau. The missing Begich beat Young 56-44 as Nixon was decisively winning Alaska in his 49-state landslide, but Begich and Boggs were declared dead in late December after a lengthy search failed to ever find their plane.
Young campaigned in the special election to succeed Begich the following March and was awarded the nomination after other prominent Republicans consolidated behind him, but he faced a tough general election against Emil Notti, the chair of the state Democratic Party and a prominent Alaska Native activist. Each parties’ congressional leaders promised that their nominee would receive committee assignments important to the state if they won, but it was Young who emerged with a 51-49 victory.
The new incumbent quickly received credit when Congress approved the trans-Alaska pipeline, and he soon established a reputation for securing vital federal money for his isolated state; his ability to obtain appropriations for heavily Native American areas also earned him a longtime base of support among a usually reliably Democratic constituency. (Lula Young, who died in 2009, was also an Alaska Native.) Young’s popularity was put to the test in 1974 when he went up against Democrat state Sen. Willie Hensley, who was running at a time when Republicans nationwide were still reeling from the Watergate scandal. However, while Hensley argued that GOP presidential administrations had ignored the state, Young pulled off a strong 54-46 win.
Young spent the ensuing 14 years winning double digit victories in all his campaigns, including against some members of prominent political families. In 1980 he dispatched Democrat Pat Parnell, whose son Sean would, decades later, come closer than anyone to unseating Young, 74-26. In 1984 he beat Pegge Begich, the widow of his predecessor, 55-42, and he won their rematch by a slightly-larger margin two years later. Young also had no trouble beating Peter Gruenstein in 1988, though this contest would have some unpleasant after effects after the Democrat sued the congressman for slander after the Republican accused him of having “laundered money.
Young appeared to be in for another easy general election win in 1990 against former Valdez Mayor John Devens, but this campaign proved to be very different from what he was accustomed to. Devens, who had led his community during the previous year’s devastating Exxon Valdez oil spill, argued that the congressman had been slow to return during the crisis. Young also got some bad news in the month before the election when a judge ordered him to stand trial in Gruenstein’s slander suit. The incumbent won by a surprisingly slim 52-48, a showing that set him up for another competitive race.
Young and Gruenstein reached a settlement in early 1991 after Young made a financial settlement and issued what Gruenstein interpreted as a retraction (the congressman’s camp insisted “Young doesn't apologize or retract, but clarifies”), but his problems were far from over. Young was caught up in the House banking scandal in 1992 after the public learned he’d taken out 57 overdrafts, and he faced his first serious intra-party challenge ever from state Sen. Virginia Collins. The incumbent successfully argued that the state couldn’t afford to lose his seniority and that he was the victim of a hostile media (he even threatened libel lawsuits against reporters), but he won renomination by an unimpressive 53-42 margin.
Young then had to focus on his rematch against Devens, who this time posted huge leads in the polls. The Republican, for perhaps the only time in his career, expressed humility by rinning commercials saying, “I've listened to a lot of Alaskans, and it's painfully clear to me that many feel that I'm abrasive and arrogant, and I won't argue. I have made some mistakes and I'm sorry.” Young, who made environmentalists one of his favorite targets, even unsuccessfully pushed to designate 3 million acres as designated wilderness. The congressman prevailed 47-43, which was the only time he ever failed to secure a majority of the vote for re-election against a Democrat.
Young soon returned to form by winning his next seven campaigns by double digits, but his standing at home took a huge hit during the 2008 cycle in the face of a federal investigation into his ties to major donors, which included allegations that he’d helped secure a $10 million highway earmark in Florida that aided a developer. Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, whose father Young had dispatched all the way back in 1980, challenged the congressman with the backing of Gov. Sarah Palin and the anti-tax Club for Growth. The incumbent, though, fought back in true Don Young fashion, telling his opponent, “Sean, congratulations. I beat your dad, and I’m going to beat you.” He was right, but only barely: Young won renomination 45.5-45.2, a margin of 304 votes. (Parnell would become governor the next year after Palin resigned.)
Plenty of Democrats were relieved that their nominee, former state Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, would be going up against scandal-ridden congressman instead of Parnell, and several polls showed Berkowitz winning. However, Young’s seniority likely made the difference especially when Republican Sen. Ted Stevens was convicted of corruption just before the election and Alaskans faced the prospect of losing two reliable appropriators. Young also almost certainly benefited when John McCain made Palin his running mate, a move that eventually backfired nationally but helped the ticket carry the state 59-38. Young himself won 50-45 as Stevens was narrowly losing to Mark Begich, the son of Young’s late predecessor.
The investigation into Young ended without any charges and he won his next two terms without any trouble, but his own behavior got him into trouble just before the 2014 election. In October he addressed Wasilla High School, where a student had recently died by suicide, and, among many other things, was quoted blaming suicides on “a lack of support from family” and “a lack of support from friends.” Young still beat Democrat Forrest Dunbar 51-41 as both Begich and Parnell were losing, but Democrats became determined to target him again after he made it clear he would continue to seek re-election.
Young turned back Stephen Lindbeck, a former Alaska Public Media head whom Democrats had shown some interest in, 50-36 in 2016, though his detractors noted that he’d once again taken only a bare majority of the vote. In 2018 his foe was Anchorage schools advocate Alyse Galvin, who took advantage of a recent court decision that allowed her to claim the Democratic nomination while remaining an independent. Galvin outraised Young and held him to a 53-47 victory, his smallest win in a decade, and Democrats had high hopes when she sought a rematch in 2020.
Major national groups on both sides spent a combined $3.4 million and, with some polls giving Galvin the edge, it looked very possible that Young could finally lose. But that’s not what happened: Young instead expanded his margin of victory and prevailed 54-45. The congressman, who had said in 2014 that “[t]he only time I’ll retire is when people want to retire me,” made it clear the year before his death that he was running once again.