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. Republicans begin as the favorites in a state that Donald Trump carried 53-43.
The special election will likely take place using the new top-four system that voters approved in a 2020 referendum; while state election authorities say they're still trying to determine the details, the governor’s office says the top-four system will be used. Under the new 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 the special, 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 [after the vacancy occurs] 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 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, as Republicans became the dominant force in state politics. 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 consequences when 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.
Gruenstein’s suit ended 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 running 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 three million acres as 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.
● KS Redistricting: Kansas' Republican-run state Senate has passed a new map for its own chamber, with several Democrats voting in favor and several Republicans voting against. The state House recently introduced a map for itself but has not yet taken action on it.
● AL-Sen: Former Business Council of Alabama head Katie Boyd Britt's latest commercial for the May Republican primary stars her husband, former University of Alabama football player Wesley Britt. He tells the audience that, while he's "knocked heads with the baddest dudes in the SEC and the NFL," the candidate is actually "the toughest person I've ever met."
● OK-Sen-B: Yet another one-time member of Donald Trump's cabinet is reportedly considering a bid for public office this year: Former EPA chief Scott Pruitt has been "making calls to gauge support" for a potential campaign for the soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat held by Republican Jim Inhofe, according to CBS News. Pruitt was twice elected state attorney general, in 2010 and again in 2014, before joining the Trump administration in 2017.
Like any Republican who might ascend to the post these days, Pruitt was directly at odds with the ostensible aims of the Environmental Protection Agency: He not only denied climate change but suggested humanity might "flourish" as a result. And at every step, he sought to roll back environmental regulations, though he wasn't particularly successful.
He also engaged in a never-ending series of ethics abuses, including spending $43,000 to build a special soundproof phone booth in violation of the law and flying first class on the taxpayer dime for "unspecified security concerns," per the Washington Post. Pruitt finally got the boot after CNN reported that he'd asked Trump to fire Jeff Sessions and install Pruitt as attorney general instead—an idea Trump had reportedly considered but was pissed to see become public.
Yet despite his unceremonious exit (announced by tweet, of course), Pruitt apparently still has a good relationship with Trump, who has yet to take sides in the already crowded GOP primary.
● PA-Sen: Kathy Barnette, an election denier who hasn't generated much attention ahead of the May Republican primary, uses her new ad to decry rising prices.
● GA-Gov: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that former Sen. David Perdue's allies at Georgia Action Fund are spending at least $600,000 on a new commercial touting him and tearing down incumbent Brian Kemp ahead of their May Republican primary, which makes this the first major pro-Perdue outside buy. The spot consists of footage of Trump praising the former senator and bashing Kemp as "a complete disaster on election integrity."
● LA-Gov: Republican Rep. Garret Graves tells LaPolitics that he's received "hundreds of phone calls of encouragement" to run in next year's all-party primary to succeed termed-out Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, and he's not ruling out the idea.
● NV-Gov: Las Vegas City Councilwoman Michele Fiore said on Thursday night she was dropping out of the Republican primary for governor in order to run for state treasurer, a declaration that came one day before filing closed.
● PA-Gov: Attorney Jason Richey announced Thursday that he was dropping out of the Republican primary and endorsing former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, a move that leaves a mere nine candidates in the May contest.
Richey's departure came the day the Associated Press' Marc Levy reported that GOP leaders were trying to "persuade some candidates who are perceived as weaker to drop out" so they could reduce the chances that a severely flawed contender wins the nomination with just a tiny plurality. None of the GOP leaders identified which candidates they wanted to stop, but Levy singled out state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who is one of the most notorious election deniers in a state party full of them.
McSwain, meanwhile, is running another ad along with his deep-pocketed allies at Commonwealth Leaders Fund where he blames problems in the state on Joe Biden, while termed-out Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf goes unmentioned. Another Republican candidate, self-funder Dave White, does decry both Biden and Wolf in his own spot before talking about his business background.
● IL-03: Chicago Alderman Gilbert Villegas has earned an endorsement from 10th District Rep. Brad Schneider, a moderate Democrat who represents Chicago's northern suburbs and exurbs.
● MI-12: The Michigan Democratic Party's Black Caucus has endorsed Lathrup Village Mayor Kelly Garrett over Rep. Rashida Tlaib, which is the first we've heard of the mayor running in this safely blue Detroit-based seat. Garrett, who leads a 4,000-person community, has not yet filed paperwork with the FEC, and she doesn't appear to have a website up yet either.
● NV-01, NV-02: Nevada’s Friday filing deadline brought key last-second developments in two different House races. In the 1st District in the eastern Las Vegas area, former Republican Rep. Cresent Hardy, who represented the old 4th from 2015 to 2017, announced that he would take on Democratic Rep. Dina Titus; the new version of this seat would have supported Biden 53-45. Meanwhile to the north in the reliably red 2nd District, Douglas County Commissioner Danny Tarkanian made good on his threat to challenge Rep. Mark Amodei in the June Republican primary.
We’ll have more on the state of the races, as well as a comprehensive rundown of where the Silver State’s other key elections stand now that filing has closed, in our next Digest.
● NY-18: A new Global Strategy Group poll conducted for Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who also chairs the DCCC, finds him leading Republican Assemblyman Colin Schmitt by a 49-37 margin. Last month, Schmitt released his own internal that had the challenger ahead 38-37—a questionably low score for the incumbent, who has been in office for a decade and represents 71% of the redrawn 18th District.
● PA-12: Retiring Rep. Mike Doyle has thrown his backing behind former Pennsylvania Securities Commission head Steve Irwin in the May Democratic primary to succeed him in this Pittsburgh-based seat. Irwin also has received an endorsement from Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
● MN State Senate, PA State Senate: Thursday brought retirement announcements from two different state senators who left the Democratic Party in recent years in order to caucus with their chambers' Republican majority as independents: Minnesota's Tom Bakk and Pennsylvania's John Yudichak.
Bakk's declaration came weeks after state Sen. David Tomassoni, a colleague who defected along with him after the 2020 elections, also said he wouldn't seek re-election because of health reasons. Minnesota Republicans and their allies hold a 36-31 majority in the upper chamber, where all the seats will be on the ballot this fall; in the 50-person Pennsylvania Senate, where only half of the members are up every two years, the GOP and Yudichak together hold 29 seats.
Bakk and Tomassoni both were elected to the state House as Democrats in the 1990s from constituencies in the Iron Range, a region in the northeast corner of the state where Team Blue was long the dominant party, and they each won promotions to the Senate early in the next decade. Bakk, who ran an abortive campaign for governor in 2010, ascended to the post of minority leader the following year and became one of the most powerful people in state government after Democrats retook the Senate in 2012.
Senate Republicans regained power in 2016, but neither Bakk nor Tomassoni had trouble winning re-election that year even as their seats swung hard toward Trump. Bakk's time as Democratic leader, though, came to an end in early 2020 when the caucus, which was unhappy with his conservative views on gun safety and mining issues, ousted him in favor of Susan Kent.
Bakk and Tomassoni decisively won re-election that year, still as Democrats, but Republicans held on to a 34-33 majority even though Joe Biden carried 37 of the Senate's 67 districts. (Biden won Bakk's constituency 51-47, while Trump took Tomassoni's 51-46.) Weeks later, the pair announced that they were bolting their party to caucus with the GOP as independents, with Tomassoni outright acknowledging that they wanted the chance to "chair committees."
In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, Yudichak has long represented a seat in the Wilkes-Barre area, a region that has undergone the same partisan shift as the Iron Range. Yudichak was elected to the state House in 1998 and decisively won a race for state Senate in 2010, despite the GOP wave. Following that victory, Republicans didn't even bother to challenge him in 2014 or 2018.
However, the politics in Yudichak's district were utterly transformed in the years when he wasn't on the ballot, which saw his constituency swinging from a 54-45 win for Barack Obama in 2012 to a 57-40 margin for Trump in 2016. The senator helped things along in October of 2019 when he announced that he was dropping his party label to align with the Republican majority, a move that demoralized Democrats in a cycle where they were hoping to take control of the chamber for the first time since 1994. Ultimately, the GOP-Yudichak alliance emerged from the 2020 cycle with the same 29-21 majority it came in with.
Yudichak is now on his way out, though his departure may not be entirely voluntary. Under the maps approved last month by the state's bipartisan legislative redistricting commission, Yudichak's residence was placed in the redrawn 20th Senate District, which is already represented by Republican colleague Lisa Baker. That was a huge problem for him because Pennsylvania, like most states, requires that state legislators reside in their districts. The Keystone State's rules are particularly strict, mandating that legislative candidates live in the district they want to represent for at least a year before the general election, so Yudichak wouldn't have time to move elsewhere even if he wanted to.
Bakk, Tomassoni, and Yudichak aren't the only state senators retiring this year who allied with the GOP after winning office as Democrats. Washington's Tim Sheldon, who spent much of the last decade keeping the Republican minority in charge while still remaining a nominal Democrat, called it a career earlier this month; Sheldon continued to sit in the GOP caucus even after Team Blue won control in a 2017 special election, and he remains there now.
In New York, meanwhile, Diane Savino, who is the last remaining member of the defunct IDC, also revealed last month that she would not seek re-election to her Staten Island-based district. After the 2012 elections, Savino was one of four IDC members who voted to keep Republicans in control even though Democrats had won a majority of seats; a fifth renegade Democrat, Simcha Felder, was not part of the IDC but instead outright caucused with the GOP.
For the next six years, Savino and her compatriots continued to seek re-election as Democrats while still serving the GOP, but finally, in 2018, six members of the now-eight-strong IDC lost renomination. Only Savino and David Carlucci remained standing, and they were accepted back into the Democratic fold by the leaders of the chamber's new majority; Felder, who also won his primary, initially didn't caucus with anyone, but he joined the Democratic conference in July of 2019. Carlucci departed the chamber in 2020 to wage an unsuccessful campaign for the 17th Congressional District, so Savino's retirement means that Felder, who appears as secure as ever at home, will likely be the only one-time turncoat left.