Alaska election officials carried out the instant-runoff process Wednesday for the Aug. 16 special election for the state’s only House seat, and former Democratic state Rep. Mary Peltola has scored a dramatic pickup for her party by defeating Republican Sarah Palin 51-49.
Peltola, who will replace the late GOP Rep. Don Young, will be the first Democrat to represent the Last Frontier in the lower chamber since Young won his own special election all the way back in 1973. The new congresswoman, who is of Yup’ik ancestry, is also set to become the first Alaska Native to ever serve in Congress.
The outcome was in doubt for so long because the state allows all mail ballots postmarked by Election Day to be received for another 15 days. Peltola went into Wednesday with 40% of the vote while two Republicans, Palin and businessman Nick Begich, took 31% and 28%, respectively. (Write-in ballots made up the balance.) While the two Republican candidates together outpaced Peltola 59-40, Democrats hoped that Palin wouldn’t pick up quite enough Begich voters to overtake the leader when their second-choice preferences were tabulated.
Everyone was kept guessing through Wednesday, especially the candidates, who appeared together at an Alaska Oil and Gas Association forum just before the results were announced. They learned there that, while the voters who listed Begich or a write-in as their first choice went for Palin 50-29, a crucial 21% didn’t express a preference for either finalist. All of this was just enough for Peltola to keep her edge in the final round of tabulations and give her party a crucial win in a state that Donald Trump had carried 53-43 just two years ago.
Peltola’s victory on such red turf, though, looked improbable before the polls closed two weeks ago. Indeed, national Democrats didn’t even commit serious resources to the contest, a decision the former state representative called “bizarre” just before Election Day. Peltola, however, benefited from voters’ lingering apathy toward Palin, whom the Anchorage Daily News last year described as "nearly invisible within the state" and "almost entirely absent from Alaska politics" since she resigned the governorship in 2009.
While Palin had Donald Trump’s backing for her comeback campaign, the 2008 vice presidential nominee showed little interest in reintroducing herself to her old constituents. Palin made only a few public appearances in the Last Frontier, while she used the weeks before Election Day to hold a Minneapolis fundraiser with far-right pillow salesman Mike Lindell and speak at CPAC's confab in Dallas.
Begich was only too happy to portray Palin as a terrible governor who only cared about being a celebrity, and he ran commercials showing photos of her 2020 appearance on The Masked Singer where she performed "Baby Got Back" disguised as a pink and blue bear. Palin herself hit back in the final days of the race by castigating Begich, who is the rare Republican member of Alaska's prominent Democratic family, for supporting relatives like former Democratic Sen. Mark Begich.
Peltola, by contrast, avoided attacking either of her GOP rivals, and neither Palin nor Begich went after her either: Both Republicans instead smiled in selfies with their Democratic opponent, and Palin even went so far as to call her a “sweetheart.” All of this made it harder for conservative leaders to make the case that Begich's and Palin’s supporters needed to look past their brutal intra-party fight and rank the other Republican in order to keep Peltola out of Congress.
Republicans, though, will have the chance to regain this seat in a few months. Peltola, Palin, and Begich, as well as Libertarian Chris Bye, will be on the ballot again in November for another instant-runoff election, and the dynamics could be very different for this second round.
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