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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Alaska special election: House race pits Sarah Palin against crowded field

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Voting in Alaska’s special election primary to replace the late Rep. Don Young (R) will close Saturday as four dozen candidates — including former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin — face off under unusual new rules.

With celebrity status and an endorsement from former president Donald Trump, Palin is the most prominent candidate in a crowded field. But her popularity in Alaska has faded since her time as governor, and a new ranked-choice voting system — designed to elect candidates with broad support — could complicate her bid.

The Alaska Republican Party, meanwhile, has endorsed Nick Begich III, a former campaign co-chair for Young from a family well-known in state Democratic politics. He launched his bid before Young’s death and ran as the more conservative candidate.

“Will America pursue celebrity, what you might call a celebritocracy?” Begich said in an interview Friday. “Or will America pursue sound policy, thoughtful policy and representation that aligns with that?”

Palin’s campaign did not respond to requests for an interview or comment.

Young’s sudden death at 88 in March set off a scramble to fill Alaska’s lone seat in the House. In addition to former campaign staffers for Young, the field includes and a self-described democratic socialist from the town of North Pole who legally changed his name to Santa Claus.

“A special election as wide-open as Alaska,” the editorial board of the Anchorage Daily News declared.

Alaska has reliably favored Republicans for federal office in recent years. But the state also has more undeclared or nonpartisan voters than registered Republicans and Democrats combined, and longtime Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski is a key swing vote in Congress. Alaskans voted to do away with traditional party primaries in 2020, underscoring their independent political streak.

Now, four candidates will advance from a round of pick-one voting regardless of party. The special election primary will be conducted largely by mail, though there are some in-person voting locations — so results may be slow to come in. Mail ballots must be postmarked or received Saturday — labeled “Election Day” by the state’s Division of Elections — or earlier. As of Wednesday, more than 117,000 ballots out of more than half a million total were received, according to election officials.

Alaskans will rank the four finalists in August. If no one gets more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes, candidates with the least votes will be successively eliminated, and ballots cast in their favor will be reallocated based on voters’ preferences.

The quirky process could hurt Palin’s chances, given how polarizing she is, said Jim Lottsfeldt, a longtime political consultant in Alaska who works for candidates in both parties and whose company has been working for a super PAC supporting one of Palin’s opponents, Republican Tara Sweeney. In a May poll by the company Alaska Survey Research, Palin led narrowly in the pick-one round but got eliminated in ranked-choice.

Sarah Palin is running for Congress. Many Alaskans are skeptical of her.

Once a well-liked Alaska governor with little national profile, Palin extended her political footprint beyond her home state in 2008 when she joined the ticket of then-Republican presidential nominee John McCain. Palin excited the Republican base but quickly gained a reputation for gaffes mocked on “Saturday Night Live.”

Less than a year after she and McCain lost the presidential election, Palin resigned as governor, a decision that earned her many critics in Alaska. She went on to champion the conservative tea party movement and secure a lucrative book deal and appearances on reality TV.

“I think maybe she left us behind somewhere on the way to fame,” one conservative local official, Jesse Sumner, told The Washington Post this spring.

Palin declared her candidacy for Alaska’s House seat just before the filing deadline, focusing on concerns about inflation and the need for “energy security” in a statement posted to social media. “As I’ve watched the far left destroy the country,” she wrote, “I knew I had to step up and join the fight.” Trump announced his support days later, noting that Palin endorsed him early on in his presidential bid.

On Twitter, Palin has also been touting endorsements from Donald Trump Jr., conservative radio host Dan Bongino, former Texas governor Rick Perry and more. Begich sought to play down the significance of the former president’s decision to wade into the contest.

“Alaskans are very independent people, and we will think for ourselves,” Begich said in the interview Friday, when asked about the influence of Trump’s endorsement. He highlighted his endorsements from leaders in Alaska.

Santa Claus is regarded as a real contender for finishing in the top four. But the North Pole city council member is only running to serve the rest of Young’s term. Another election will determine Young’s longer-term successor through an August pick-one primary and ranked choice voting in November. More than 30 people are running.

Alaska is having the wildest election of 2022

Claus is not the only liberal candidate in the mix. Anchorage Assembly member Christopher Constant and former Alaska legislator Mary Peltola are running as Democrats, among others. Al Gross, who won the Democratic nomination for Senate in 2020, identifies himself as nonpartisan on the special election ballot.

The field includes several Native candidates who would be Alaska’s first Indigenous representative in Congress.

This year, the new ranked-choice election system holds the potential to boost Murkowski, the moderate Alaska senator seeking reelection amid attacks from her right. Trump has targeted moderate Republicans around the country for their votes to impeach him or certify his 2020 election loss, and Murkowski voted last year to remove him from office after his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol.

Trump has endorsed an challenger for the Senate, Kelly Tshibaka. But it remains to be seen how much he will influence the race. Murkowski has survived challenges from within her party before: In 2010, she won reelection as a write-in candidate after losing the Republican primary.


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