Former governor, vice-presidential nominee, and proto-MAGA celebrity Sarah Palin appeared on an actual ballot for the first time since 2008, and in preliminary results is comfortably leading a 48-candidate field in a special Alaska primary election to complete the congressional term of the late Don Young. Under Alaska’s unusual new election system, which debuted in this contest, the top four vote-getters in the primary will proceed to an August 16 general election that will offer ranked-choice voting to ensure the eventual winner has majority support.
Because of the short time frame of the special primary, Alaska conducted it by mail with all registered voters receiving a ballot and a postage-paid return envelope. Saturday, June 11 was the deadline for getting a ballot postmarked, though they count if they are received before June 21. As of June 11, about 140,000 ballots had been received, and with 108,000 counted, Palin has 30 percent of the vote in the nonpartisan contest. Running a clear second at 19 percent was Nick Begich III, the conservative Republican grandson and namesake of the Democrat who held the House seat before Young was elected in 1973. Begich was actually running against Young (to his right) when the venerable congressman died in March. Another reasonably clear winner of a top-four spot was orthopedic surgeon Al Gross, the Democratic Senate nominee in 2020, now running as an independent; Gross currently has 12 percent of the vote.
Name ID alone in this very sudden election likely propelled Palin, Begich, and Gross into the general election. After these three the results get murky. Currently, former Democratic state legislator Mary Peltola, an Alaska Native, is running fourth with 7 percent, followed by Republican Native leader Tara Sweeney with 5 percent. But not far behind Sweeney is the sentimental favorite, self-identified democratic socialist Santa Claus (born Thomas O’Conner), who hails from the Fairbanks suburb of North Pole.
The primary results will be finalized on June 21. What makes the contest especially confusing to voters is that the same day they resolve the special election in August they will be voting in the regular statewide primary, where among other things they will choose four candidates to compete in a November general election for a new House term. Some 31 candidates, including Palin, Begich, Gross, Peltola, and Sweeney — but alas, not Claus — have filed for that regular primary.
As the votes drifted in on June 11, Begich quickly made a move to attract support from Alaskans embarrassed by Palin’s political comeback. The wealthy software executive told the Anchorage Daily News: “We have one candidate who makes her living on celebrity videos, and we have another candidate who’s made a living creating jobs.” Begich was endorsed by the state GOP; Palin was endorsed by Donald J. Trump, who called her a “true America First fighter.” Alaska is basically a red state with a strong independent streak, and with the new electoral system almost anything could happen.
But clearly, at a still relatively youthful 58, Palin is making a serious bid to be taken seriously again. At various junctures after her abrupt resignation as Alaska governor in 2009, Palin seemed to be leaving the state behind as she pursued political and commercial ventures battening on the national fame she secured as the first woman on a Republican presidential ticket and a self-proclaimed champion of the Tea Party movement. Most recently she gained attention in the familiar role of media scourge in an unsuccessful libel suit against the New York Times. But now she is again Sarah Palin of Wasilla, and could make a genuinely surprising comeback if she can get past her three rivals in August. If Sarah Barracuda actually makes it to Congress, it will be difficult if tempting to ignore her all over again.