Thanks to the intersection of a special election and the debut of Alaska’s complicated new election system, we won’t know for sure until some point next week who will fill the unexpired few months of the late Don Young’s U.S. House term. But it’s very clear the next representative from Alaska will be one of two women: former governor and Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin or Democratic former state legislator Mary Peltola.
With all votes other than overseas ballots now tabulated from the special general election held back on August 16, Peltola is easily running first and Palin second. That leaves early front-runner Nick Begich III, a conservative Republican who was already in the field challenging Young before the 39-year incumbent’s death in March, running third. Begich is now sure to be eliminated in the first stage of a ranked-choice tabulation that will send either Palin or Peltola to Washington in September.
Under Alaska’s new system, a top-four primary leads to a general election resolved by ranked-choice preferences. You’d normally see the fourth-place finisher eliminated at this stage of the process, but the candidate finishing fourth in the June 11 special primary election, independent Al Gross, dropped out and courts ruled he could not be replaced. Since Gross was a former Democratic U.S. Senate nominee, he had a sizable following among Alaska Democrats that presumably switched to Peltola — helping her finish first in the general election despite the state’s usually Republican complexion. Begich was the odd candidate out, though he remains in contention for the full House term (he finished third again in the regular primary), which will be determined by another election in November.
Yes, it’s all complicated. Had Begich edged out Palin in the special general election, he would have probably defeated Peltola in the ranked-choice tabulations. But Sarah Palin is Sarah Palin, and thus far more controversial. There’s considerable speculation that a lot of Begich voters either left their second-choice preference ballot lines blank or abandoned their party to vote for Peltola.
So the final result could go either way. And that could in turn definitely affect how the vote goes in November. In particular, a Peltola victory could encourage Republicans to consolidate behind either Begich or Palin to avoid the calamity of a Democratic congressman for the next two years.
If Peltola does win, she will make history as the first Alaska Native to represent the state in Congress. And she would also supply a welcome additional vote for House Democrats in the remaining months of this Congress. If Palin wins in the final tabulation, of course, she would represent a surprise of a different nature in Washington. It would be her first public office since she abruptly resigned the governorship in 2009 for no clearly expressed reason (following her and John McCain’s loss to Barack Obama and Joe Biden the previous year). A Palin victory would also be another sign of Donald Trump’s domination of the GOP, since his endorsement gave her candidacy a clear boost.
It’s less clear if Trump’s other statewide candidate will be going to Congress. In the regular August 16 primary for the U.S. Senate, incumbent Republican Lisa Murkowski is leading (in near-final results) Trump’s candidate, Kelly Tshibaka, by a 45-39 margin. (Women have certainly done well in Alaska elections this year!) A Democrat, Patricia Chesbro, finished a distant third, and it looks another obscure Republican, Buzz Kelley, will make the general election as well. But with Murkowski and Tshibaka dominating the primary vote, it’s very likely one of them will prevail in November, with the better-known and more centrist incumbent being a solid favorite. Perhaps because Murkowski is looking strong (and there’s no real risk of a Democrat winning), Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund is cutting its money commitment to this race to redeploy resources to the many other Senate emergencies the party is facing at present.