Democrat Mary Peltola wins special U.S. House election, will be first Alaska Native elected to Congress
By Iris Samuels
Democrat Mary Peltola is the apparent winner of Alaska’s special U.S. House race and is set to become the first Alaska Native in Congress, after votes were tabulated Wednesday in the state’s first ranked choice election.
Peltola topped Republican former Gov. Sarah Palin after ballots were tallied and votes for third-place GOP candidate Nick Begich III were redistributed to his supporters’ second choices. Peltola, a Yup’ik former state lawmaker who calls Bethel home, is now slated to be the first woman to hold Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat.
If results are confirmed as expected by the state review board later this week, she will succeed U.S. Rep. Don Young, the Republican who held the office for nearly five decades — since before Peltola was born. The special election was triggered by Young’s death in March.
“I feel like I need to catch my breath for a minute,” Peltola said in the moment after results were announced in a live video by state election officials in Juneau. Peltola was surrounded by family and campaign staff at an Anchorage office.
“What’s most important is that I’m an Alaskan being sent to represent all Alaskans. Yes, being Alaska Native is part of my ethnicity, but I’m much more than my ethnicity,” she said.
It is an outcome largely seen as an upset. Peltola would be the first Democrat to join Alaska’s three-person congressional delegation since U.S. Sen. Mark Begich lost reelection in 2014. And she defeated two Republicans to do so. Combined, Palin and Begich, nephew of Mark Begich and grandson of former U.S. Rep. Nick Begich, commanded nearly 60% of first-place votes.
The special election, held Aug. 16 with mail-in ballots counted over the past two weeks and the ranked choice standings announced Wednesday, determines who will serve out the remainder of Young’s term, which ends in January. Another election in November will determine who holds the seat for the full two-year term that begins in January.
Peltola, Palin and Begich said after results were announced Wednesday that they intend to remain in the November race.
No candidate exceeded the 50% first-choice threshold needed to win under Alaska’s ranked choice voting system. Begich was in third place; the second-choice votes of Begich’s supporters were then tallied in what is called an instant runoff. Only half of Begich’s voters ranked Palin second — not enough for her to overtake Peltola.
Peltola had 39.7% of the first-choice votes to Palin’s 30.9%. In the instant runoff, Peltola ended up with 91,206 votes to Palin’s 85,987, or 51.47% to 48.53%. A small number of additional ballots have not yet been counted by election officials, likely not enough to change results significantly.
‘Can’t be disheartened’
Palin, the Trump-backed celebrity who became a household name during her 2008 vice presidential run, said she “wasn’t surprised” by the results.
Palin vowed to fight on to November and repeatedly called on fellow Republican Begich to drop out. Her greatest scorn, though, was reserved for Alaska’s “weird” ranked choice voting system, which she said had “disenfranchised” too many Alaskans and, by sending Peltola to Congress, effectively empowered President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “to lock up our state.”
“We can’t be disheartened, in fact, I think God prepared me for an outcome like this, believe it or not,” she said. “I think God has kind of given me peace all along. No matter what the outcome was, we’re running to expose the strange things going on in our politics that are harming our nation and our state.”
Two dozen or so campaign volunteers, friends and family members gathered at Palin’s South Anchorage headquarters to watch the tabulation process play out with a large cake, emblazoned with “Sarah For Alaska” in icing. The candidate herself was still on her way from the Dena’ina Center downtown when the results were released.
There was initial confusion at what the numbers meant, followed by disbelief and then anger. “How is that possible?” one campaign volunteer shouted when it became clear that Palin would lose. Arriving a few minutes later to loud applause, she was defiant.
“I feel like we’ve only just begun to fight for Alaska,” she said to shouts of “amen.”
After a short speech and hugs, she cut the cake and handed out slices to her well-wishers. Palin, who needed Begich supporters’ second-choice votes to come from behind and defeat Peltola, was dismissive of the new election system, saying “that the task in front of me is to explain to Alaskans why ranked choice voting is not in the public’s best interest.”
She remained personally fond of Peltola, and said the two had a great relationship since she was governor and Peltola was a state legislator. She was heavily critical of Begich, whom she accused of negative campaigning and splitting the GOP vote.
“I don’t even know the dude, I’ve lived here all my life. I don’t know who he is, why is he taking all these pot shots?” Palin said.
Peltola ran a largely positive campaign as Begich and Palin traded barbs in the final weeks before the Aug. 16 special election, emerging as the victor with a platform that highlighted her position as the only candidate on the ballot who supports abortion access — an issue that has become important to voters with the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision removing federal protections for access to the procedure (the procedure remains protected under the Alaska Constitution).
Peltola has also said she is “pro-fish” and emphasized her plans to protect subsistence fisheries in Alaska as salmon stocks decline in the region where she has fished throughout her life.
As the results came in, a handful of campaign staffers, her husband, Gene Peltola Jr., and her stepdaughter Kaeli Peltola huddled around Peltola as she watched the livestream from a laptop. Once the room realized Peltola won, they erupted with cheers.
After the initial celebration, the campaign team’s festivities were fairly modest as Peltola spoke with reporters. Peltola, whose 49th birthday was on Wednesday, said she planned to spend the night with her family eating akutaq with handpicked berries.
Peltola was raised in rural villages and lives in Bethel. She is a mother of four, stepmother of three, and grandmother of two. She served in the state House between 1999 and 2009, representing the Bethel region. During her time in the Legislature, she led the Bush Caucus, bringing together lawmakers representing communities in Alaska off the road system and building a reputation as someone who can work across party lines.
While in the Legislature, Peltola’s path overlapped with Palin’s as governor. Both politicians were pregnant while in office. They traded friendly text messages on election day earlier this month.
An hour before results were announced, Peltola and Palin were set to take the stage together for a candidate forum put on by an oil industry organization. The two women embraced and spoke for a few minutes before answering questions on natural resource development.
“I take a lot of pride in getting along with people, and those of us on the campaign trail know exactly how hard (it is) on families and your support group,” Peltola said after results were out. “So I think I feel a lot of camaraderie and fraternity with the people that I’m in the race with.”
‘Not just state history, but national history’
After leaving the state House, Peltola worked in community relations for Donlin Gold, a mining project on the Kuskokwim River. Before announcing her congressional bid, she worked on fisheries management and rural food security as executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
Peltola emerged as the winner from an original field of 48 primary race candidates, which included several sitting and former lawmakers, Alaska Native leaders and Santa Claus.
Peltola is now set to head to Washington for just four months, serving out the rest of Young’s term. On Wednesday, she said she remains focused on the November race and winning the two-year seat. She said she would prioritize setting up constituent services for Alaska’s lone U.S. House office that were discontinued in recent weeks, in addition to reaching out to future colleagues in the House and to Alaska Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan. She said she did not yet have an itinerary for traveling to the nation’s capital.
Murkowski and Sullivan both congratulated Peltola for her victory. Murkowski, who is running for reelection this year, said in a statement Wednesday that Peltola “made history.” The two worked together in the state Legislature.
“Not just state history, but national history, as the first Alaska Native woman elected to Congress. While it will be impossible for Alaska to replace Congressman Young, Mary has a long track record for public service,” Murkowski said.
Among those congratulating Peltola was President Joe Biden, who called her after results were announced.
‘Big wake-up call’
Political observers believe the outcome of the special election will shape the November race. After just a few weeks to prove her legislative might in Washington, Peltola will enter the November election as the incumbent, with the associated fundraising advantages and visibility. Republicans will likely be galvanized to hone their messaging under the ranked choice voting system — which was narrowly approved by voters through a 2020 ballot measure — and encourage their supporters to rank both GOP candidates on the ballot.
Sarah Erkmann Ward, a political consultant who ran a campaign to encourage Republicans to “rank the red” — meaning all Republican candidates on the ballot — said the results could be “a big wake-up call to Republicans.”
“Today’s results should illustrate to Republicans very clearly that when they choose not to rank, there’s a good possibility that when their favorite candidate is eliminated, then their vote will no longer be in the mix. That appears to be what happened here,” she said. “A certain segment of Republicans elected not to rank. That’s the consequence of not continuing on down your ballot.”
Political consultant John-Henry Heckendorn, who worked on Peltola’s campaign, said that a “rank the red” message can only go so far, and that Peltola won thanks to her positivity and uniquely Alaska platform.
“The primary reason she won is because a bunch of Begich voters were willing to pick a Democrat second. That’s not supposed to happen,” Heckendorn said. “That says a lot about Alaska and it also says a lot about Mary.”
More than a quarter of Begich voters ranked Peltola second, crossing party lines. One fifth of his voters did not rank any candidate as their second choice.
Palin, who ran with an endorsement from former President Donald Trump and spent some of her campaign in the Lower 48, has consistently attacked ranked choice voting as a “whack system” that “must be changed.” Begich had the support of many Alaska Republican Party insiders, and attacked Palin for her decision to quit as governor in 2009. Palin responded by calling into question Begich’s Republican bona fides, pointing to his support for his Democratic uncle’s Senate campaigns in 2008 and 2014.
The animus between Palin and Begich was on full display in the candidate forum held just before results were announced. Begich attacked Palin for a policy she advanced as governor that increased taxes on oil companies. Palin called him “Negative Nick” and said he’s “what’s wrong with politics today.”
In a written statement after results were out, Begich said the biggest lesson from the results is that “a vote for Sarah Palin is in reality a vote for Mary Peltola.” He said he would continue his campaign for the two-year term, “making the case that this election is about a choice between Mary Peltola and Nick Begich.”
“Sarah Palin cannot win a statewide race because her unfavorable rating is so high,” he said.
Polling before the election showed Palin to be a polarizing figure; three in five Alaskans had a negative view of her, according to more than one poll. But her fame, name recognition and harnessing of Republican messaging on oil drilling propelled Palin ahead of Begich, who was running his first statewide campaign for public office after building a career in private business.
‘Gotta love Alaska’
Results were announced by election officials in a live video Wednesday after the candidate forum. The candidates didn’t linger after the forum ended — they exited through a side door and soon the stage was cleared as candidates drove to their gatherings to await results. In the meantime, conference-goers, including members of the state Legislature, gubernatorial candidates and oil executives, were offered champagne.
Once the Division of Elections live feed came on the overhead projectors, attendees squinted at a blurry broadcast that froze more than once.
”You gotta love Alaska,” one man laughed as the internet glitched during tabulations. Even as the arithmetic spelling out Peltola’s win was narrated, politically seasoned spectators appeared perplexed. Former Gov. Bill Walker stood a foot away from former Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, the two of them consulting those around them to confirm the apparent vote returns. There were no chants, boos or gasps.
Some ballots from rural communities remain uncounted as of Wednesday. They will be counted when they reach the Division of Elections’ Juneau office, spokesperson Tiffany Montemayor said. The Alaska Board of Elections is scheduled to certify the results on Friday, but that could get delayed if rural precinct ballots remain uncounted.
“Those precincts not arriving in time for the board to certify is something we’ll have to address if that happens,” Montemayor said by email.
A recount can be requested by a candidate or group of voters up to five days after results are certified. A lawsuit challenging the results can be filed up to 10 days after certification.
ADN reporters Sean Maguire, Riley Rogerson, Alex DeMarban and Zachariah Hughes contributed to this report.