By Iris Samuels
Republican Tara Sweeney said Tuesday she is dropping out of the U.S. House election, after garnering around 3.7% of votes counted so far in the primary race — which would have been enough to put her in fourth place and place her name on the November ballot.
The Division of Elections will continue counting ballots through Aug. 31; election results won’t be certified until Sept. 2.
Sweeney is a Republican who previously served as assistant secretary of the Interior for Native American affairs under former President Donald Trump. An Iñupiaq who worked as an executive with the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., she had endorsements from Alaska’s largest Native corporations. She cited expected fundraising challenges in her decision to end her bid for Congress.
“Looking at the outcome of the regular primary election, I don’t see a path to victory, nor to raise the resources needed to be successful this November,” she said in a written statement. Sweeney had raised nearly $300,000 since announcing her candidacy last spring. A separate political action committee supporting Sweeney raised over $600,000.
With thousands of ballots left to be counted, Democrat Mary Peltola is in first place in the pick-one primary that was held Aug. 16. The top-four vote getters from that election will advance to the general election in November, which will determine who will fill Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat beginning in January. Peltola has around 36% of the vote. She is followed by Republicans Sarah Palin with 30.7% of the vote and Nick Begich III with 26.5% of the vote.
In fifth place is Libertarian Chris Bye, with 0.6% of the vote. Unless another candidate overtakes him, Bye’s name will likely appear on the November ballot, along with Peltola, Palin and Begich.
Bye did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday. He is an Army veteran who lives in Fairbanks and lists reducing the national debt and auditing the federal government among his top issues.
Nearly 180,000 ballots have been counted so far. Additional ballot counts were expected later in the week.
Sweeney ran on a pro-development, socially moderate platform, saying she supports abortion access. The issue set her apart from the other Republicans on the ballot. In her statement Tuesday, Sweeney said she “ran a campaign focused on the issues, not partisan rhetoric.”
Jim Lottsfeldt, a political consultant who previously worked for the super PAC that raised and spent money to boost Sweeney’s campaign, said Sweeney was likely driven out of the race because of “a chicken and egg scenario.”
“She’s a distant fourth place and the only way she becomes competitive is to raise significant resources and the only way she can raise significant resources is actually be in contention,” Lottsfeldt said.
Sweeney’s campaign spokesperson Karina Waller declined to answer when asked if Sweeney would endorse another candidate in the race. Sweeney was not available for interviews following the announcement.
“We must ensure the best representation possible is in place as Alaska’s only voice in the House of Representatives. I look forward to working with a true Alaskan willing to carry forward the legacy of Don Young while serving in Congress,” Sweeney said in her statement.
Lottsfeldt said she has “many split loyalties” that may stop her from supporting a particular candidate in the race.
“She’s a card-carrying chamber of commerce Ted Stevens Republican. She is also a strong Native leader,” Lottsfeldt said. “It’s arguable she could find something to like and dislike about every candidate.”
Sweeney placed fifth in the special primary held in June to replace Rep. Don Young, who died in March. Sweeney’s name remained off the special general ballot after independent candidate Al Gross dropped out of the race days after the special primary results were certified. Sweeney had continued to campaign, saying her focus remained on the November race to fill the seat for the term beginning in January. She announced earlier this month she had registered as a certified write-in candidate for the special general election, but certified write-in candidates received less than 1.5% of first-place voted in the ranked-choice election, with Peltola, Palin and Begich on the ballot. Final results of the special election aren’t expected until the end of the month.
Sweeney’s withdrawal from the race could end up benefitting Peltola, according to Lottsfeldt. Alaska Native Corporations supported Sweeney to a six-figure tune. Without her in the race, some could choose to back Peltola, who is Yup’ik.
“From the get-go, there was a division of not wanting to choose between Tara and Mary Peltola. They’re both shareholders. They’re both well-respected women in that world,” Lottsfeldt said. “Now that Mary Peltola is the last Alaska Native standing, I assume they will rally behind her candidacy.”
Palin said in a statement she welcomes votes from Sweeney’s supporters “to fight against the damaging policies of the elite left.” Begich — the Republican trailing Palin in the race — said in a statement that he is continuing to campaign as he awaits further election results.
Peltola campaign manager Anton McParland said that Sweeney’s departure left Alaskans who value abortion access with only one option in the race. Both Begich and Palin are opposed to the procedure, which has become part of the national discussion this year in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision removing federal protections for abortion access. Abortions remain legal and protected in Alaska under the state constitution.
“We’ve always been committed to building a coalition of voters that can win us the general election,” including Sweeney supporters, McParland said. “We do feel like there’s a renewed opportunity to engage those folks around being their first choice rather than their second.”