Editor's note: This story was original published on November 9, 2006
Voters looking to clean house in Juneau turned to small-town Alaska this week when they chose Sarah Palin as their next governor.
The small, road-connected towns from Kenai to the Mat-Su and beyond gave Palin huge victory margins Tuesday, more than compensating for districts in the Bush, Southeast and some parts of Anchorage where she trailed.
The former Wasilla mayor represents the small-town perspective not only in her resume but in her lifestyle: hockey mom, snowmachiner, mooseburger chili. And voters said they liked her plainspoken style, even if she didn't have all the answers.
"I'm not a big political person. I can understand what she's saying. She doesn't talk over your head," said Kim Ketchum, who was dressed in a Wasilla-red sweatshirt Tuesday night at Palin's Hotel Captain Cook celebration.
"It's everyday Alaskans who have been empowered by Sarah Palin," said former state lawmaker John Binkley of Fairbanks, who supported her after losing in the Republican primary.
Palin, Alaska's first woman governor, is the first to come from outside Anchorage or Fairbanks since Jay Hammond.
Her election also marks the arrival of a new political generation. At 42, she is the state's youngest governor ever (Bill Egan and Steve Cowper were both 44 when first elected.) She is the first governor to have grown up in post-pipeline Alaska, graduating from Wasilla High in 1982.
Democrat Tony Knowles, a former Anchorage mayor and two-term governor, conceded the race to Palin on Wednesday morning. Palin drew almost 49 percent of the vote, while Knowles got about 41 percent. Independent Andrew Halcro had just under 10 percent.
"I can feel in my heart that we ran the best campaign that we could have run," Knowles said at a press conference. Knowles, 63, said he had given no thought to the question of whether he might run for office in the future.
He said he thought Halcro voters came more from his ranks than from Palin's, because their stances were more closely aligned.
Turnout in Alaska was not especially heavy. The total number of votes cast, 206,232, was the smallest total since 1990.
Palin gave the Republican Party a welcome win in a bleak national election for the party. But she was not exactly bucking the national trend. Even though she was a Republican, Palin became known as the outsider who had trounced her own party's establishment.
Knowles, on the other hand, pitched himself to the voters as the candidate with experience. It proved to be a risky strategy at a time when disgruntled voters were ready to throw political insiders out on their ear.
"They want somebody who is new and innocent but hasn't been corrupted yet," Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, told an Alaska reporter for The Associated Press. "This is a change election. People wanted change. The politicians who recognized that and bottled it like lightning bugs were the ones who triumphed."
Anchorage pollster Ivan Moore said Knowles made a mistake by making his experience the major theme of his campaign. He said it would have been more effective to talk about Palin's positions on such issues as abortion, stem-cell research and game management, which he characterized as far right.
"Voters trust her, because it never became a campaign issue," Moore said. "This is the kind of stuff Tony should have run full-page ads on in the final week."
But Palin's pollster, Dave Dittman, said negative advertising in the home stretch doesn't really work in Alaska.
Dittman had predicted a six-point win for Palin in his final poll, coming very close to the final margin of victory. But as late as the Thursday before the election, he said, the campaigns were drawing even. He said Palin pulled away at the end for several reasons, including effective advertising and support from Sen. Ted Stevens.
On Election Day, Palin won in the Mat-Su and Kenai areas by a ratio of 2-to-1, got 50 percent more votes than Knowles in the region around Fairbanks and split Anchorage down the middle -- the latter coming on Knowles' home turf, Dittman noted. In her own home district around Wasilla, she got 72 percent of the vote.
But in her new home-to-be, the Juneau-Mendenhall Valley House districts, she won only 23 percent of the vote. And the small-town appeal did not extend beyond the road system in most places. The new governor won 13 percent of the vote on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. In Dillingham, where the Palin family has fished commercially for years, she lost 480-242.
Palin said she thought her victory was part of a national trend among voters seeking change.
In Alaska, that sentiment had more to do with an unpopular governor and FBI raids than George W. Bush or the Iraq war. Whatever its source, the feeling made it possible for her to win without the Republican Party of Alaska, she said. In another election year, she said, such a victory might not have happened.
"It's about timing," she said Tuesday night.
Palin's much-touted "new energy" was spilling out of the Captain Cook ballroom as hundreds of supporters crowded around their candidate on election night. The former Wasilla basketball star was surrounded by other "fresh faces" new to political campaigns and her hometown friends. There were also the not-so-fresh faces of former Republican state senators, including Dave Donley, Jerry Ward, Drue Pearce and Rick Halford.
Some voters said in interviews Tuesday that they were worried that Palin's "new ideas" were vague, that the candidate wasn't ready for the job of governor. But others said they trusted Palin to make the right decisions when the time came, especially since she wasn't tied to corporations or party leaders.
"She's willing to come out and say, 'This is what I know and this is what I don't know.' She's not going to give you a line," said David Smith of Eagle River. "I think she's going to listen to people."