The November state election, perhaps more than any other in recent memory, puts Alaska in uncomfortably unfamiliar territory.
For the first time in nearly a half-century, Alaskans will vote to send, for a full term, a new face to the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. It could be a woman or a Native, or the first Democrat since 1972. The winner will fill the seat left vacant by late Republican Congressman Don Young, who died March 18 after serving in Congress since 1973.
That vote will take place using the state’s new ranked choice method of balloting, which aims to keep moderates and fringe candidates in the contest, give third parties a boost and hand voters more choices — and the chance to vote for favorites who have no chance of winning.
The new nonpartisan system unsurprisingly has oodles of support from those who likely could not win elections under the older system, or politicians who easily could win general elections, but would find themselves struggling during primary elections where only members of their parties could vote. Primaries, especially the Alaska GOP’s closed contests, served to ensure adherence to the parties’ platforms — and punish those who strayed.
Ranked choice voting advocates are hopeful the new system will relegate all the angst and anger of head-to-head elections to history’s dustbin, turning ugly, knock-down, drag-out campaigns into kumbaya singalongs where burgeoning numbers of candidates, forced to be civil to one another as they appeal to a larger constituency, play nice.
So far, the run-up to the November election belies all that. There is ample sniping and only 11 of the 19 state Senate seats up for grabs are contested by two or fewer candidates, and in the House races, 26 of the 40 seats have two or fewer candidates. Not a huge change from the bad ol’ days.
If nothing else, the ranked choice voting scheme hotly opposed by both major political parties in Alaska and narrowly adopted by voters in 2020 shows what left-leaning, Outside interests willing to spend nearly $7 million in largely dark money can accomplish.
Alaskans after the August special House election and open primary are left with four candidates in the November U.S. House race — a Democrat and Alaska Native, Mary Peltola, Libertarian Chris Bye, and two Republicans — failed vice presidential candidate and former Gov. Sarah Palin and Nick Begich III.
Peltola won Young’s seat until January, but must stand for election in November against Palin, Begich and Bye for a full two-year term. It should be noted 60% of Alaska voters did not rank Peltola first in the August special election. Despite the notion of supposedly kinder, gentler elections, that number touched off fireworks between Palin and Begich, with Palin almost immediately demanding Begich drop out of the race to allow a Republican to claim Young’s seat.
”I’m calling on negative Nick Begich to get out of this race,” Palin huffed at a news conference. “He does not represent the best of Alaska. He represents the good old boys network, the establishment and yes, the liberals, the liberals in the Democrat Party.“
It was surprising to hear all that talk of liberal-lovin’ from a so-called populist, a Trumpette and “Masked Singer” who perhaps was the state’s most ardent socialist before she bailed out of the governor’s office in 2009 for greener pastures after only two years.
For his part, Begich said Palin has been “embarrassing” during the campaign and politely invited her to pound sand, with his campaign saying: “We are confident that we are on a positive trajectory to win in November.” With all the vagaries of ranked choice voting — among them the whozits, whatzits and howzits of how voters rank or fail to rank candidates — it is hard, if not impossible, to get a good handle on the upcoming election. There are Palin’s reported high negative numbers. There is Begich’s link to a family of Democrats. Former Sen. Mark Begich is his uncle, for crying out loud. Begich’s grandfather, Democrat Nick Begich, was Alaska’s congressman until his plane disappeared in 1972. Then, there is Peltola’s pulling in a minority of the votes in August. Bye is not even a factor in the race.
If Begich or Palin were to bail out — and now they are busy doing what Republicans are wont to do, cutting each other’s throat — Peltola’s claim to Young’s office could be very brief, indeed. If both stay in — and the official deadline for getting out has passed — her chances brighten considerably and Republicans again will have the chance to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Hey, maybe the territory is not so unfamiliar, after all.
Paul Jenkins is a former Associated Press reporter, managing editor of the Anchorage Times, an editor of the Voice of the Times and former editor of the Anchorage Daily Planet.
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