One week ago, the race for Alaska’s sole seat in Congress was shaping up as a sleepy contest between long-serving incumbent Republican Don Young, conservative challenger Nick Begich III and a Democrat, Chris Constant.
Now, Young is set to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol in the coming week. And an array of Alaskans are lining up as potential candidates to replace him.
Republican former Gov. Sarah Palin, Anchorage Democratic Rep. Chris Tuck, Native leader Tara Sweeney and attorney and gardening writer Jeff Lowenfels all say they’re weighing a bid for Alaska’s U.S. House seat. Independent Al Gross, who ran an unsuccessful $20 million campaign for U.S. Senate in 2020, is also said to be running, along with Anchorage Republican Sen. Josh Revak.
Young’s death on March 18, plus Alaska’s new system of open primaries and a ranked choice vote in the general election, “makes it a whole new world,” Tuck said in a phone interview Friday.
“It puts it at more of a level playing field for everybody,” Tuck said. “That’s the reason why you’re going to see so many people in.”
Young had served in Congress continuously since he was sworn into his seat in 1973. He was the House’s longest-serving member when he died unexpectedly, on a flight en route to Alaska, where he was running for a 25th term.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration announced that there will be two elections to decide who will serve out the last few months of Young’s term: a by-mail primary June 11, and a ranked choice general election Aug. 16, the same day as the regular primary election.
[Gruff, warm, combustible, shrewd: For 49 years, Don Young’s ideology was ‘Alaska’]
Candidates for the June election must formally file by Friday — a deadline that’s forcing aspiring U.S. representatives into some expedited decision-making.
“This type of thing takes years of planning,” said Sweeney, who only recently moved back to Alaska from Washington, D.C. “There’s so much to consider.”
Sweeney, who is Iñupiaq, served as assistant secretary for Indian affairs during the Trump administration, has worked as an executive at Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and was one of the co-chairs of Young’s reelection campaign this year.
The other co-chair was Revak, who said this week he’s considering his options even as the Alaska Landmine cited anonymous sources saying that he’s preparing to run.
Sweeney, in a brief phone interview Friday, said she’s “considering all options on the table” and will probably “take all the days leading up to the deadline” before making a decision.
Others, like Tuck, are in a similar position. The longtime Anchorage Democratic representative appeared to have a clear path to a state Senate seat with the decision by Elvi Gray-Jackson, another Democrat, to run for U.S. Senate.
But Gray-Jackson announced Friday that she will seek reelection to her state Senate seat instead. That decision, combined with new legislative district maps, left Tuck with the choice of running against other Democrats for state House or Senate, or seeking election to Alaska’s open seat in Congress.
“If I’m going to have a tough election, which tough election do I want to be in?” Tuck said.
Begich and Constant have already said they plan to run in both the special election to serve out Young’s term and the regular primary and general elections for a full two-year term beginning in 2023. But Tuck said he’s not sure that entering the special election is necessary, and that he may need more time to make up his mind than he has before the April 1 filing deadline.
“I’ve got to look at the data. I’ve got to look at the numbers,” he said. “If I don’t get that done before April 1 and I happen to get it done by April 3, I’m not losing that much ground.”
Andrew Halcro, meanwhile, said he’s close to a decision about running to finish Young’s term, though he does not plan to enter the regular election.
“I’m a safe choice to hold the fort down for five months,” said Halcro, who hosts a politics podcast distributed by the Anchorage Daily News. “I’m just a bridge.”
Halcro is a former Republican state representative who ran for governor as an independent in 2006, when he lost to Palin. In a phone interview Friday, he called the special election a “once in a lifetime” event that will be an “absolute jungle.”
“I think this is one of those opportunities where everyone should get in and let their voice get heard,” he said. “I hope Sarah Palin jumps in.”
Palin has not spoken with Alaska media about a potential candidacy. But she teased the idea for a second time on a Thursday appearance on Fox News with Sean Hannity.
“There is a time and a season for everything. And if this season is one where I need a more official platform to have, then yeah, I’m going to throw my hat in the ring,” she said. “We’ve got nothing to lose. And no more of this vanilla, milquetoast, namby-pamby, wussy-pussy stuff that’s been going on.”
Then there’s Lowenfels, who said he’s seriously considering a run.
The 73-year-old is perhaps best known for his Anchorage Daily News gardening column and writing on mycorrhizal fungi. But he also had a career as an attorney and executive in Alaska’s oil and gas industry, pushing for construction of a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope as the chief executive at Yukon Pacific Corp.
In a phone interview, Lowenfels said he’s been inspired to run for Young’s seat by the performance of Ukraine’s wartime president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He said he also feels a connection to Alaskans around the state from his decades corresponding with readers of his gardening column, and thinks there’s something of a “Garden Party” that could unify people, even though he’d run as an independent.
“People ought to be thinking about the fact that we have some commonalities here, and we’ve got to build on those,” he said. “I’m a crazy guy, as you know. I’m just thinking this is an opportunity that maybe I should take.”
With a week to go until the special election filing deadline, there’s still time for other candidates to enter.
In the meantime, Begich, the Republican who filed to challenge Young months ago, has been trying to consolidate GOP support. Since Young’s death last week, he’s announced endorsements from several Republican districts, along with a hunting and fishing group called the Alaska Outdoor Council.
“We’re seeing people come together: Folks that were weighing a decision are coming over and coalescing around the campaign,” Begich said Friday.
But it appears almost certain that Begich will face other Republican challengers.
Some of Young’s “confidants, key supporters and former staff are lining up” to support Revak, the Anchorage state senator and a former Young aide, the Landmine reported this week. That includes Young’s longtime ad-maker Art Hackney, who didn’t respond to a request for comment.
There’s also a risk to Begich that a Republican candidate emerges who would run to his far right, like Palin, Wasilla Republican Rep. David Eastman or Eagle River Republican Sen. Lora Reinbold, said centrist political consultant Jim Lottsfeldt.
“They’ve got to be seeing it as an opportunity,” Lottsfeldt said.
Reinbold didn’t respond to a request for comment Friday. Eastman, in a text message, said he hasn’t endorsed a candidate for U.S. House but didn’t respond when asked if he’s considering a bid himself.
The Alaska Democratic Party is supporting Constant, the vice chair of the Anchorage Assembly, the only party member who’s formally announced a candidacy so far.
Party leaders are also interested in better understanding the positions of Gross, who won the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in 2020 while running as an independent.
“I look forward to hearing Al Gross’ policy platform, if he’s going to run as an independent, who he’s going to caucus with,” said Lindsay Kavanaugh, the party’s executive director.
Kavanaugh said she’s had discussions with a number of interested candidates. And she said her party sees opportunity in the “chaos” surrounding the many elections to replace Young — particularly with Alaska’s new ranked choice voting system.
She said the Democrats will be working to educate Alaskans about the state’s new voting systems, including that residents don’t have to rank all four candidates on the general election ballot.