Fifty candidates are running in the special election to fill Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat — a field that includes former Gov. Sarah Palin, Santa Claus, current and former officeholders and dozens of others.
The number of candidates is more than twice the number seen in any other primary in the Alaska history, and greater than the number of mushers who ran this year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
New candidates continued to enter the race right up to deadline of 5 p.m. Friday, two weeks after the sudden death of Don Young, Alaska’s sole congressman of 49 years. Some of the candidates were proteges of Young; others were rivals. Their experience runs the gamut from political novices to veterans of statewide campaigns.
(The field of candidates was initially 51, though one of them, Mat-Su Assembly member Jesse Sumner, later said he was withdrawing, bringing the list to 50. He was still listed on the Division of Election’s website on Saturday. Monday is the deadline to withdraw.)
Watching the candidate list balloon on Friday was something of a jaw-dropper, with new candidates — known and unknown — appearing with each Division of Elections update. By the end of the day, Alaskans were looking at an election — actually, an upcoming series of them — unlike anything seen before, with dozens of candidates, a statewide mail-in primary and the implementation of ranked-choice voting, which fundamentally changes the way elections work here.
Ultimately, the list included Palin, Republican state Sen. Josh Revak, former Republican state Sen. John Coghill, former Republican Interior Department official Tara Sweeney, independent orthopedic surgeon Al Gross, Democratic Anchorage Assembly member Christopher Constant, former Republican lawmaker Andrew Halcro, former Democratic state legislator Mary Sattler Peltola, Alaska Native leader Emil Notti, Democratic state Rep. Adam Wool and attorney and gardening columnist Jeff Lowenfels. And Santa Claus, a self-described democratic socialist who currently sits on the city council of North Pole, outside Fairbanks.
‘I didn’t expect that in a million years’
“Public service is a calling, and I would be honored to represent the men and women of Alaska in Congress, just as Rep. Young did for 49 years,” Palin said on Facebook.
She filed at the Division of Elections office in Wasilla on Friday afternoon, where Max Sumner, a partner in a Wasilla homebuilding company, was also registering for the race — his first-ever campaign for public office.
Sumner said state elections officials were shocked to see the filing from Palin, who had teased a campaign in recent days.
“One of them said, ‘I didn’t expect that in a million years,’ " Sumner said in a phone interview Friday. “I was like, ‘Why not?’ Sarah Palin, of course she’s going to run for office again.”
Palin and Sumner filed with roughly an hour left before the 5 p.m. filing deadline. The race reached the point Friday where everyone and their brother had entered: Sumner’s brother Jesse, a member of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly, also filed to run before the deadline — though he subsequently submitted a letter of withdrawal by email and said his candidacy was an April Fool’s joke.
Another Friday filer was Andrew Halcro, who faced Palin in a 2006 race for governor. Palin won that race. Halcro, a former Republican state lawmaker who is now running unaffiliated with a party, said Friday that he’s “glad we’re getting the band back together.”
Indeed, the slate of candidates brings together many prominent Alaskans, as political figures young and old faced a prospect not seen in the state in nearly 50 years — a U.S. House race without an incumbent.
‘I’m not looking at a long-term career’
Young won his first-ever term in Congress in a special election in 1973, with a 2,000-vote margin over Democratic opponent Emil Notti.
Nearly 50 years later, the 89-year-old Native leader filed again on Friday, saying he’d run only for the special election to finish Young’s term.
Notti was the first president of the Alaska Federation of Natives and one of the architects of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. He’s also served as commissioner of two state agencies and president of Doyon Ltd., the Alaska Native corporation for the Interior.
In an interview Friday, he said the deciding factor pushing him to run was the “support and encouragement” of friends and acquaintances from across the state, and that his 1973 U.S. House campaign — also in a special election with a short campaign season — could serve as a blueprint for the current race.
“I’m not looking at a long-term career, so it wasn’t really a hard decision,” he said, adding that he is in good health.
Young reelection co-chairs both jump in
The race also includes the two former co-chairs of Young’s reelection campaign, who served in the role until Young’s death. Both state Sen. Josh Revak and Native leader Tara Sweeney emphasized their hesitance to launch a campaign before the memorial for Young, which is scheduled to take place in Anchorage on Saturday morning.
Young died suddenly on a flight from Los Angeles to Seattle on March 18. After 49 years in Congress, he lay in state in the U.S. Capitol earlier this week and was honored with a memorial service near Washington, D.C. The memorial scheduled at the Anchorage Baptist Temple at 11 a.m. Saturday is expected to draw many of Young’s acquaintances and former staffers, including some of the candidates to replace him.
Sweeney is Iñupiaq and served as assistant secretary for Indian affairs during the Trump administration. She has also worked as an executive at Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and was co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives.
“Over the past several days I have heard from countless Alaskans across our diverse state encouraging me to run for Congress,” Sweeney said in a statement. “After deep reflection, and with a humble heart, I will once again answer the call to serve the state and people that I love.”
Revak, an Anchorage Republican, is an Army veteran who previously served as military and veterans affairs adviser to Young.
“As a combat veteran, I know first-hand the threats our nation faces. As a husband and father, I know the struggles of filling a gas tank and a fridge. As an Alaskan, I know our country has the ability to be energy independent because the answer to energy independence lies right beneath our feet, here in Alaska. This is no time to be passive or weak,” Revak said in a campaign announcement.
Santa’s hat was among those thrown in the ring Friday, when Santa Claus joined the race.
The man once known as Thomas O’Connor changed his legal name in 2005 and now lives, aptly, in the city of North Pole, outside Fairbanks, where he serves on the city council.
Claus, 74, said Friday that he would run only for the special election to carry out the remainder of Young’s term.
He is not affiliated with any party but describes himself as an “independent, progressive, Democratic socialist.” He also said he would not hire any staff or accept campaign donations.
“Santa believes all members of Congress must find common ground, work together to represent their diverse constituencies, and move our nation forward in a productive manner that ensures happiness, peace, good health, and prosperity for everyone living in the United States, including Alaska,” his website says.
While his politics are different from those of Young, his unusual approach to Washington traditions would be in line with Young’s unique antics, which included once wearing a propeller-topped beanie to a congressional hearing.
“I don’t like getting dressed up,” Claus said. “So I’m thinking, well, if I went to Congress, maybe I should just wear the Santa suit.”
‘If you have a hundred dollars, you can go down to Division of Elections and file’
The list of candidates who had already announced runs before Young’s death includes Republican businessman Nick Begich III, the grandson of Nick Begich Sr., who was elected to Alaska’s lone congressional seat in 1970 but disappeared during a 1972 flight from Anchorage to Juneau. Begich Sr. was replaced by Young in 1973.
“One of the great things about America is if you have a hundred dollars, you can go down to Division of Elections and file,” Begich said Friday.
Amid the who’s who of Alaska politicians were some everyday Alaskans throwing their name in the mix.
“My greatest qualification is that I’m a fully functional adult,” said John Callahan, an inspector general for the Alaska Air National Guard. He filed the necessary paperwork at the Anchorage office of the Division of Elections and paid the $100 fee just an hour before the 5 p.m. deadline. “We’ve been sending weirdos to D.C. for 50 years, and I feel like it’s just time we sent a normal person.”
The race also includes some candidates who don’t even live in Alaska. Two men from California and one from Montana are among the candidates. The U.S. Constitution, which sets the requirements for serving in the House, requires that elected members of the House live in the state they represent, but it does not require candidates to do so.
‘The most wild’
With a candidate list so long, politicos across the state were struggling to capture the uniqueness of the race ahead. The election will be Alaska’s first after voters in 2020 adopted a citizens initiative under which the outcome of statewide races will be decided through ranked-choice voting — but first, all candidates run against each other in a nonpartisan primary. Only the top four vote-getters in the primary advance to the general election.
“I believe we might be looking for the superlative: wildest. The most wild,” said Joelle Hall, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO and its former political director.
Hall speculated that with so many candidates in the race, it will be almost impossible to predict how many votes will be needed to advance from the primary to the general election. That’s exacerbated by the fact that it’s a by-mail election. With no way to tell how many votes they’ll need to finish in the top four, candidates will find it difficult to set a strategy, she said.
The huge number of candidates combined with the brief 2.5-month window for campaigning make the primary something of a popularity contest, said Democratic former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich.
Candidates who have entered the race with leftover cash from other campaigns, or who have their own money to spend, will have a leg up on those who need to raise money from donors, who could be reticent to participate in such a chaotic race, Begich said.
It’s also possible that a candidate with a strong base in a particular region — rural Alaska, say, or Fairbanks — could win enough votes to propel them into the general election, he added.
“You just have to win your home area and you might make it to fourth,” Begich said. “Now you’re in the game.”
Noon Monday is the deadline for any of the candidates to withdraw from the race. After that deadline, the Division of Elections is slated to send the ballot to the printers.
When it comes, the ballot will be a hefty one, with candidates listed alphabetically by last name, A-Z.
Voters will be asked to pick one of the dozens of candidates, then put the completed ballot in a dropbox or in the mail back to the Division of Elections. Ballots must be postmarked by June 11 to be counted, and because most Alaska mail is postmarked by machine in Anchorage, third-party groups recommend last-day voters go into a post office and ask for their ballot to be hand-postmarked.
The final results will be tallied June 26, the deadline for ballots to arrive from overseas voters.
The four candidates who receive the most votes will advance to the Aug. 16 statewide primary, where a winner will be chosen by ranked-choice voting.
The special general election is on the same date as the primary for a full term in office, and one or more candidates could appear in both the special general and the regular primary. The four winners of that primary will advance to a ranked-choice vote during the November general election.
Here is a full list of the candidates: Dennis “Denny” W. Aguayo (nonpartisan), Jay R. Armstrong (R), Brian T. Beal (undeclared), Tim Beck (undeclared), Nick Begich (R), Gregg B. Brelsford (undeclared), Robert Brown (nonpartisan), Chris Bye (Libertarian), John T. Callahan (R), Arlene Carle (nonpartisan), Santa Claus (undeclared), John B. Coghill Jr. (R), Christopher S. Constant (D), Breck Craig (nonpartisan), Lady Donna Dutchess (nonpartisan), Otto H. Florschutz III (R), Laurel A. Foster (nonpartisan), Thomas “Tom” R. Gibbons (R), Karyn Griffin (undeclared), Al Gross (nonpartisan), Andrew J. Halcro (nonpartisan), Ted S. Heintz (Libertarian), William “Bill” D. Hibler III (nonpartisan), John Wayne Howe (Alaska Independence), David Hughes (undeclared), Don Knight (nonpartisan), Jeff B. Lowenfels (nonpartisan), Robert “Bob” Lyons (R), Anne M. McCabe (nonpartisan), Mikel R. Melander (R), Sherry M. Mettler (undeclared), Mike Milligan (D), Richard R. Morris (nonpartisan), J.R. Myers (Libertarian), Emil Notti (D), Robert Ornelas (American Independent Party), Sarah Palin (R), Silvio E. Pellegrini (undeclared), Mary S. Peltola (D), Joshua C. Revak (R), Tara M. Sweeney (R), Jesse Sumner (R), Maxwell Sumber (R), David Thistle (undeclared), Ernest F. Thomas (D), Richard “Clayton” Trotter (R), Bradley D. Welter (R), Jason G. William (undeclared), Adam L. Wool (D), Jo Woodward (R), Stephen Wright (R).
[Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported John Callahan’s role with the Alaska Air National Guard. He had previously served as a public affairs officer and is now an inspector general.]