FAIRBANKS — Five of Alaska’s leading GOP contenders to succeed the late U.S. Rep. Don Young held a lively debate Saturday at the state Republican Party convention, and many candidates took aim at Nick Begich III, who on Thursday secured the party’s first endorsement in the race.
The 45-minute breakfast forum with Begich, former Gov. Sarah Palin, Anchorage state Sen. Josh Revak, former state Sen. John Coghill and Native leader Tara Sweeney revealed few substantive policy differences between the candidates — with the exception of a moment when the audience lightly booed Sweeney’s reluctance to denounce transgender women’s participation in women’s sports.
But the event, which marked the candidates’ first in-person meeting, grew personal quickly. Begich’s opponents, who all entered the race after Young’s death, targeted Begich’s decision to challenge the sitting congressman while Young was still alive. They also questioned Begich’s Republican credentials, noting that he’s previously acknowledged voting for two Democrats.
“I think it’s clear that they believe I’m the front-runner,” Begich said in an interview afterward. “I have the support of the Republican Party. I have the support of the Republican delegates. I have the support of Republican elected officials, and conservatives across the state of Alaska — and they’ve recognized that, and they’re going to take their shots.”
The five Republicans are among 48 candidates running in a special primary election in June for the seat formerly held by Young, who died suddenly last month.
Begich is a nephew of former Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and a grandson of Nick Begich Sr., who held Alaska’s sole seat in Congress through 1972 before he disappeared on a flight from Anchorage to Juneau.
Both Mark and Nick Sr. were Democrats, but Nick Begich III is running for Congress as a Republican. He entered the race in October as a younger, more conservative alternative to Young, and since then, he’s secured support from an array of Alaska conservative activists, elected officials and GOP districts.
He also claimed the Alaska Republican Party’s endorsement in a state central committee meeting Thursday ahead of the start of the convention. Begich was the only candidate to have requested the state Republican Party’s endorsement by Friday morning, according to Craig Campbell, the party vice chair.
The vote by the party’s central committee is not exclusive; other candidates can still apply for and receive an endorsement of their own.
A motion to suspend party rules in order to endorse the other four Republican candidates who spoke at the forum failed Saturday. The motion was made by Jerry Ward — a former state lawmaker who works for Palin’s campaign — several hours after the forum concluded.
Begich’s opponents have complained about the endorsement throughout the convention, including at Saturday’s forum, saying they were caught by surprise.
“I think it’s wrong that we learned about an endorsement being handed out before the people on this stage had the opportunity to speak to the delegates,” Sweeney said in her introductory statement.
Still, Begich worked to position himself as the convention’s darling.
“People in this room are the people doing the work. You are not a ‘good old boys club,’ ” he said, addressing delegates, referring to criticism from Palin in response to the party’s endorsement.
Opponents also attacked Begich over his voting record and his membership in a prominent Democratic family. At a 2016 candidate forum when he was running for Anchorage Assembly, Begich acknowledged voting for two Democrats in his life: his uncle and Ethan Berkowitz, who was elected Anchorage mayor a year earlier.
“I think that’s really interesting that you said on the radio that you voted for Berkowitz,” said Revak, a former aide to Young who’s been endorsed by the late congressman’s widow. “I’ve always been a Republican.”
The most spirited part of the forum came in response to a question from moderator Campbell, who is also a former lieutenant governor, about banning transgender women’s participation in women’s sports.
Begich got a standing ovation for his blunt response: “Men are men and women are women.”
Sweeney, who answered the question before Begich, tried to take a more nuanced approach that met with audience disapproval.
“I think this is a loaded question, one that deserves deliberation,” Sweeney said. “We need to remember that these individuals, who are struggling with sexual identity and gender identity, are human beings and should not villainize them.”
Sweeney is a former Trump administration appointee and Alaska Federation of Natives co-chair. She’s also a daughter of a former Democratic state lawmaker, and she described herself as an “Alaskan for Alaska,” with a pragmatic approach to politics.
“I’m a Ted Stevens Republican,” said Sweeney. “Not a Ted Nugent Republican.”
That was a clear jab at Palin, who, in the lead-up to the convention, had reportedly explored inviting Nugent to the event.
In a post-forum interview, Palin acknowledged that her campaign looked into bringing Nugent, a musician and conservative activist, to Fairbanks for a meet-and-greet at the convention. The event didn’t materialize, but Palin stood by her friendship with the conservative firebrand, who joined her for a four-hour dinner at President Donald Trump’s White House in 2017.
“I am a Ted Nugent Republican,” Palin said. “Who wouldn’t want to be associated with somebody who loved America?”
Palin, whose candidacy Trump has endorsed, brushed off debate criticism from Begich that she had not donated to any GOP candidates in the state since 2008.
“I think you should put your money where your mouth is,” said Begich, who has loaned his campaign $650,000.
The former governor, who amassed personal wealth after her failed vice presidential run, responded by taking aim at party leadership for favoring Begich.
“I’ve been up against this thing for my entire career, and I’ve fared well against it. Because normal, average, hardworking Alaskans, they have no time for those kinds of games and backroom deals, and the injustice that is made manifest when things like that happen,” she said.
Palin, Sweeney, Revak and Begich all named Coghill, a longtime conservative from Fairbanks, as the candidate they would rank second on their ballot.
Coghill, who served in the Legislature from 1999 to 2020, argued for unity among the Republicans in the race in the state’s first election under ranked choice voting.
“Any one of those is a good servant. That’s why I said this is a team effort,” Coghill said after the forum. “I’m sorry for some of the shots that happened. But they’re trying to differentiate themselves.”
[Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported a detail of Begich’s voting record. He has acknowledged voting for Democrat Ethan Berkowitz in 2015, not 2018.]