Politics

Mentored by Young, GOP U.S. House candidates navigate a race shaped by his death

In a U.S. House race that has drawn 48 candidates, Alaska’s former congressman could mark one final posthumous achievement: kingmaker.

Before 49-year U.S. Rep. Don Young died suddenly last month, he had tapped three Republicans as potential successors. The three — Nick Begich III, Josh Revak and Tara Sweeney — are now running to replace the man who once served as their mentor.

All three worked as Young’s reelection campaign co-chairs — Revak and Sweeney in 2022, and Begich in 2020. And their campaigns are shaped in many ways by the long shadow Young cast on Alaska’s Republican Party.

Begich, Revak and Sweeney face a competitive race that includes 16 Republicans. One is former Gov. Sarah Palin, who faded from the state’s political scene after her failed vice presidential bid in 2008 but whose national stardom has threatened to overshadow other candidates since she announced her run earlier this month.

The candidates are jostling for support ahead of the June 11 primary, and ballots were mailed to voters this week. The top four vote getters in that election will advance to a ranked choice election in August that will determine who serves out the rest of Young’s term.

Young’s family says that in his final months, the 88-year-old congressman who was running for reelection was clear about who he wanted to succeed him once he was no longer in office. His pick was Revak, a state lawmaker who had previously worked for Young as a military affairs aide.

But even as they celebrate Young’s decades-long career as the gruff mascot of Alaska Republicans, the party establishment is diverging from what Young’s family says he wanted. During the state GOP convention last weekend, it was Begich who earned the party’s sole endorsement in the race so far.

And at a candidate forum held later in the convention, some Republican delegates went as far as booing Sweeney, a former Trump administration appointee, over her reluctance to denounce transgender women’s participation in women’s sports.

Sweeney was the first to admit that though she had several conversations with Young about succeeding him in the seat, she was not the only one he had tapped as a future successor.

“I don’t think it’s any secret that throughout his career, Congressman Young had encouraged different Alaskans to think about public service,” Sweeney said in an interview last week.

‘Not a spring chicken’

Joni Nelson, one of Young’s daughters, said in an interview last week that her father had shared with her in a private conversation — the last she had with him before he died — a hope that Revak would run for the seat. She echoed the sentiment shared by Anne Garland Walton, Young’s widow, who endorsed Revak in a video released by his campaign.

And in Young’s last public speaking event in Alaska, a Safari Club International event in Anchorage in early March, Young introduced Revak as “congressman” in front of a crowd of hundreds, according to several people who attended the event.

“My dad never said anything unintentionally,” Nelson said.

Revak, a military veteran, has ties to Young that go to the root of his connection to Alaska, where he moved after serving in the Army.

“I just know that he admired him and he felt like he was the right age and would give it his all,” Nelson said.

[Palin, Begich, other U.S. House candidates trade barbs at Alaska GOP convention]

Revak, 41, and Begich, 44, are less than half the age of Young when he died. Sweeney is 48 — born less than five months after Young was first elected to Congress.

Some longtime members of the Republican Party believed that Young had overstayed his welcome in the U.S. House. To them, the seat was ripe for change even before Young died.

Rhonda Boyles, who co-chaired Young’s campaign in 2020 along with Begich, has now endorsed Begich’s campaign. For years she had hosted fundraisers for Young, worked for his congressional office, even cooked for him. She said that in her most recent conversations with Young before his death, she urged him not to run for reelection, worrying that his health would not hold up for two more years in Congress.

“When he talked to me last Christmas and said, ‘I’m going to run again,’ I said, ‘I’m not working for you,’” Boyles said. She encouraged him instead to go on a cruise with his wife, Anne, who is also a personal friend. “‘Why would you give another two years? I mean, you’re not a spring chicken.’”

Boyles said that she and Begich had watched Young change during his 2020 campaign, describing him as a crankier, less energetic version of his younger self.

“Campaigns are stressful. It was a different kind of stress in that last campaign because we were faced with a lot of deceased friends that you couldn’t put on an invitation. Maybe a donor would say, ‘I always give you $2,500, Don. I’m only going to give you $500 this time. I don’t think you’re going to win. You need to retire.’ There were a lot of those dynamics,” Boyles said.

‘A pretty big calling’

Like Young, Revak wasn’t born in Alaska. He was raised in Minnesota, where his parents owned a farm. He was a 20-year-old working in the restaurant industry when two planes struck the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001. Within months, he had enlisted in the Army and was serving in a battle tank.

While deployed to Iraq, Revak was injured and lost several close friends in battle. One of them was an Alaskan, and after Revak was discharged from the Army, he traveled to the state for a trail dedication to that fallen soldier. There, he met Young staffer Chad Padgett.

“We had about an hour-and-a-half-long conversation. And at the end of it, it turns out it was a job interview,” Revak said.

Revak parlayed an internship in Young’s office into a full-time position as a military and veterans affairs aide to the congressman, and then to a similar position in the office of Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan. He was elected to the state House in 2018 and has served in the state Senate since 2019.

Throughout his career, Revak remained close with Young, who he said placed a premium on loyalty.

“He had been pretty open, especially in the recent past, about how he knew that I had the heart to do the job and he wanted me to try,” Revak said.

When Revak called Young’s widow to share his condolences, Revak said Walton told him that Young had expressed the wish that he run for office.

“That’s a pretty big calling to service and duty for me,” Revak said.

‘Different branches of a tree’

For Alaska voters, Begich is already a familiar name, but not one readily associated with the Republican Party.

Begich III is a grandson of Nick Begich Sr., a Democrat who was elected to the U.S. House in 1970 and disappeared on a flight in 1972. Two of Begich III’s uncles — former Anchorage mayor and U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and current state Sen. Tom Begich — are also Democrats.

“We’re different branches of a tree, you might say,” Begich III said.

Begich was raised by his maternal grandparents in Florida in a conservative Christian home. After starting a career in the private sector, with time spent working for the Ford Motor Co. in Michigan, he returned to Alaska 18 years ago.

For the past 15 years, Begich has run a software business that he founded. It currently employs 150 people; none of them live in Alaska.

Begich touts his lack of political experience in elected office as an asset. He joined the leadership of the Alaska Republican Party five years ago, along with the board of the conservative think tank Alaska Policy Forum, and the conservative Club for Growth. He lost a bid for a seat on the Anchorage Assembly in 2016.

Already harboring plans to run for the seat, Begich spent a month in 2021 working in Young’s D.C. office at Young’s invitation.

Several months later, Begich called Young to tell him he would enter the race, taking with him Truman Reed, who ran Young’s 2020 campaign and now runs Begich’s campaign. That conversation with Young was “brief,” Begich said.

According to Reed, Young had urged him to pursue the new position but wasn’t happy once it happened.

“The congressman talked about retiring on multiple occasions during the campaign two years ago and since, encouraged Nick to run,” Reed wrote in an email. “In fact, when I resigned from his office, he encouraged me to think about running Nick’s campaign. He seemed to like the idea, until it was reality. Then, he changed his mind.”

[An information blitz on Alaska’s new election system is coming, even from ranked-choice resistors]

Soon after entering the race, Begich began criticizing Young for his office policies to mitigate COVID-19, his support for the confirmation of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and his vote for the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a House bill that would change laws governing unions. Young was one of five Republicans to vote in favor of that bill. Begich also said that during the month he spent working in Young’s office, he saw lobbyists exert excessive influence over the congressman.

That open criticism has irked some of Young’s current and past advisers. But others share the criticism of Young. Begich had amassed a lengthy list of endorsements from conservative mayors and lawmakers across the state before Young died.

The businessman is largely self-financing his run for office. As of March, he had given his campaign $650,000.

“Quite frankly, I would not be pursuing this if I were not financially in a position to do so,” he said.

A recent endorsement from Americans For Prosperity Action, a political action committee, could also boost his run through an influx of outside spending.

Still, some influential Republican groups from across the state are holding off on issuing endorsements ahead of the primary.

“We try not to get in the middle of Republican primaries like this,” said Judy Eledge, president of the Anchorage Republican Women’s Club. “I respect our members and we have a very diverse group.”

A ‘north star’ campaign

Sweeney, who is Iñupiaq, has not earned endorsements from Young’s family or the Republican Party establishment. But she has the backing of another Alaska powerhouse: the state’s biggest Native corporations, which have set up a political action committee to bolster her campaign.

“It’s a rare thing when all the Native corporations come together,” said Kim Reitmeier, president of the ANCSA Regional Association, which represents the state’s 12 regional Native corporations. “We have an opportunity to make history.”

Unlike other candidates, Sweeney already has the experience of working in Washington, D.C. In 2017, President Donald Trump nominated her to serve as assistant secretary of the Interior for Indian affairs. Her confirmation vote was unanimous.

“She has a tremendous working relationship already with Alaska delegation, with other members of Congress and agencies in Washington, D.C. so I see her previous experience and her previous relationships as a tremendous asset that no other candidate has,” Reitmeier said.

Sweeney explained her work in the role as “about being able to articulate the problem and providing a solution and building networks inside the executive branch so that people understand why you’re promoting a certain policy position.”

Sweeney’s childhood home was in Utqiaġvik. She built a career working for the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and advocating for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

Like Begich, she is a Republican from a family of Democrats — the daughter of Eileen MacLean, a former Democratic state lawmaker.

While they differed in their political ideologies, Sweeney says her mother is her “north star.”

“My hope is that this campaign is a north star for other Alaska women and other Alaska Native women. Even if I am not successful, there still is success in this campaign because we are breaking down barriers. We are shattering stereotypes,” she said.

With Young, Sweeney built “a very deep personal connection.”

“He recognized that I can be scrappy in the trenches just like him,” she said. “He recognized it took guts and stamina, and the fact that I understood Washington, D.C.”

“It’s the mark of an effective leader that I wasn’t the only one that he was having these conversations with,” she added. “He recognized the qualities and traits in many Alaskans who had the potential to succeed him and encouraged folks to develop those skillsets.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the timing of Sarah Palin’s vice presidential run and Rep. Don Young’s age at the time of his death. This story has also been updated to reflect that Young supported Deb Haaland’s nomination as Interior secretary but, as a member of the U.S. House, did not vote on her confirmation.

Iris Samuels

Iris Samuels is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News focusing on state politics. She previously covered Montana for The Associated Press and wrote for the Kodiak Daily Mirror.

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