Early results in Alaska’s 48-candidate special primary election for U.S. House on Saturday showed Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich III taking the lead, followed by independent Al Gross. Democratic former state Rep. Mary Peltola, in her first statewide campaign, was in fourth.
Palin, in her first campaign since resigning as Alaska governor in 2009, was the clear leader with 30%. Begich, a businessman and investor who launched his campaign before the March death of longtime Alaska U.S. Rep. Don Young — which prompted Saturday’s special election — was in second with 19%.
Gross, an orthopedic surgeon who ran unsuccessfully as an independent for U.S. Senate in 2020, with the Democratic Party’s nomination, was in third with 12%.
Peltola, a former state representative from the Southwest Alaska rural hub of Bethel who’s on leave from her job in fisheries management, was in fourth with 7%. The top four candidates from the special primary will advance to an August special general election, which will be Alaska’s first using ranked choice voting.
Republican Alaska Native leader Tara Sweeney was in fifth Saturday with 5%, followed by independent Santa Claus — born Thomas O’Connor — with 4.5%, energy lawyer Jeff Lowenfels with 4%, Anchorage Assembly member Chris Constant with 3.5% and Fairbanks Republican former state Sen. John Coghill with 2.5%.
The results, representing 108,981 of the nearly 140,000 ballots cast through Saturday, are not a definitive statement on which four candidates will advance. Officials said counting was finished for Saturday night, but several more tallies are scheduled over the next two weeks, and additional ballots can still arrive and be counted as long as they were postmarked by Saturday.
But the numbers represent the first, long-awaited clear expression of Alaska voters’ preferences in the state’s first U.S. House race without an incumbent in a half-century — which is also Alaska’s first statewide mail-in election.
Experts cautioned that they may not be representative of all the ballots cast, and data released by state elections officials late Saturday shows that they only counted Anchorage-area votes received by June 1, while other areas counted ballots received as late as June 8.
Palin’s strong showing suggests that at least a significant minority of voters embraced her alliance with Republican former President Donald Trump, her critique of the Washington, D.C., establishment and her first campaign since she resigned as governor in 2009.
The former governor was celebrating the results with family and friends at her home in Wasilla and was not immediately available for an interview late Saturday, said campaign manager Kris Perry.
But Palin’s campaign released a prepared statement saying the country is at a “turning point.”
“We need to focus on policies that will make life better for the regular Joes out there who can’t afford to fill their gas tanks and are struggling to feed their families because of Joe Biden’s hyperinflation,” the statement quoted Palin as saying. ”I’m looking forward to the special general election so we can highlight our ideas for fixing this country by responsibly developing Alaska’s God-given natural resources, getting runaway government spending under control, protecting human life, protecting the right to keep and bear arms, and restoring respect for individual liberty and the Constitution.”
Begich, in a phone interview with the Daily News, was quick to claim the role of Palin’s leading challenger, saying there’s a “huge contrast” between the two.
“We have one candidate who makes her living on celebrity videos, and we have another candidate who’s made a living creating jobs,” Begich said. He added: “This is a race between Sarah Palin and Nick Begich.”
Begich was in Anchorage late Saturday with his family and campaign aides. He said he plans to resume campaigning Sunday on the Kenai Peninsula.
“We’re going to work first thing in the morning,” he said. “There’s no time for celebrations.”
Gross, from his home in Petersburg, said advancing to the general election would be “a really big honor and big responsibility,” and he added that he believes he can win the ranked-choice general election.
He declined to comment on other candidates he would face in that race.
”The more people know who I am, the more likely they are to vote for me,” said Gross, who became a household name in Alaska after spending $19 million on his 2020 Senate campaign.
More elections to come
The 48-candidate race — a special primary — was the first of four that will determine who replaces Young, who died suddenly while flying back to Alaska from Washington, D.C. in March.
It was also the first election under a new system of voting that Alaskans approved in 2020, which features nonpartisan primaries and a ranked-choice general election.
Once the special primary results are finalized later this month, two more elections will unfold at the same time, on the same ballot.
The top four special primary finishers will compete in the special general election for the right to finish Young’s term; voters will be asked to rank those four candidates in order of preference Aug. 16.
On the same ballot, 31 candidates are running in the regular primary election — likely including all four who will advance to the special general. Then, the top four from the regular primary will run in a ranked choice regular general election Nov. 8.
In Saturday’s primary, all voters chose one candidate from a single, nonpartisan ballot with all 48 names.
Beyond established politicians like Palin, Gross and Constant, the race included a bearded Republican fisherman from the Southeast Alaska community of Wrangell; an independent from California whose website promotes wind turbines and links to the “best museums in the United States”; and an Anchorage woman who says she’s running in a political arena akin to a “multi-million-dollar, modern day, gladiator sport of character assassination.”
Trying to make sense of the race was a “nightmare,” said a 32-year-old Anchorage man who voted Saturday in Anchorage and would only give his first name, Brian.
“I’m looking at everybody on there, I’m trying to remember who I’m hearing and what I’m hearing about them, looking into some of the people I’m hearing about more,” he said after voting for Begich. “Looking at 48 names is insane.”
Sean Whalen, a 54-year-old Anchorage landscaper, put it more succinctly: “Holy buckets.”
Palin voters said they were excited to support a candidate with charisma and the potential to shake up Congress.
“She’s a machine in herself,” Ronald Downey said after voting for Palin in Anchorage late Saturday. “It’s to be seen if she’ll actually get something positive or productive done. But she will get attention, she will shake it up. And I voted for that.”
Other conservative voters said they viewed Begich as a more serious candidate than Palin.
“I’m afraid if she wins it’s going to be too much distraction in D.C.,” said Jack Border, 71, after voting for Begich in Anchorage. “That’s the only reason I didn’t vote for her.”
Awaiting more results
Peltola was returning to Anchorage from an Alaska Native cultural festival in Juneau and unavailable for an interview, said campaign manager Kim Jones.
Jones said she’s “very optimistic” about the results, but added that “there are a lot of votes left to count.”
Jones said she hopes Democratic support for Peltola will coalesce ahead of the August voting.
“If she remains in the top four, I feel strongly that that gives her a better chance at remaining in the top four in August,” Jones said.
She added that Palin’s performance in the primary “will scare people into action for the August primary.”
“Because there are a lot of voters that don’t want Palin as our next representative,” Jones said.
If elected, Peltola would be the first Alaska Native elected to Congress — a fact she played up on her campaign and that voters appeared to notice.
Jennifer Howell, a 48-year-old Anchorage teacher, said she voted for Peltola because of her “statewide perspective.”
“And I think that having a Native woman in the House of Representatives, representing Alaska, would be amazing for our state,” Howell said Saturday after voting in Anchorage. “I think that they have been marginalized and massively underrepresented for so long.”