Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich and independent Al Gross appeared all but certain Sunday to be advancing to August’s special general election for U.S. House in Alaska.
But a day after officials counted an initial batch of more than 100,000 ballots, the identity of the fourth and final participant in the election’s next phase remained uncertain. The current fourth-place candidate from Saturday’s count, Democrat Mary Peltola, leads by just a few thousand votes with tens of thousands still to be tallied.
A number of candidates and political operatives spent late Saturday and Sunday trying to make sense of the numbers and deduce which hopefuls could come from behind and advance to the general election. But most accepted that they have to wait for more clarity until Wednesday, when the Alaska Division of Elections plans its next count.
“We can only draw conclusions based on very limited information,” said Democrat Chris Constant, who was in eighth place after Saturday’s count, some 4,000 votes behind Peltola.
The ultimate outcome of the special election will decide which of the 48 candidates on Saturday’s ballot will fill the final few months of a two-year term left unfinished by the late Republican U.S. Rep. Don Young, who died unexpectedly in March after 49 years in office.
The top four candidates from the primary will advance to a ranked-choice general election in August — held on the same day and ballot as the regular primary election for the full two-year term in Congress. The top four in that primary advance to the ranked-choice general election in November.
Begich, Palin and Gross were all able to continue their campaigns Sunday with relative confidence that they’ll have a slot in August’s special general election
Begich said Saturday that he would resume campaigning Sunday on the Kenai Peninsula. Gross, in a social media video posted Sunday afternoon, declared that he’d “advanced to the runoff election in August” and, like Begich did late Saturday, took a swipe at Palin.
But for now, candidates like Constant, Peltola, Republican Tara Sweeney and independents Santa Claus and Jeff Lowenfels are in something like limbo, waiting for more results to come in.
State elections workers counted some 109,000 votes Saturday out of some 140,000 cast, leaving tens of thousands uncounted. And some 10,000 ballots were received by the state just between Friday and Saturday — suggesting that tens of thousands more could arrive in the coming days, since ballots will continue to be accepted as long as they were postmarked by Saturday.
Candidates on or near the fourth-place bubble said Sunday that the outcome of the upcoming counts is likely to determine whether they’ll continue campaigning for the regular primary election in August — or perhaps drop out and endorse an opponent.
“I’m thinking I better sit down and talk to my wife,” said Lowenfels, an energy lawyer and gardening writer who said he’s already asked the Associated Press if it would resume running his gardening column they’d suspended during his campaign if he decides to drop out.
Constant said his plans for the August election are an “open question.”
“I definitely want to see where everything falls,” he said. “If there’s no path, then I’m going to join the person whose values most closely represent mine. And if there’s a path, then I’m going to fight for it.”
Analysts and campaign operatives were closely analyzing which votes were counted Saturday, and which ones were still untallied.
A rough breakdown that state elections officials released showed that more ballots, proportionately, had been counted from regions outside Anchorage. Saturday night’s counts for Anchorage area districts only included ballots received through June 1, while ballots that arrived as late as June 8 were counted in other areas.
Some observers interpreted the data as a signal that Sweeney could gain ground on Peltola, who did especially well in her home region of rural Southwest Alaska.
They also noted that Sweeney’s own campaign, along with a super PAC funded by Alaska Native corporations, ramped up advertising later in the campaign, which they said could further boost Sweeney as later-arriving ballots are counted.
“As people became more and more familiar with Sweeney, her ability to get their vote just increased later in the campaign,” said Anchorage political consultant Jim Lottsfeldt, who’s working with the pro-Sweeney PAC. He added: “My experience is that things can tighten up.”
Sweeney will take a couple of days away from the campaign schedule before resuming campaigning later in the week, said Karina Waller, her campaign manager.
“We continue to monitor the numbers as they come in,” she said, adding that the campaign would shift focus to the August primary. “If we need to look to August, we’re looking to August.”
Officials from Peltola’s camp, meanwhile, said they were hopeful that Saturday’s results will hold.
“I agree that there are still a lot of votes to be counted in Anchorage. But I think they’re going to come in proportionately for Mary,” said Kim Jones, Peltola’s campaign manager. “All the on-the-ground work that we’ve done in Anchorage indicates that there’s still a ton of support for Mary here.”
She added: “I think the results will shift around a little bit. But I’m not sure if it’s going to be enough to make a difference.”
Meanwhile, Gross and Begich were quick to mark Palin -- who came away with 30% of the votes counted so far -- as the candidate to beat.
“Palin wants to go to Washington, D.C., to do Donald Trump’s bidding,” Gross said in his video posted Sunday asking for campaign contributions. The previous day, Begich said moving forward it would be “a race between Sarah Palin and Nick Begich.”
Gross got the endorsement of the Democratic Party when he ran for U.S. Senate in 2020.
But this time around the party has called him a “proven loser,” and Democratic Party executive director Lindsay Kavanaugh said Sunday that the party “will continue to underscore that Democrats should vote for a Democrat.” Still, Gross might be the only choice for left-leaning voters.
For either Gross or Begich to win, they would have to position themselves as a preferable alternative to Palin, Lottsfeldt said.
“Sarah Palin is still the most famous person in Alaska,” he said. “In some ways, she created Trump, not the other way around.”