The dust has settled in Alaska’s special U.S. House race, with the three final candidates meeting for two forums on Sunday and Monday before they scattered across the state to begin another chapter in a campaign that has continued to surprise and sometimes confound voters and election officials.
“Every day seems to be a new chapter of this race. We don’t seem to even get two consecutive days of the same chapter,” said Mary Peltola, the Democratic candidate who is facing Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich.
The three candidates used the forums — one hosted virtually by the Alaska Black Caucus and the other held in-person by the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce — to draw attention to their differences while still praising one another repeatedly.
“I’m very, very thankful that we have great candidates up here,” said Palin, a former governor and vice presidential candidate making her return to Alaska politics after a 13-year hiatus. “You guys have good choices, kind of can’t go wrong.”
Palin, Begich and Peltola emerged from an unprecedented 48-candidate primary held under Alaska’s new election laws that did away with partisan primaries. The trio will appear on the ballot for the Aug. 16 special general election, which will also be the state’s first under ranked choice voting. Asked who they would rank as second, Begich said he would choose Palin while the other two candidates declined to comment. Architects of the new voting system, which passed by citizen initiative in 2020, said they hoped it would bring more civility to political campaigns.
The candidate forums marked a transition from the primary to the general election, with primary results formally certified by election officials Saturday. In some cases, the forums highlighted surprising similarities between the candidates, who all said they would prioritize Alaska’s resource development and oil and gas production if elected. But on other topics — including abortion access and issues relating to the effects of racism — Peltola set herself apart from her Republican opponents.
Asked what their top priority would be when elected, all referenced the oil and gas industry, speaking to an audience composed of many business leaders who are Chamber of Commerce members.
Begich said, “We need to start unlocking energy production with the United States,” and “Alaska has a huge role to play as it related to our energy security.”
Palin said her goal is “to win the war against President Biden’s anti-energy independence agenda” and that “Alaska needs to be tapped into.”
Peltola said, “We’ve got to be developing positive relationships with other members of Congress in order to impress upon them the importance of Alaska’s oil and gas resources.”
But in a forum hosted by the Alaska Black Caucus that emphasized the racial disparities that continue to shape many aspects of life in America, Peltola stood apart.
Peltola, who is Yup’ik, said she would support making Juneteenth a paid state holiday, increasing the federal minimum wage, teaching critical race theory in schools and passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. All of those were either outright opposed or questioned by Begich and Palin, who like other Republicans on the national stage cast doubt on some policies that Democrats have said are needed to rectify lingering racial disparities.
The most notable difference between Begich and Palin emerged not in what they said but how they said it, with Palin adopting a tone of humor and self-deprecation.
“Yeah, I get mocked for saying you can see Russia from Alaska. Well, you can,” Palin said during the Monday forum. “So I’ll take one for the team. I’ll keep getting mocked for that.”
That stood apart from Begich’s stance as the candidate who has been in the race the longest, is willing to spend large sums of his own wealth on his campaign, and who has intervened in two lawsuits so far pertaining to the election.
“We’ve been very confident about our chances in this race from the beginning,” Begich said.
Palin seems to be hedging her bets.
“I would like to be able to work for you and with you,” she said. “But if not, just know that, you know, life goes on.”
The August election will determine who will fill the seat previously held by U.S. Rep. Don Young, who died suddenly in March after 49 years in office, and serve out the last four months of his term. Another election, with an August primary and November general election, will determine who will hold the seat for the following full two-year term that will begin in January.
Forty-eight candidates ran for the seat in the primary. Palin came away with 27% of the vote, Begich with 19% and orthopedic surgeon Al Gross with 12.6%. But Gross, who ran as an independent, dropped out of the race suddenly and inexplicably last week, narrowing the field for the special general election from four to three.
Election officials determined fifth-place finisher Republican Tara Sweeney, who earned 5.9% of the vote, could not take Gross’ place on the ballot. A legal challenge failed to change that decision. Gross, who offered only a brief written statement last week explaining his decision, did not respond to multiple calls and messages Monday.
“There are varying opinions about the three-person dynamic versus the four-person dynamic,” said Peltola, who came in fourth with 10% of the vote. “Sudden change is always shocking.”
Still, Sweeney was in the audience at the Anchorage candidate forum on Monday, where she listened to candidates and said she was “always, always focused on November.”
“I think we’re all really running for the two-year seat,” Peltola said. With many of the other prominent candidates in the U.S. House primary race dropping out, Sweeney, Peltola, Begich and Palin are expected to be the front-runners in the November race.
Sweeney said she thought the election was “important enough to continue to fight.” A Republican who served in a key position in the Department of Interior under President Donald Trump, she holds more moderate views on many social issues than Begich and Palin, including on abortion, which is quickly becoming a defining issue in the coming elections.
Both Begich and Palin celebrated the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, handed down on Friday, that reversed federal protections for abortion access guaranteed in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Sweeney has said she is supportive of abortion access but is against funding abortions with taxpayer money. She said she would support codifying abortion access in federal law.
Alaska’s constitution still guarantees abortions will remain accessible in the state, and previous surveys have indicated that a majority of Alaskans support abortion access.
“I think the court was correct in returning this issue to the states and here in the state of Alaska. … it will now become a discussion for our state Legislature,” Begich said.
Peltola, like most Democrats on the national stage, said she supports protecting abortion access.
“Alaska as a state legalized abortion before Roe v. Wade was the law of the land and I think it’s important that now, post Roe v. Wade, we need to also protect those rights,” Peltola said.