KENAI — Two of three U.S. House candidates faced voters in Kenai on Wednesday, less than two weeks before an election that will determine who will be the state’s next representative in Congress.
Republican Nick Begich III and Democrat Mary Peltola discussed their views on the economy, gun rights and abortion, among other issues, at a forum hosted by the Soldotna and Kenai chambers of commerce.
Conspicuously absent was their most famous opponent.
“I just think it’s great that we’ve got two actual Alaskans up here,” Begich told the audience of a few dozen Kenai Peninsula residents. “I don’t know where this third candidate is. I’d be happy to give her 30 seconds to respond, but she’s not here, so we’re not going to have to worry about that.”
Former Gov. Sarah Palin — who became a household name in 2008 when she ran for vice president — instead held a fundraiser in Minneapolis, according to photos she posted on her Instagram account, which showed her together with known Trump supporter and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell. On Thursday, she appeared in Dallas for a 20-minute onstage interview titled “She’s Back!”
Her Texas appearance was at the Conservative Political Action Conference, which draws notable Republican and conservative politicians, including former President Donald Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
When Palin, 58, was running for vice president in 2008, Peltola was serving in the state House and Begich was running his relatively new software company. Some of Palin’s most famous phrases, like “drill, baby, drill,” have become staples in her campaign.
For Alaskans hoping to hear from her, she has been notably difficult to track down. Palin’s congressional campaign marks her first run for elected office since quitting as governor in 2009, and while she has marched in occasional parades and roused a crowd of more than 5,000 in an Anchorage Trump rally, she has turned down some candidate forums, including one hosted by the Anchorage Republican Women earlier this year. There, hosts left an empty chair for her at the table with the word “no” attached to her name.
Palin’s campaign manager, Kris Perry, said Palin was not available for an interview for this story despite multiple requests this week.
“Sarah Palin is Alaska’s ambassador, and her ability to leverage existing relationships with influential leaders from all over the country is one of the main reasons she is ready to hit the ground running,” Perry said in a written statement. “Sarah was invited to speak at CPAC because she is widely recognized as one of the most influential members of the conservative community — and while she was there, she was able to meet with some of the people she’ll be working with in Congress, including Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Scott Perry.”
Early voting has already begun ahead of the Aug. 16 special election that will determine who will carry out the last four months of U.S. Rep. Don Young’s term after the longtime congressional representative died unexpectedly in March. It is Alaska’s first ranked choice election. The top four vote-getters in the open June primary advanced to a ranked choice general election. Only three candidates are on the Aug. 16 ballot — Palin, Begich and Peltola — after the third-place finisher, independent Al Gross, dropped out of the race.
Begich, 44, is a millionaire businessman and the grandson of Nick Begich Sr., who served as Alaska’s U.S. representative until he disappeared in a plane crash in 1972. He is also the nephew of former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, and current state Sen. Tom Begich. The younger Begich says his biggest challenge in the campaign has been convincing voters that unlike his grandfather and two uncles, he’s not a Democrat.
Peltola, 48, served in the state Legislature for a decade, representing the Bethel area. As a Yup’ik woman, her victory would propel the first Alaska Native to Congress. In the Legislature, she headed the Bush Caucus representing communities off the road system. First elected at age 25, she said she went to the Legislature thinking she would “fight enemies.” But she quickly learned that she would be more effective if she turned the other 59 lawmakers into her best friends. Her friendliness has become a hallmark of her current campaign.
After the forum Wednesday, Peltola declined to criticize Palin for her absence.
“Maybe she needed to take one of her kids to the doctor? You never know why people can’t make an obligation.”
‘Running on her celebrity’
Still, Peltola and Begich recognize that Palin is a formidable opponent. The former governor garnered 27% of the vote in the 48-way special primary in June, and in some more conservative regions of the state, including Kenai and Soldotna, she commanded more than 40% of the vote.
“I can’t help but still see her as the clear front-runner. She’s an international celebrity. How can you not be the front-runner if you’re an international celebrity and a former sitting governor?” Peltola said in an interview after the Kenai forum. “I think Nick must feel like that too, since the negative comments that he makes are really just at Sarah.”
Begich has said he will rank Palin second on his ballot, but he launches regular, if veiled, attacks against her. “You will not see me on the news in a pink bear costume running around saying this is unity, using my position for personal enrichment, or attempting to gratuitously bash every person I don’t agree with,” Begich said in an interview Wednesday, alluding to a 2020 appearance by Palin on a TV show where she performed “Baby Got Back” in a fuzzy bear costume.
Palin is no stranger to running as an outsider. In the 2006 governor’s race, she defeated Republican incumbent Gov. Frank Murkowski in the GOP primary. Her victory came even as she ran on cleaning up corruption — including in her own party. Many establishment Republicans remember her for the moments when she wasn’t afraid to go against them.
While in Juneau earlier this month, Palin posted on Instagram pictures of herself at the front entrance to the governor’s mansion with her Canadian boyfriend Ron Duguay, captioned “My ol’ stomping grounds!” A spokesperson for Gov. Mike Dunleavy said he had not been in Juneau that day and had not met with Palin in the mansion.
After the Kenai forum, local residents lamented Palin’s absence — and some said it would change how they planned to vote.
“She has been a no-show for so much. I was really hoping that she would be here just to express her opinion. Because right now, I’m one of the believers that she is literally running on her celebrity only and has no real clue what the issues are,” said Larry Opperman, a Soldotna resident who plans to support Begich.
Don and Alice Heckert, who live in Kenai, said they planned to rank Begich first, but that forum would likely change who they rank second on their ballot.
“I think it was very good to see Mary Peltola. I didn’t know anything about her,” Alice said. “The third candidate, her not showing up just speaks for itself, because all of a sudden Kenai’s not important. These 47,000 people that live here aren’t important.”
April Hall, a pastor at the Kenai United Methodist Church, said she would vote for Peltola first and Begich second.
“To me, (Palin) doesn’t seem as grounded. We need someone who’s grounded and these two seem to be very grounded,” Hall said. “For her, it’s more of a show.”
In Dallas, Palin’s onstage appearance came two days before the keynote address from former President Trump. Trump and Palin appeared onstage together in Anchorage last month, when the former president traveled to Alaska to campaign for Palin and other Republican candidates. Trump called Palin “legendary.”
“I know your opponents, and I like you way better,” Trump said. One of those opponents — Begich — has said he voted for Trump twice. Begich also contributed $500 to Trump’s reelection campaign in 2020, though he didn’t give him money in 2016, according to records from the Federal Election Commission.
Palin’s stamp of approval from Trump has also translated to a lead in fundraising efforts during the latest reporting period, the last before the August election, according to filings due to the Federal Election Commission on Thursday. Palin raised $146,000 between July 1 and 27. In addition, she received more than $90,000 from the Alaska First Fund — a committee set up in conjunction with Trump’s rally in Alaska on July 9. But a large chunk of her support comes from the Lower 48. Less than half of the donors listed on Palin’s report have an Alaska address, while the majority of Peltola and Begich’s listed supporters are in-state.
Peltola raised the second-largest sum in the period, raking in around $136,000. That’s more than double the $64,000 that Begich raised.
But Begich still has much more in the bank — $655,000 to Peltola’s $124,000 and Palin’s $107,000 — after Begich loaned his campaign $650,000 earlier in the year. The candidates will need those funds not just for the current campaign, but for the next one, which will determine who will hold the seat for the full term that begins in January. The pick-one primary for that regular election will be held on the same day as the special general election, with the regular general election to be held in November.
‘A perfect bad storm’
As Alaska’s first ranked choice election draws closer, Palin has increasingly sowed doubt about the state’s new voting system.
At a candidate forum in Juneau on Monday, she falsely stated that the candidate who came in third could end up winning the race.
“You could be, say, the most popular candidate and you could actually not win the thing,” Palin said in Juneau. “The third-place vote getter on the surface could actually win this thing.”
In Dallas on Thursday, she said Alaska’s election laws have “elements of a perfect bad storm.”
“It doesn’t matter if you win by getting the most votes. Really it matters if you have more second and third place votes,” Palin said. “It’s bizarre, it’s convoluted, it’s complicated, and it results in voter suppression. It results in a lack of enthusiasm for voters to even want to participate, because it’s so weird.”
Palin’s remarks come as the Alaska Republican Party has told its voters to “rank the red,” a message meant to encourage Palin supporters to rank Begich second and vice versa. At the same time, the Alaska GOP sent out a mailer asking voters not to rank Peltola.
“Don’t rank Mary Peltola, leave her blank,” the mailer declared. The other side of the pamphlet read: “Mary Peltola and Joe Biden are two of a kind.” And then listed three things: “trillion dollar spending bills, worst inflation in decades, $5 a gallon gas.”
“I think it’s really just kind of a compliment,” Peltola told her supporters Wednesday. “Who is this lady who has been out of office for 14 years living 75 miles off of the Bering Sea who can pass trillion dollar bills? Let’s get her in office now.”
“The other funny thing about that is I’m really hoping that folks across rural Alaska are like, ‘$5 gas? Yeah!’ ” she added, referencing gas prices in her hometown of Bethel that have reached $7 per gallon.
The pamphlet arrived in voters’ homes just as early voting began this week across the state. After election day on Aug. 16, voting tabulation for the special election could last for more than two weeks, with final results expected to be certified — and the winner sworn into Congress — in early September. All three candidates on the August special election ballot are also running in the regular election for the two-year term that will begin in January.
According to a poll conducted earlier this month by Alaska Survey Research, Peltola — the only Democrat in the race — is expected to get the largest share of first-place votes, while Begich and Palin split the conservative vote. The poll, conducted after Trump stumped for Palin in Alaska, found that Begich and Palin are neck and neck. But the ultimate outcome could be different depending on how Begich and Palin perform. The takeaway from the poll is that any of the three candidates could end up winning the race, according to pollster Ivan Moore.
This all means that what happens in the campaign before Aug. 16 could be critical in determining the outcome of the election.
“The thing about ranked choice voting is that it’s possible for anyone to win with just a small shift,” said Moore. “Each one of them has an opportunity to win the thing and it’s a matter of who closes it out best.”
Anchorage Daily News journalist Marc Lester contributed to this story.