With voting complete in Alaska’s special U.S. House race on Tuesday — the state’s first ranked choice election — Democrat Mary Peltola was leading Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich III in early returns with the most first-place votes, but the winner won’t be known until the last ballots are counted later this month.
As of Wednesday afternoon., the Alaska Division of Elections had counted over 157,000 ballots in the race that will determine Alaska’s next representative in Congress, in a special election to replace 49-year Rep. Don Young, who died unexpectedly in March. The Division will continue to accept ballots until Aug. 31, as long as they were postmarked on or before election day. Once the last ballots are counted — if no candidate crosses the 50% threshold needed to win under the state’s new ranked choice voting system — the candidate in last place will be eliminated and the second-place votes of that candidate’s supporters will be redistributed.
All three candidates running in the special election are also running in the general election to fill the next U.S. House term that will begin in January. All three are expected to advance to the November general election ballot.
Peltola, a Yup’ik former state lawmaker from Bethel and the only Democrat in the race, took an early lead in the special election with nearly 38% of first-place votes.
Palin, propelled by her name recognition, was in second place with almost 31.9% of first-place votes. Begich, a businessman making his first run at statewide elected office, was in third place with 28.5%.
The day after voting ended, political pundits said that all candidates still had possible paths to victory under the new ranked choice voting system, though Begich’s chances of closing the gap needed to win were increasingly slim.
With 395 of 402 precincts reporting and additional mail-in ballots yet to be counted, the voter turnout was over 26%.
With votes left to count, around 1.5% of voters gave their support to write-in candidates, which included moderate Republican Tara Sweeney, an Iñupiaq whose six-figure campaign has drawn support from Alaska Native corporations. Because write-in candidates didn’t get significant support, their second-place votes will be distributed among the remaining candidates once the Division of Elections begins tabulating the vote after the last ballots are counted.
Results of the special U.S. House race are not expected to be certified until Sept. 2. Once results are certified, the race winner will be sworn into office to serve out the last four months of Young’s term. But at the same time, the new U.S. representative will likely be campaigning ahead of the November election.
In the pick-one primary that will determine which candidates appear on the November ballot, the top vote getters so far were Peltola with 35.2%, Palin with about 31.1% of the vote, Begich with 26.8% and Sweeney with 3.7%. They emerged as the clear leaders from a field of 22 candidates.
With two weeks to go until ballot counting is complete, the final result will be determined by the number of voters who ranked more than one candidate in the state’s first ranked choice vote.
If Begich remains in last place, have enough of Begich’s supported ranked Palin second on their ballot to put her ahead of Peltola?
“That’s the million dollar question,” said political consultant Jim Lottsfeldt. “And I don’t think we get to know that for a while.”
Palin posted Wednesday on her Instagram account a video parsing election results along with campaign manager Kris Perry. “Results too early to call” she wrote.
One factor that may have impacted the answer to that question is the negative campaigning tactics that emerged between Palin and Begich.
Palin has a devoted following but is also resented by many longtime Alaskans who recall her decision to resign the governorship and become a reality television star. Begich is running with the support of the Alaska Republican Party establishment, but is battling an association with his Democratic uncle, former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich.
While proponents of ranked choice voting say it reduces negative campaigning — with candidates vying for their opponents’ second-place votes — this race defied that expectation. Palin and Begich spent the final weeks of the campaign lobbing increasingly negative attacks at each other. Palin called Begich “Negative Nick” in a recent attack ad; Begich spent the final evening before election day at a Wasilla fundraiser hosted by the father and stepmother of Palin’s ex-husband. On the morning of election day, Palin waved a campaign sign by a Wasilla intersection next to a Begich supporter holding a large “Where’s Palin” poster — a play on Palin’s decision to travel to the Lower 48 less than two weeks before the election.
“Had the other opponent run a positive and honest campaign and his rhetoric would not have been so deceptive, I think I and so many others would have a different view of the way things may potentially be unfolding tonight with vote counts,” Palin said while waving campaign signs in Wasilla on election day.
Begich defended his attacks on Palin as a “classic part of campaigning.”
“You inform the public about yourself, your policies, your background, and you inform the public about your opponents’ selves and policies and backgrounds,” Begich said the evening before the election. Still, Begich has repeated the Alaska Republican Party’s message: “Rank the red.” He said Tuesday that he ranked Palin second and wrote in a candidate for his third choice: “Donald Duck Jr.”
Palin said she did not rank any candidates other than herself.
“I do not believe in this system. It should not be embraced by enthusiastic participation when we know it’s not right,” she said. While she continued to attack ranked choice voting, she said she would accept the results even if they aren’t in her favor.
“I’m not going to be a stinker about this. I respect the will of the people. I will certainly ask a lot of questions on behalf of Alaskans who are concerned, but I don’t have any intention of muddying the waters and crying foul if there is not obvious proof that anything was afoul,” she said. “I’m not going to just accuse anybody of nefarious actions.”
Meanwhile, Peltola has spoken positively about the impacts of the state’s new election laws that put ahead in early vote counts. Tuesday, she said it has made “all of the candidates a little bit more civil.” While Palin and Begich have attacked each other, Peltola said she thought that “it could have been worse” without ranked choice voting.
Matt Shuckerow, a political consultant who has previously worked for Young, said Tuesday night the results put Palin “in the driver’s seat.” If she remains in second position, he said she will likely get a sufficient number of Begich voters’ second-place votes to propel her ahead of Peltola.
“You can dislike a system and still run a race under its purview,” Shuckerow said.
Looking to November
At a party with supporters Tuesday night, Peltola became emotional as she hugged Joni Nelson, the oldest daughter of Alaska’s late congressman. “That was the best person I could have seen last night,” Peltola said in a phone call on Wednesday from Oregon, where she was visiting her family.
Across town, Begich embraced his father, Nick Begich II, and his son, Nick Begich IV, at his campaign headquarters before results rolled in. Once first returns came in putting him in third place, Begich said he remains “really optimistic” about his November run.
Shuckerow said the November election results could be different from the special election results. Turnout is typically significantly higher in November compared to the August primary, which can change both campaign strategies and the makeup of the voters.
“There’s still a lot of election left here,” Shuckerow said. “Campaigns will be looking at the info that comes out of this race.”
John-Henry Heckendorn, a political consultant who runs Ship Creek Group, which has advised Peltola’s campaign, said the results are particularly encouraging for the Democrat’s campaign. Rural Alaskans and progressives — two groups that are likely to favor Peltola — have higher turnout in the November election. And Peltola has had less money to spend on getting her name out there, meaning that there are still many voters who aren’t familiar with her, he said.
While some of the candidates attacked the system and each other, many voters said Tuesday that despite lingering concerns about the impacts of the new voting system, they found the ranked ballot to be intuitive. “Ultimately, it didn’t feel that different,” said Michele Wesson, an Anchorage voter.
Mike Coons, a Begich supporter who attended the Wasilla fundraiser, said he voted early, ranking Begich first — and Palin third. Wearing a Trump hat, Coons said he thought former President Donald Trump’s endorsement of Palin was “a mistake,” citing Palin’s decision to quit as governor in 2009, among other considerations. At the time, she promised she could do more to promote Alaska outside of elected office.
“Did she promote Alaska? No. She promoted herself,” Coons said.
If enough voters vote as Coons did or forego ranking more than one candidate, that could put Peltola ahead.
Palin’s supporters cited her fame as a benefit the state and questioned Begich’s conservative policy positions given his support of his uncle Mark Begich when he ran for U.S. Senate in 2008 and 2014.
“She’ll be very name recognizable, she won’t be a new person there. She’ll have some clout from the very beginning,” said Julie Brophy, who was waving signs for Palin in Anchorage on election day. “The history of Nick’s family — I think it’s maybe questionable on where he’ll stand in the long run.”
A special election
Palin during her run relied heavily on her name recognition, a Trump endorsement and a campaign strategy that included questioning Alaska’s election system and ranked choice voting. She appeared onstage with Trump at an Anchorage rally in July when Trump praised her for endorsing him ahead of his 2016 presidential run. Then Palin appeared at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Texas earlier this month. She hasn’t publicized any in-person campaign events in the state since then.
Begich launched his campaign in October 2021 — the only candidate remaining in the special election field who was in the running for the U.S. House before Young’s death. He has said his greatest challenge has been distancing himself from Alaska’s other Begich political figures, all Democrats. Those include his grandfather, Nick Begich the first, who served in the U.S. House until he disappeared in a plane crash in 1972. They also include his uncles, Mark Begich and state Sen. Tom Begich. Mark Begich supported Peltola’s congressional campaign.
Peltola worked on fishery and food security policy in rural Alaska before announcing her congressional run; her campaign ads tout her as the only candidate in the race who is not a millionaire. She is also the only candidate on the special election ballot who supports abortion access, an issue in the forefront for some voters with a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision removing federal protections for abortion access (the procedure remains protected under the Alaska state constitution).
With Begich and Palin directing offensives at each other, Peltola emerged with a largely positive campaign, and a reputation for being nice. On election day, Palin called her “wonderful, honest, friendly, kind, conscientious” and reminisced about the days when they were pregnant at the same time while in office — Palin as governor and Peltola as a state House member. The two exchanged text messages the morning of election day. Peltola said Palin warned her about the cold weather and advised her to dress warmly.
It was an election that was special from the very beginning — 48 candidates filed to replace Young in Alaska’s first U.S. House race without an incumbent in five decades, including a progressive Santa Claus from North Pole and multiple sitting and former state legislators. Palin emerged on top with more than a quarter of the votes in the crowded primary field, in her first run for office since running for U.S. vice president in 2008. Begich came in second in that primary race. Peltola was fourth; the third place candidate, independent Al Gross, dropped out after the special primary election.
With another race coming up in November, the leading candidates have indicated they plan to continue honing their campaigns even as they await results from Tuesday’s special election.
“We’re not going to stop. Everything continues,” Begich said Monday night.
“I won’t underestimate the will of the people if I’m not hired to work for Alaska with this vote count. Certainly I will keep that in mind,” Palin said Tuesday afternoon. “But the commitment has been made that we will continue offering ourselves up in the name of public service to Alaska.”
Marc Lester and Nat Herz contributed to this story.