After months of campaigning, a special election and two weeks of waiting for results, Alaskans will finally learn on Wednesday who will take over the state’s sole seat in the House of Representatives. What happens then?
It’s exceedingly uncommon for a U.S. House member to be sworn in so close to the end of a congressional term. The special election was triggered by Republican U.S. Rep. Don Young’s death in March, with an election timeline set by the Alaska Division of Elections.
Whoever ends up winning Alaska’s seat — open for the first time in five decades — will have a lot to accomplish, but due to the congressional calendar, the member-elect will have less than eight weeks to do it, experts say. In a matter of days, the winner will be expected to hire staff, set an agenda and join committees, all while running a campaign for the regular U.S. House term, with the November election less than three months away.
“When you’re coming in the middle of a session, it’s literally like parachuting onto a roller coaster halfway through the ride,” said Bradford Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit that helps new members prepare for life on Capitol Hill.
Forty-eight candidates filed to run in the primary after Young died. Ultimately, Democrat Mary Peltola and Republicang Sarah Palin and Nick Begich III ended up on the special election ballot on Aug. 16, the state’s first ranked choice election. As of Friday night, Peltola leads in first place votes with 39.6% of votes counted as of Friday. Palin has 30.9% and Begich trails with 27.8%. In all likelihood, Begich will come in third and be eliminated. The winner will be determined by the number of Begich supporters who ranked Palin second — enough of them could put Palin ahead of Peltola in the final count. Political observers say either could win, and the final outcome will only be known on Wednesday, when election officials will tally those second-place votes.
No matter who wins, the member-elect should expect a call from the Committee on House Administration, the House organization that handles new member orientation.
Under typical circumstances, freshman representatives elected in November have about 60 days to get acclimated before swearing in. In the interim, they complete a two-week-long orientation run by the Committee on House Administration. The onboarding process includes explanations of Congress-specific laws like disclosing stock and effectively managing a staff.
But these are not typical circumstances. In Peltola or Palin’s case, they will have about a week between the certification of election results, expected Sept. 2, and their swearing-in ceremony, which the Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, will schedule after a winner is announced.
“And then they start voting and start activities and start working,” Fitch said. “So there’s a challenge, frankly, you know, right away.”
Mere months to ‘plant the flag’
While four months remain in Young’s term, the winner of the special election will have less than eight weeks of actual legislating before the beginning of the next term.
The U.S. House returns from recess mid-September for three weeks of work before going into recess again until after the November election. They will then return for four weeks before the end of the year, in what is referred to as the “lame duck” session.
But even with little time for legislative accomplishments, political insiders say the winner of the special election, who will still be running for the general election, will likely want to flex their legislative muscle by voting on and introducing new bills.
“They have a few months in which they can certainly plant the flag and demonstrate to their constituents, this is what I believe, and this is the type of legislation I’d be introducing,” Fitch said. “This is the type of constituent service operation I’d be setting up.”
Constituent services will give Palin or Peltola’s team the opportunity to work directly with Alaskans. Congressional offices often help constituents navigate federal agencies by securing passports and collecting Social Security and Veterans Affairs benefits. They also provide tours of the Capitol and take constituent calls.
“I think that’s going to be one of the most important things, just having that office already start troubleshooting for Alaskans who are having difficulty with federal agencies,” Young’s former chief of staff Alex Ortiz said. “That work has an immediate impact on people’s lives.”
The policy priorities coming from the member-elect are going to be vastly different, depending on who gets elected. Palin has run a Trump-backed America First campaign pushing for oil and gas development and criticizing President Joe Biden. Peltola has prioritized protecting abortion access and fisheries — a topic she worked on in her most recent job on a fish commission in rural Alaska.
Tom Van Flein, chief of staff to Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, was once a member of Palin’s inner circle. He said he has not been in touch with Palin about her campaign and he “can’t say we’re having coffee or anything like that on a regular basis.” Yet he said he “respects” Palin and speculated that she could seek mentorship from Freedom Caucus members Lauren Boebert, of Colorado, and Marjorie Taylor Greene, of Georgia, both Republicans.
“The Freedom Caucus members would be the most natural mentors to her,” Van Flein said.
Palin campaign manager Kris Perry did not respond to a request for comment for the story.
Asked earlier this month who she would call if elected, Peltola said she hadn’t given it thought.
“I don’t want to jinx this. I’m not counting my chickens before they hatch,” Peltola said. “I’m not thinking about office space, or staff, or first steps in Congress.”
Possible staffing challenges
Once the winner is announced, first tasks would include preparing to hire staff, finding housing and meetings with party leadership.
“There are a lot of moving parts, and it’s going to take strong leadership to make sure that all that stuff can be done in a short amount of time,” said Matt Shuckerow, a political consultant who previously worked for Young and for Republican U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan of Alaska.
In the House, members are allowed to hire 18 full-time and four part-time employees, but the special election winner won’t need a complete staff to start out. Out of the gate, the winner will likely need a scheduler to organize their official affairs, a chief of staff to run the office’s daily activities, a state director to build operations in Alaska, and a legislative director to manage policy priorities.
When setting up an office, Fitch recommends that new members balance hires who have an intimate knowledge of the district with individuals who have experience working in D.C., and people who know the new member personally.
Often, new members draw from the staff of the member they are replacing.
“Alaska still does have a strong network of people — people who have worked for the delegation, with the delegation, that do have an understanding of our nuances and our very particular issues,” Shuckerow said. “There’s still a large Don Young network of folks, a (former U.S. Sen.) Ted Stevens network of folks, people who have worked on Capitol Hill for the Alaska congressional delegation that are still actively there.”
However, many of Young’s former staffers have moved to different roles — some to the private sector and others to different offices on Capitol Hill. Ortiz said whoever wins the special election could face unique hiring challenges.
“Since the term will be so short, there may be a hesitancy on the part of some potential staffers to apply for jobs in an office that has that short term,” he said. “And just generally speaking, it’s always hard to get Alaskans to move to D.C.”
House leadership will assist Palin or Peltola with hiring and the winner will likely lean on other members of Congress for advice, including Murkowski and Sullivan. Congressional caucuses could also be a place to turn for help, according to Van Flein, Palin’s former attorney.
Palin has already mentioned she would be interested in joining the Freedom Caucus, the most right-leaning bloc in the House. Van Flein said he expects the Freedom Caucus to offer Palin advice as she sets up her office, if elected.
“There are a lot of options for a new member and many of which didn’t even really exist 10 years ago,” Van Flein said. “Especially the Freedom Caucus that can quickly help her achieve her legislative goals.”
As a Democrat replacing a long-term Republican, Peltola could face an uphill battle staffing her office, according to Fitch.
“So if it is a Democrat member-elect, she’ll have to build a staff from scratch,” Fitch said.
Jockeying for committees
The member-elect isn’t guaranteed to inherit Young’s seats on the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and the Committee on Natural Resources. Instead, they will have to jockey for the committee assignments they want, with few to choose from.
Usually, when freshman representatives come to Washington, dozens of committee seats are open by members who lost their election. The newly elected members meet with House leadership and their party’s steering committee to convey their committee preferences.
Palin or Peltola will follow the same process. However, fewer committee positions are open. A few roles are vacant from representatives who have resigned or died.
Whether Palin or Peltola wins the special election, if the incumbent wins reelection in November, she would have seniority — however brief — over the rest of the House freshman class, giving them a leg up during the next session’s committee assignments. That seniority would also apply to office selection.