Politics

For Mary Peltola, a sudden shift to national spotlight after winning Alaska’s special U.S. House election

U.S. House, Mary Peltola, elecion day

It was a few months into Hector Jimenez’s new job as a political operative when he answered a call. President Joe Biden was on the other line, said the voice on the phone.

The call was for Jimenez’s boss, Mary Peltola. A little earlier Wednesday, she had been named as the provisional winner of Alaska’s special congressional election, which will make her the first Alaska Native woman to hold her state’s lone seat in the U.S. House. The results were certified on Friday and she’ll be sworn into office later this month.

Peltola, from her campaign strategist’s office in downtown Anchorage, was doing a string of interviews on Wednesday after the results were announced. And Jimenez, the deputy campaign manager, was the middle-man for Peltola’s iPhone as a torrent of messages streamed in — more than 300 in all.

“As soon as we heard, within seconds, there was texts, there was phone calls, and then chaos began. And it really hasn’t stopped,” Jimenez said in an interview Thursday from his own telephone. (Peltola’s iPhone was back with the candidate.)

Jimenez’s experience on Wednesday encapsulated the sudden surge of local and national interest in Peltola, who spent the following day doing television interviews. In the two days after she was declared the winner, she raised $1 million. Her fundraising through July had totaled less than $380,000.

[ADN Politics podcast: How Mary Peltola won Alaska’s special election for U.S. House]

The special election, Alaska’s first decided under ranked choice voting, determined who will serve out the remainder of Republican Rep. Don Young’s term after his death in March. The November election, with Democrat Peltola, Republican Nick Begich III, Republican former Gov. Sarah Palin and Libertarian Chris Bye on the ballot, decides who will serve for the new full two-year term.

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Jimenez, a 37-year-old newcomer to politics who came from Alaska’s oil industry, found himself juggling his normal duties with congratulatory phone calls from some of the nation’s most powerful elected officials. But like the rest of the campaign staff, he was most concerned with keeping things on track for the general election that Peltola is trying to win in November.

“There were TV networks that wanted her to come on at, like, 3 o’clock in the morning, Alaska time,” said John-Henry Heckendorn, Jimenez’s boss at the Anchorage political consulting firm Ship Creek Group, which is working with Peltola. “And Hector’s just sitting there like an offensive lineman protecting the quarterback, just letting all these consultants know that she’s got to get some damn sleep.”

As for the phone messages, most of them went unanswered Wednesday; Jimenez said he wasn’t reading Peltola’s texts.

Calls from family members took precedence. And then, on their own phones, Peltola’s staff started seeing messages alerting them to impending calls from high-profile political figures, like Alaska’s Republican U.S. senators.

“There were a lot of numbers we didn’t know; a lot of them came with no caller ID, which I don’t even know how they did — but that’s a nice trick I need to learn,” Jimenez said.

Lisa Murkowski called, interrupting a conversation with a reporter.

Then, later in the afternoon, the campaign got a heads-up that they might be hearing from Biden. Maybe in 15 minutes, Jimenez was told.

The call finally came in what felt like an hour, Jimenez said, sending him scrambling to get the phone to Peltola.

“I think I walked in a room and just waved Mary down and told her who it was and we, you know, dropped everything so she could speak with President Biden,” Jimenez said. “That’s not a position I ever thought I’d find myself in.”

[Photos: A winner is declared, finally, in Alaska’s special election for U.S. House]

While the presidential call made an impression on Peltola’s staff, the candidate’s priorities were elsewhere, said Heckendorn, the campaign consultant.

“Someone said something like, ‘Man, that’s so cool that you got to the president,’” Heckendorn said. Peltola responded that she really was hoping to talk to her 14-year-old, Heckendorn said.

“She was like, ‘Yeah, the president, that was cool. But I just want to hear from that last kid,’” Heckendorn said. “The way she said it just summed up the night for me.”

House candidates, Mary Peltola, ranked choice voting

In the 48 hours following the victory, Peltola prioritized addressing some of the basic tasks of setting up a congressional office. Campaign manager Anton McParland, who moved to Alaska to join Peltola’s team last month, said they were on the verge of choosing a chief of staff and legislative director — key roles for a new congressional office.

McParland joined the campaign just two weeks before the Aug. 16 election that made Peltola Alaska’s congresswoman-elect.

“The campaign had kind of been run on a shoestring prior to early August,” Heckendorn said. The Ship Creek Group consulting firm, which typically focuses on legislative and local races, had been trying to hire a full-time campaign team for Peltola since June, but had struggled to find someone with the necessary experience.

Now, with long call lists and the need to select staffers from a pool of willing candidates, the problem is reversed. “Suffice to say the campaign has a lot more friends than it did in May,” Heckendorn said.

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McParland, still new to Alaska, is now fielding calls and meetings as he tries to keep the campaign on the same policy-driven track that he said contributed to its success so far.

“More than anything else, we’ve been just trying to maintain the same tenor of the campaign. All of the people that were ignoring us before, we’re just kind of ignoring them presently,” McParland said.

Peltola is already gunning for the Natural Resources Committee, once chaired by Young, the U.S. House member she will replace who was a family friend before his March death. As for legislation, McParland said Peltola is having discussions with future colleagues about reauthorizing the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, last reauthorized in 2006.

“The press in the Lower 48 just can’t get over her ‘pro-fish’ thing,’” said McParland, referring to a hallmark of Peltola’s campaign. He is now working to make “I’m made of salmon” campaign gear. It’s not just a slogan for Peltola, who grew up commercial fishing and before launching her campaign worked as the director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, focusing on protecting subsistence fishing and food security.

[Candidate Q&As: Compare the candidates in Alaska’s U.S. House election]

Congressional candidate forum, Kenai, Mary Peltola, Nick Begich

In an April interview, Peltola cited the Magnuson Stevens Act as a priority. When it had last been reauthorized, “we had a different paradigm,” she said. “That was before the Yukon Kuskokwim and Norton Sound really have seen the dramatic decline of salmon returns.”

This is not a new effort for her — she had testified about the reauthorization of the act in a congressional hearing with Young in November 2021, when Young mused about Peltola’s mother campaigning for him in 1973, while she was pregnant. Peltola was born six months after Young was first elected.

Mary Peltola, Nick Begich, Nick Begich III, Sarah Palin, candidate, candidates, politician, politics

Meanwhile, Palin, after election results became clear, called on Begich to drop out of the race to boost her own chances of defeating Peltola in November, saying his “ego-driven insistence on staying in Alaska’s congressional race … cost Republicans a seat in Congress.” In the same statement she said “Negative Nick,” as she calls her opponent, “played his role perfectly by dividing Republicans with his dirty campaigning.”

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But Begich has shown no sign of dropping out of the race, nor backing down from his campaigning tactics. Instead, he pointed out that unlike Palin, who admitted she did not rank a second-choice vote in the special election, Begich had said he would rank Palin second even as he attacked her record. Rather than responding to Palin’s demand he concede, Begich painted the November race as one between him and Peltola. Candidates have until Monday to drop out and have their name removed from the November ballot.

As Begich and Palin trade barbs, Palin and Peltola have engaged in an arms race of niceness. Palin shared in a social media post a text message she had sent to the Democratic congresswoman-elect, calling her a “real Alaskan chick” and “beautiful & smart & tough.” In a separate social media post, Peltola posed the question on everyone’s mind: “Now that the special election is over, are you going to start attacking each other?” That post was accompanied by a picture of both women holding “no” signs (in response to a different question asked at a candidate forum).

For Peltola, it is part of a broader approach to coalition-building politics even as some Republicans, including her opponents in the race, try to portray her as an enabler of an extreme-left agenda. “If you are an American, you are not my enemy,” she said in a prime-time MSNBC interview. When asked about gun control measures in a “PBS News Hour” interview, she said she is concerned about the “epidemic” of gun violence but also mentioned that she has 176 long guns in her home — her husband is a gun collector — and that she is an “avid” hunter.

As Peltola becomes the focus of national attention, with prime-time media interviews and campaign donations streaming in, some in Alaska wonder if her campaign and style will change.

“You can be guaranteed that the big D.C. consultants will muscle their way in, at the behest of the DCCC (Democratic Central Campaign Committee), and they will conspire to screw it up somehow. Trust me on that,” Alaska pollster and consultant Ivan Moore wrote on Twitter on Friday.

According to McParland, that’s not the case. He said Friday that Peltola had been offered the opportunity to speak at a national Democratic Party meeting. But her campaign turned it down.

“Right now, we just felt like that was a bit superfluous. We’re focusing on getting the office up and running to get constituent services going,” he said. “To be totally blunt, there’s a lot of money sitting in that room, but we just feel like we don’t want to be that campaign that is running locally, running on a certain set of values and pivots immediately because national attention shines our way.”

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More coverage:

[For two candidates, Alaska’s U.S. House race is an opportunity to make history]

[A ‘good day to be Yup’ik’: Alaska Natives celebrate Peltola’s win in U.S. House special election]

[Watch: U.S. House candidate forum hosted by the Alaska Oil and Gas Association]

[Video: What Mary Peltola had to say after results showed she won Alaska’s U.S. House election]

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Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is an Anchorage-based journalist and a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at ADN and Alaska Public Media, and has written for FasterSkier.com, The Washington Post and others. Read his newsletter, Northern Journal, at natherz.substack.com

Iris Samuels

Iris Samuels is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News focusing on state politics. She previously covered Montana for The Associated Press and wrote for the Kodiak Daily Mirror. Contact her at isamuels@adn.com.

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