In Alaska’s U.S. House race, the two Republican candidates are urging their supporters to “rank the red” even as they continue to attack each other, in an effort to unseat newly elected Democrat U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola.
At an Anchorage event hosted by a political action committee on Sunday, former Gov. Sarah Palin railed against her opponent, Nick Begich III, and the new ranked choice voting system. After a forum hosted by the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce on Monday, Begich returned fire against Palin. But both said that their supporters should rank the other Republican in the race to ensure Peltola doesn’t hold the seat for a full term.
Under Alaska’s new voting system, Begich and Palin — who spent weeks attacking each other in ads and at in-person events — split the Republican share of the vote in an August special election, allowing Peltola to come away with the victory to replace Republican U.S. Rep. Don Young. Now, all three candidates — along with Libertarian Chris Bye — are running for the full two-year House term that begins in January.
Peltola, the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress, has campaigned on a message of bipartisanship and carrying on the legacy of her Republican predecessor. Meanwhile, the criticism Begich and Palin have toward one another has continued largely unabated, even as political observers have noted that the biggest beneficiary of their criticism is Peltola.
‘The cards that we have been dealt’
Since announcing her U.S. House bid in April, Palin has held a limited number of campaign events in Alaska. Aside from an appearance at an Anchorage rally with former President Donald Trump that drew thousands, Palin’s campaign strategy has appeared to include primarily appearances on national right-wing media outlets and social media posts.
But last week she announced she would attend a rally organized by a newly formed political action committee, Patriot Freedom PAC, led and funded by Trump allies who said they intended to spend $400,000 in Alaska in support of Palin and Trump-endorsed U.S. Senate candidate Kelly Tshibaka.
Palin, whose official campaign is barred from coordinating with super PACs, hosted a fundraiser at the Dena’ina Center prior to taking the rally stage for around 15 minutes in front of a crowd of less than 100 that gathered Sunday afternoon in a room that can hold thousands.
The event included appearances by singer Tony Wilson, a Chicago performer who goes by the stage name “Young James Brown,” and David Clarke, a Trump surrogate and former sheriff from Wisconsin. There was also a mechanical bull and bounce house that didn’t appear to get any use.
At the event, Palin stuck to a familiar message. She derided Alaska’s new ranked choice voting system, a prominent part of her campaign since Trump attacked the new voting rules at his Anchorage rally. On Sunday, Palin called ranked choice voting “convoluted and complicated” and “no good for Alaska.”
Before the August special election, Palin told voters that she only ranked herself. Her message, she said, was “don’t comply.” But since her loss in the special election, Palin has adapted her message to her supporters to include that while she continues to view ranked choice voting negatively, she must operate with “the cards that we have been dealt.”
“In principle, I was so opposed to this screwy system that was put in place for nefarious reasons, but until things are changed legally when it comes to how we elect our officials now in Alaska, we have to rank the red. Because Alaska cannot afford to have that Democrat in office,” Palin told the crowd at the Dena’ina Center.
Still, when asked about her Republican opponent Begich — the same candidate she was telling her voters to rank second on their ballots — she criticized him for campaigning negatively against her. “I’ve taken the high road from day one,” Palin said. But Begich, she added, “drew first blood.”
In a series of campaign ads released before the special election, Begich accused Palin of being a “quitter” and a “self-absorbed celebrity.”
Palin’s U.S. House race is her first run for elected office since stepping down from the governor’s office partway through her first term in 2009 after her unsuccessful vice presidential bid put her in the national spotlight. Begich, a businessman who has never held statewide elected office, has earned millions from a business that offshores information technology jobs to other countries.
“Nick Begich, my fellow Republican, has planted a seed in people’s minds that I don’t live here,” Palin said on Sunday. Palin says she has “traveled the world promoting Alaska.”
‘We’ve asked them not to run negative ads’
Jerry Ward, a former state lawmaker who ran Trump’s Alaska campaigns and is now involved in Palin’s campaign, said Sunday that he recently met with Begich’s campaign manager, Truman Reed, and Truman’s father Ashley Reed, a registered state lobbyist, to ask them to stop running negative ads attacking Palin.
“I had Ashley Reed and his son Truman sitting in the campaign headquarters and we had a discussion,” Ward said. “We’ve asked them not to run negative ads against a fellow Republican.”
Ward said that Begich’s campaign manager “said that they will consider doing that.”
Asked Monday about the meeting, Truman initially denied it had occurred, saying he had only ever communicated with Ward “in passing.”
“I don’t know what Jerry Ward’s talking about,” Truman said, but moments later he corrected himself, acknowledged that he and Ashley Reed had met Ward while they were at Judy’s Cafe, an Anchorage establishment that shares a parking lot with Palin’s campaign headquarters, located in a building owned by Ward. According to Truman, Ward then invited Truman and Ashley to Palin’s campaign headquarters “but it was very casual.”
Ashley Reed, a longtime influential Alaska lobbyist, is earning more than $191,000 this year to lobby for several companies including in the oil and gas sector, according to state disclosures. He has made frequent appearances at Begich fundraisers but has not publicly been involved with Begich’s campaign. Truman said his father “doesn’t have any official role” in Begich’s campaign, but that “he helps out whenever he can, as any dad would.”
Ashley Reed has in the past participated in fundraising for state candidates while working as a Juneau lobbyist, which is not allowed under state law.
Asked about the request from Palin’s campaign to tone down the negative ads, Begich said Monday he had not been in touch with Ward.
“I’m sure other campaigns would like folks to stop talking about records and start talking about something else, but that’s part of the campaign process,” Begich said.
‘Part of campaigning’
After a candidate forum on Monday, Begich responded to criticism from Palin’s campaign regarding his negative campaigning, saying it was about sharing his opponent’s record.
“We’re going to talk about records,” Begich said. “That’s part of campaigning.”
Palin was absent from the candidate forum hosted by the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce on Monday. Her campaign manager Kris Perry did not provide an explanation for Palin’s absence when asked. Peltola, who was in Sitka for a celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, participated in the forum by Zoom.
Begich, who came in third in the special election, says he is still in position to emerge victorious from the U.S. House race by convincing some Palin voters to switch and by appealing to voters who did not vote in the special election but intend to vote in the regularly scheduled November election. Results of the special election indicated that in a head-to-head race, Begich would have beaten Peltola where Palin had lost.
“For most people that I speak with, they’re looking for someone who’s serious about the state of Alaska. Not somebody who’s going to bring a James Brown impersonator from Chicago and do backflips on stage. People who are actually going to work hard to solve the problems of Alaskans,” Begich said.
“We have to stop thinking about politics like political entertainment. This is one of the big problems that we’ve experienced as a nation for the last decade, that politics have become entertainment. That degrades our opportunity to govern properly, to represent our people properly. It takes the arguments that are cogent and throws them out the window for dancers and singers and entertainers. That’s not going to fix the problems that we have as a country.”
‘A deep red state’
When it comes to the Democrat in the race, Palin and Begich have both taken the strategy of tying her to some of the Democratic Party’s national messages, even as Peltola herself has campaigned on a message of bipartisanship.
“Mary Peltola — I love her. She’s adorable. She’s wonderful. We’re friends,” Palin said on Sunday. “I really love her. But Alaska cannot afford to have the Democrat in office. We’re a deep red state.”
In a series of videos posted recently on social media, Begich attached Peltola’s name to national Democratic leaders and to the Inflation Reduction Act, a bill that passed Congress before Peltola was elected but one she said she would have supported.
“It seems like everything is going in the wrong direction. This is what happens when you put Democrats in charge,” Begich said in one of the videos. “Unfortunately for Alaska, we’ve got a Democrat representing us in the House. That’s got to stop, that’s got to change.”
In a pre-recorded video message by Palin shared at the Monday forum, she railed against the federal government and what she called a “leftist agenda.”
“The feds want to make Alaska one big old national park and that’s about it. They don’t care about our economy,” Palin said. “Any of the things that we need as a civilized society in Alaska — they don’t care about that. Their interests in Alaska are the antithesis of what ours are.”
Later in the forum, Peltola appeared to respond directly to Palin’s message.
“I’m not one to beat up on the federal government. It seems like Alaska’s favorite sport. I’m not sure why people run for a federal seat if they just want to make it sound like the federal government is out to get us,” Peltola said.