Democrat U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola was leading in first-choice votes in preliminary returns from Tuesday’s election, with over 217,000 ballots counted and thousands of absentee votes still left to be tallied.
Peltola had 47% of first-choice votes with all precincts reporting. Under Alaska’s new ranked choice voting system, results aren’t final until a candidate has garnered more than 50% of votes. If the leading candidate doesn’t cross that threshold, the winner will be determined by second- and third-choice votes, which will be tallied by election officials on Nov. 23.
Republican former Gov. Sarah Palin led fellow Republican Nick Begich III in early vote counts. Palin was in second place with nearly 27% of first-choice votes to Begich’s 24%. Libertarian Chris Bye trailed with less than 2% of first-choice votes and stands to be the first candidate eliminated in the ranked choice tabulation.
At a celebration at 49th State Brewing Co. in Anchorage, Peltola supporters chanted her name as she greeted them after initial results were released Tuesday night. “I think this transcends politics,” Peltola told the crowd, thanking her campaign staff for their effort to mobilize voters across the state. “Every batch of votes that comes in — I’m going to be celebrating.”
Peltola’s lead comes less than three months after she pulls off what was seen as an upset victory in a special election to replace Rep. Don Young, the Republican who held Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat for nearly five decades until his March death.
“I think people are excited to have somebody in electoral politics that isn’t interested in tearing anybody down. I think that’s been an exciting message,” Peltola said Tuesday. “These kinds of messages have really resonated with Alaskans and Americans.”
At a separate event at the Marriott in downtown Anchorage, Begich said he expected absentee votes would break in his favor and said he is “optimistic” about remaining results. Palin said earlier in the day that she would be deciphering results at her home in Wasilla.
Palin took to Instagram on Wednesday to react to the outcome, writing “it’s not over until the fat lady sings!”
She then criticized the Alaska Republican Party, which backed Begich. “The GOP establishment deserves losses until it’s willing to FIGHT for what is right. They opposed me every step of the way in my Congressional bid, which is par for the course,” she wrote.
Palin later said on Twitter that she had appointed Jerry Ward, a former state legislator who ran Donald Trump’s presidential campaigns in Alaska, as her acting chief of staff “in anticipation of an announcement of victory.”
In a phone interview, Ward clarified that the appointment hinged on the outcome of the race.
“If she doesn’t win, all this goes away,” Ward said.
In the three-way special election held in August, Peltola garnered 40% of first-choice votes, Palin got 31% and Begich got 28.5%. After ranked choice votes were tabulated, Peltola won with 51.5% of votes to Palin’s 48.5%.
In the special election, around 30% of Begich’s supporters ranked Peltola, the Democrat, second. It’s an outcome Begich has taken steps to avoid repeating, including running ads attacking Peltola as an ally of national Democratic leadership figures.
After winning the August special election, Peltola got a significant boost campaign contributions that translated to widespread name recognition. It also put a target on her back. Peltola went from having the least money of the three candidates to having a multimillion-dollar lead over her opponents in fundraising.
The first Alaska Native elected to Congress, Peltola earned support from across the political spectrum, including from Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and former Young staffers. On the left, Peltola had the backing of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Before Peltola’s special election victory, she had been a former state legislator living in Bethel and working on a tribal fish commission in relative obscurity. Now, her “pro-fish” has drawn national attention.
“Growing up in a village, you don’t really expect much privacy. Most people know what you’re doing and where you’re going and what you’re thinking and what you’re up to. So, in some ways, this is not a lot different than growing up in a village or a small town,” Peltola said Tuesday.
Both Palin and Begich emphasized in the final weeks of their campaign the “rank the red” message meant to encourage their supporters to rank both Republicans on the ballot in an effort to overtake Peltola. But Begich’s family connection to Democrats — his uncle is Democratic former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich — stopped some of Palin’s supporters from ranking him second, despite an endorsement from the Alaska Republican Party.
Palin’s celebrity antics and unorthodox campaign strategy — which included leaving the state in the final days of the campaign — kept some of Begich’s supporters from ranking Palin second, despite her endorsements from former President Donald Trump and many of his allies on the national stage.
Tuesday afternoon, Palin joined other Trump-endorsed Republicans already casting doubt on the validity of election results nationwide.
“Collectively, residents and states are having questions about how the vote counting is done,” Palin said.
But the former governor said she has “all the faith in the world” in the “good bureaucrats” of the Alaska Division of Elections.
“I don’t want to make it an issue,” Palin said on the integrity of her own election. “Personally, you know, winning solves everything.”
Ahead of the August special election, Palin was adamant about her opposition to Alaska’s new ranked choice voting system. She admitted that she had not ranked the other Republican on the ballot and had encouraged her supporters to do the same. This time around, Palin said she ranked Begich second, as she had been telling her supporters to do in recent weeks.
“It goes against what I had kind of preached and touted the first go-around,” Palin said. On Wednesday, Palin called ranked choice voting “un-American” and made the unsupported claim that it was a “fiasco” that “purposefully confused voters through controlled liberal media, in order to split the GOP vote.” Election officials did not report widespread confusion at polling places on Tuesday.
Palin said that no matter the results of the election — which won’t be final for two weeks — she has already begun speaking with members of Congress and is planning a trip to Washington, D.C.
“Regardless, I am going to go to D.C. in the next couple of days and I will speak with them about — even if I don’t win — what can I do to help ensure that Americans can trust what’s going on in government. That’s my mission.”
“Even if I lose, I’m not going to be out of it,” Palin said.
The ADN’s Zachariah Hughes contributed to this report.