Alaska vote tests Trump’s influence, Palin’s bid and a new election system

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ANCHORAGE — Sarah Palin’s bid to join the US House, Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s effort to keep her Senate seat and Donald Trump’s influence on both of their races will be tested Tuesday in two simultaneous elections in Alaska — with select casting ballots under unusual new conditions.

On one side of the ballot, Alaskans will vote in a three-way special general election to fill the remainder of the House term left open by Republican Don Young, who was the chamber’s longest-serving member until his sudden death in March. The 45th president has endorsed Palin, a former governor and vice presidential nominee, over fellow Republican Nick Begich III and Democrat Mary Peltola. The election will be Alaska’s first using a ranked-choice system that voters passed in 2020.

Definitive results will probably not be determined for at least two weeks. State elections officials say they won’t start counting second choices and redistributing votes until the deadline for absentee ballots to arrive, and political observers see a race without a runaway candidate.

The ballot’s other side features Murkowski’s Senate primary, where she faces Trump-endorsed Republican Kelly Tshibaka, a former department commissioner in Alaska’s state government. Throughout the primary season, Trump has sought to oust Republicans across the country whom he perceives as hostile to him. After Murkowski voted against Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 2018, Trump attacked her sharply and predicted her political demise.

Unlike in 2010, when Murkowski lost the Republican primary to a tea party candidate and won the general election only after a write-in campaign, she is favored to advance Tuesday to the November general election. That’s because of Alaska’s new open primary system, in which all 19 US Senate candidates are appearing on a single, nonpartisan ballot, with the top four advancing to the November vote.

Murkowski, Tshibaka and Democratic Party-endorsed Pat Chesbro, a retired principal and schools superintendent, are considered the front-runners to advance, which has made for a primary with relatively little drama.

“There’s no outside great anticipation about whether or not Lisa Murkowski is going to advance,” Murkowski said in a phone Sunday from Fairbanks, where she was between a renewable energy fair and a soak in a pool at a local hot springs resort. “So, it does have a different feel.”

The race to replace Young has been livelier.

Palin surprised many Alaskans by filing, at the last minute, to run in her first election since her unsuccessful 2008 vice-presidential bid, and since her decision to step down as Alaska’s governor a year later.

Forty-seven others also filed to run in the June special primary election. They included the Anchorage newspaper’s gardening columnist, a Southeast Alaska halibut fisherman and a man legally named Santa Claus — who lives in the city of North Pole.

Palin, Begich and Peltola advanced to the general election, along with left-leaning independent Al Gross. But Gross dropped out shortly afterward, leaving the three others as the sole candidates on Tuesday’s ballot.

The three finalists in the special election are also candidates in the House primary for the November general election. That race appears on the same side of the ballot as the Senate primary in Tuesday’s vote. The top four finishers in the pick-one House primary will advance to November.

With the new ranked-choice system being used in the special election, voters state their top preferences for candidates. Unless a candidate gets more than half of first-choice votes — in which case that candidate would win outright — state elections officials will remove the third-place finisher from contention. Their voters’ second choices would then be transferred to the two remaining candidates.

While there’s been scant polling on the race, strategists in the state say they expect the most first-choice votes to go to Peltola, a former state legislator who would be the first Alaska Native member of the state’s congressional delegation. While Alaska leans Republican, Begich and Palin are likely to split the conservative vote, they said.

Palin, whose campaign has pushed “energy independence” and lobbed attacks at President Biden, held a rally with Trump at a packed Anchorage arena last month. Since then, she has announced at public events in Alaska and has touted endorsements from national conservative figures such as former housing and urban development secretary Ben Carson. Palin spoke earlier this month at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, and she blasted the FBI’s search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club last week.

Palin campaign officials did not respond to requests for comment. Begich was quick to highlight her absence from events in Alaska.

“Her track record is really about making a case for herself — not for the state, not for those around her, but really about building her personal brand,” said Begich, a nephew of Democratic former US senator Mark Begich and a grandson of Nick Begich, a Democrat who held Alaska’s seat in Congress until his plane went missing in 1972.

Palin, meanwhile, has taken her own shots at Begich, which is making some anxious conservatives: The negative campaigning from the two Republicans risks costing them each others’ second-choice votes, analysts say, making it more likely that Peltola will be elected.

“You want them to look at their second choice as someone they can live with. You can’t turn the second choice into someone they’d never vote for,” said Sarah Erkmann Ward, an Anchorage-based GOP strategist. If Peltola wins the special election, she added, “Republicans will have a collective moment where they need to reassess their strategy.”

Peltola’s campaign, meanwhile, has focused more on local issues, such as plummeting salmon returns in some of Alaska’s rivers, and she touts her background as a fisheries manager.

She responded to attack ads tying her to Biden and increased gas prices by joking that residents of her rural home region of Southwest Alaska would be delighted to pay $5 a gallon, prices there have been substantially higher.

Peltola has also, however, stressed her support for abortion rights, and her volunteers have been calling independents and moderate Republicans — particularly women — in an effort to peel off first- and second-choice votes.

The Alaska election is the latest in a series of special US House elections held in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. wade, which established a constitutional right to abortion. Democrats and nonpartisan analysts have said they have seen signs of more Democratic optimism about the midterms in the special election results. But they acknowledged that Biden and his party continue to face significant political head winds.

While Alaska-based operatives across the political spectrum say Peltola has a realistic chance to win Tuesday’s election, national party arms such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) have stayed out of the race so far.

Peltola, in a phone interview Sunday, called that decision “bizarre,” although she said it should tell voters that she’s “just a regular Alaskan” and not a “DC politician.” Her allies, meanwhile, are hoping that Peltola gets more support in the November general election, when she would be running for a full two-year term in Congress.

“It’s understandable, in a year when Democrats have been on the defensive, that they’ve been cautious about investing and learning in more red states,” said John-Henry Heckendorn, a nonpartisan Anchorage political consultant who is working with Peltola’s campaign. “But I think it’s very clear to people on the ground that they’re missing a huge opportunity if they don’t invest in this race.”

Maddy Mundy, the DCCC spokesperson, said in a statement that ranked-choice voting could create new opportunities for the party. “We are watching this race closely and looking forward to seeing the finalized results from Tuesday’s election,” said Mundy.

If Palin is eliminated, enough of her voters are expected to rank Begich second that he would come from behind to beat Peltola, said Ivan Moore, whose Alaska Survey Research firm has done some of the only polling on the race. But if Begich, a businessman and software entrepreneur, places third, Moore said, he expects Peltola to win, because too many Alaskans have soured on Palin to rank her as their second choice.

“That will catch up with you when you get into the final two,” Moore said in a phone interview Sunday.

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