Politics

Who Will Take Alaska’s One Seat in the House?

For the first time in half a century, it’s a free-for-all in the northernmost state.

Photo illustration of Palin in sunglasses, Santa smiling (complete with hat and beard), illustrated over a silhouette of Alaska surrounded by a check mark, a question mark, and an exclamation point
Two of the leading candidates. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by John Lamparski/Getty Images, Twitter.com/SantaClausforAK, and Getty Images Plus.

There are 48 candidates currently running for Alaska’s single seat in the House of Representatives. And because of a brand-new voting system, all 48 are sharing the same mail-in ballot together—creating a bit of a free-for-all in the northernmost state.

The biggest celebrity in the race is Sarah Palin, the failed vice presidential candidate who resigned in the middle of her first term as Alaska governor to seek her fortune as a private citizen. But there are other quirky characters as well, including a gardening columnist, a commercial fisherman, and someone named Lady Donna Dutchess, a candidate who supports federally funded vasectomies.

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There’s also another household name on the ballot: Santa Claus.

A member of the city council in the town of North Pole, Claus (his legal name) is a merry-looking democratic socialist with a fluffy white beard. He is running on a child-welfare platform and is not accepting campaign contributions. The political establishment is wary.

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Santa Claus “is not a serious candidate, in my view,” said Gerald McBeath, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks. “Santa Claus isn’t doing any advertising. He doesn’t believe it’s necessary. He has some misguided opinion that people will vote for him because of his name, and he’s just wrong.”

But the Claus candidacy, and its potential to edge out competitors on the left based on name recognition and the Christmas spirit alone, represents the Democrats’ worst fears about the upcoming primary.

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In the new voting system, candidates from all parties—or no party, even—run in a single open primary. The top four vote-getters then move on to a general election in August, in which voters can rank all four candidates in their order of preference. (They can also choose just one, two, or three candidates if they wish.) Unlike a partisan primary, which gives each party the chance to choose a nominee for the general election, Alaska’s new open primary could leave Democrats with no viable representation in the general election if left-leaning voters spread their votes so thin that only Republicans make it to the top four.

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“If Santa Claus takes enough of the vote on a whim, and all of us are bumped out because of it, then I’ll be very frustrated,” Christopher Constant, one of the top Democrats in the race, said in an interview with the Anchorage Daily News.

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However the votes go, a Republican will almost certainly win the seat in the end: There are about twice as many registered Republicans as Democrats in the state, and about twice as many independents as Republicans. But that breakdown makes Alaska less partisan than other red states. This is the state of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, one of only a handful of moderate Republicans left in federal office. She will fight to defend her Senate seat against a Donald Trump–endorsed challenger, Republican Kelly Tshibaka, later this year.

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A Special Election on Short Notice

The new ranked-choice voting system is only one of the reasons there isn’t a clear front-runner in this election. The other reason is that, for the past half-century, the campaign for Alaska’s congressional seat hasn’t been particularly competitive. Republican Don Young was elected to the office in 1973 and never left. Most election years, he waltzed through his primary and won the general election with a sizable majority of votes.

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This year is different. Young died in March, leaving room for a no-incumbent election for the first time in the lifetime of some of his would-be successors. Candidates from across the political spectrum scrambled to assemble last-minute campaigns to replace him. Constant, a gay Anchorage assemblyman, was the only Democrat in the race before Young died.

Given the difficulty of planning and staffing a special election on such short notice, this week’s primary is being held entirely by mailed ballot, the first of which were sent to Alaskans less than six weeks after Young’s death. (To make things more complicated: Some of the candidates on the ballot, including Claus, are only running to finish out the few remaining months of Young’s term. Most are running to serve in Congress for both those remaining months and the 2023 congressional seat, which will be decided in a separate election process that begins in August.)

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In addition to Palin, Constant, and Claus, the names on the ballot include former state legislators (like Mary Peltola, a Yup’ik Democrat, who is trying to make up for her “biggest regret” of casting a critical vote to cut teacher retirement while in office) and those casting themselves as Young protégées (such as Republican Tara Sweeney, one of Young’s former campaign chairs, an Iñupiaq businesswoman who served as assistant secretary for Indian Affairs under Trump).

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They are joined by a slew of other Alaskans who saw the congressional seat open up and thought, “what the heck, why not?” (Don’t sleep on Arlene Carle, a gray-haired independent who opposes the “war on petroleum” because “the sun doesn’t shine at night” on solar panels and, when asked for her age in a public-radio questionnaire, would only say that she is “over 25—the required age.”)

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“It’s kind of this great buffet of candidates who really reflect Alaska,” said Jason Grenn, a former independent state legislator and executive director of Alaskans for Better Elections, the group that fought for the new open primary and ranked-choice voting system. “Young people, old people, very experienced, not experienced, urban, rural. It’s really exciting to me, because it looks like Alaska.”

The Battle for a Successor

In one of the few polls in this race, conducted by Alaska Survey Research in early May, the largest segment of respondents, 19 percent, selected Palin as their top choice for the job. (“People have short memories,” McBeath said.) Close behind, with 16 percent, was Nick Begich III, the conservative progeny of a prominent Democratic family who has the endorsement of the state GOP.

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Another one of Young’s mentees and former campaign chairs, Begich has a family history that illustrates just how insular Alaska politics can be. He is the grandson of a Democrat, Nick Begich I, who represented Alaska in Congress for just one term before presumably dying in a plane crash just before the 1972 election. (His body was never recovered.)

Though he was still missing on Election Day, the elder Begich defeated none other than Don Young, then a state legislator, to win re-election. When the congressman was declared dead, Young won the special election to take his place. Now that Young is dead—he could not be resuscitated after losing consciousness on a plane—if another Begich wins the special election to replace him, it will create a bizarre pattern of deaths, planes, special elections, and Begiches that seems potentially unwise for Alaska to establish.

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The younger Begich was one of the few candidates who entered the 2022 race before Young’s death. Last year, he positioned himself as a right-leaning primary challenger to the congressman, arguing that Alaskans should dump the 88-year-old legislator for a “next-generation, 21st-century perspective.” Young’s widow, no doubt aggrieved by Begich’s turn against his former mentor, has split with the state GOP to endorse a different Republican in the primary: Josh Revak, another former Young campaign chair and a state lawmaker. (One of Young’s daughters claims that her dad tapped Revak, a veteran who worked for Young as a military affairs aide, as his preferred successor before he died.)

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Another candidate who will enter the ranked-choice system is the independent Al Gross, a former orthopedic surgeon who placed third in the Alaska Survey Research poll. Gross enjoys widespread name recognition from his 2020 campaign for U.S. Senate, in which he made an expensive and unsuccessful bid for Republican Dan Sullivan’s seat.

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Gross owes much of his statewide familiarity to the Democratic Party, which endorsed and fundraised for his 2020 campaign. But this year, Gross is not affiliating himself with any party—and, seemingly wary of alienating unaffiliated voters, he has gone to ludicrous, blundering lengths to keep both major parties’ names out of his mouth. In an interview with the Anchorage Daily News, Gross indicated that he’d initially caucus with the majority party if he scored the seat in Congress, then, after two years, switch to the party that “best represents the values of Alaskans.” Later in the interview, he backtracked, and said he wouldn’t commit to caucusing with either party in Congress until he got there. Several days later, after a leaked draft Supreme Court opinion indicated that the justices were preparing to overturn Roe v. Wade, Gross changed his mind again, saying he’d caucus with the Democrats but “will never be beholden to partisan politics.”*

Miffed by the snub, the state Democratic Party encouraged its members in a Facebook post to vote for any actual Democrat, rather than Gross, a “proven loser” who “doesn’t share your Democratic values.”

Values, identity, and ideology won’t be the only factors that influence Alaskan voting behavior. At the time of his death, Young was the longest-serving sitting member of Congress, and Alaskans were attuned to the benefits his seniority granted the state—namely, billions of dollars in earmarks that he directed back home. Longevity can help a small state with just one representative punch far above its weight class.

McBeath pointed out that Palin, 58, and Gross, 60, are “no longer young.”

“Age, it seems to me, ought to play a very important role in an election like this,” he said. “The best person is the person who’s going to be able to get that seat in August, and then sit in that seat for the next 40 years.”

Correction, June 13, 2022: This piece originally misstated that Al Gross had not committed to caucusing with either party in Congress. After some waffling, he committed to caucusing with the Democrats.

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