Politics

Democrat Mary Peltola Beats Sarah Palin to Become the First Alaska Native in Congress

Mary Peltola smiles in a red, black, and white blazer and white necklace.
Mary Peltola. Ash Adams for The Washington Post via Getty Images

After a multi-step, special election that began in June, Alaska will send Democrat Mary Peltola to Congress to finish out the term of the long-serving Republican Don Young, who died in March.

Peltola bested two Republicans—former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and Nick Begich, a businessman and political advocate—to win the state’s single House seat in the ranked-choice race. A former state legislator, she will be the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress, the first woman to occupy Alaska’s House seat, and the first new person to occupy the position since Young first took office nearly 50 years ago. She will serve until the current term ends in early January, but she will remain in the seat if re-elected this November.

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Peltola’s victory in a state where Democrats haven’t won statewide since 2008—and which went for Donald Trump by a 10-point margin in 2020—owes both to her broad coalition of supporters and to a new Alaska voting system that was established by a 2020 ballot initiative. The system replaced partisan primaries with an open race, in which everyone who wants to run for office does so together. In Alaska, primary voting took place entirely by mailed-in ballot in June, with 48 candidates across the political spectrum, including a democratic socialist named Santa Claus, vying for the open seat. The top four vote-getters from that primary advanced to a ranked-choice general election in mid-August. The final results were released on Wednesday.

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[Read more about Santa Claus and the other 47 candidates who ran for this seat in Congress.]

Peltola placed fourth in the June primary; the third-place finisher was independent Al Gross, who ran for Senate (and lost) as a Democrat in 2020. Gross dropped out of the race after the primary and endorsed Peltola, prompting Democrats and some moderates to get behind the candidate, who is Yup’ik, in August.

Republicans and conservatives, meanwhile, divided their votes between the two Republicans in the race. Palin had the benefit of celebrity status and Trump’s endorsement, but she remains a polarizing figure in the state, having resigned in the middle of her term as governor to seek her fortune in the Lower 48. Begich was endorsed by the state Republican Party, but he is the scion of a prominent Alaska family of Democratic politicians, and some conservatives couldn’t get past his last name.

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In a ranked-choice election, voters can arrange all the candidates in their order of preference, or, if they choose, they may only rank one or as few as they like. The counting begins with the first-choice votes, and the candidate who places last is eliminated. Those ballots (the ones that the last-place candidate got) are then redistributed to the voters’ second-choice candidates. The rounds of counting continue until a candidate attains a majority of votes.

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Many Republican officials and right-leaning activists spent the summer encouraging Alaska voters to “rank the red” by putting the two Republicans in their first and second slots on the ballot, rather than ranking just their top-choice Republican, as some voters were inclined to do. In a race with two Republicans and one Democrat, conservatives knew that if a Republican placed last in the first round of counting—as Begich did—the ballots that favored that candidate but didn’t mark a second choice would be eliminated, rather than being redistributed to another (likely conservative) candidate. The results from such a split vote would benefit Peltola.

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Those fears came true today. Of the voters who ranked Begich first, only around 50 percent put Palin second. About 29 percent of Begich voters ranked Peltola second, giving her enough votes to secure a win, while about 21 percent did not rank any candidates in the second-place slot. If all of those Begich-only ballots had gone to Palin, she would have won by a few thousand votes. Ultimately, with Begich’s votes eliminated, Peltola beat Palin 51.5 percent to 48.5 percent.

Though the special election is over, a more consequential race is just beginning.

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On August 16, when voters cast their ranked-choice ballots for the special election, they also voted in an open primary for the next full term in Congress, which begins in January. (Yes, there has been a lot of voting in Alaska this year.) The general election for that full term will take place on November 8. Peltola will have the advantage of being an incumbent in that race, but the three candidates who have advanced alongside her—Palin and Begich, plus a fourth candidate who will likely come from the Libertarian Party—will have more time than Peltola to travel the state and campaign over the next two months. Alaskans will once again have the opportunity to rank all four candidates in November.

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In the weeks ahead, conservatives will likely ramp up their efforts to convince their base to rank both Republicans on the ballot, lest Peltola benefit, once again, from the elimination of Begich or Palin ballots in the first round of counting. Right-leaning voters may take today’s results as a nasty wake-up call that will scare them into holding their noses and ranking a candidate they don’t like, but could live with, in the second slot.

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Ultimately, the ranked-choice system leaves ample room for surprises—especially in Alaska, where there are more independent voters than Republicans and Democrats combined. Two weeks ago, I met multiple Alaska voters who ranked Begich or Palin first and Peltola second, citing individual preferences that defied ideological reasoning. And with a Libertarian likely in the mix in November, there’s no telling how the rankings might shake out.

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The race could continue to tighten, too: Begich could potentially overtake Palin in November as the second-place—or even first-place—finisher and be entirely reliant on her second-place votes in the final ranked choice round to try to take down the new incumbent, Peltola. When I spoke to Begich after the August 16 vote, he pointed out that he’d increased his vote share by 9 points (from 19 to 28 percent) in the two months since the special election primary, while Palin’s rose just 4 points (from 27 to 31 percent). Peltola grew hers 30 points (from 10 to 40 percent), boosted in part by Gross’s departure from the race.

Which is to say, pretty much everyone in Alaska already knew what they thought of Sarah Palin when they voted in this special election primary, while the lesser-known candidates had lots of room to grow. As a member of Congress, Peltola will have an even bigger platform from which to make her case to Alaskans. Whether it’ll be enough for her to secure a second win, in an against-the-odds battle, will depend on the willingness of voters who favor either Begich or Palin to “rank the red” next time around.

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