PALMER, Alaska—After I ponied up $20 to get into the sixth-annual Valley Republican Women of Alaska’s chili cook-off, the greeter at the door told me to hold on to my entrance ticket—I’d need it to vote. And for an extra $5, she said, I could purchase a second ticket to help my favored chili take the top prize.
“We’re voting Chicago style,” she said with a smile. “Vote early, vote often.”
On this drizzly Friday evening in August, 17 amateur chefs—including some local conservative luminaries—had turned out to compete for the chili trophy, all in the name of Republican fundraising. The event was held inside a historic train depot in Palmer, a town within the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, a fast-growing region just north of Anchorage that has become a driving force in right-wing Alaskan politics.
Cooks spooned stew into paper bowls while several dozen attendees milled about with cups of pink lemonade, stopping on occasion to shake the hand of a state legislator or give well wishes to the congressional candidate Nick Begich III. The dress code was casual, heavy on plaids and puffer vests, and the outdoor temperature hovered in the low 50s, which explained a chili tournament in the middle of the summer.
The event had the comfortable, boisterous air of a gathering of good friends, save for this regrettably conspicuous journalist from “down South,” as they say in Alaska. “Cauterucci? Sounds like an East Coast name,” one attendee said when I introduced myself.
But at this cozy gathering of the valley’s conservative movers and shakers, there was one glaring absence. Though the small agricultural town of Palmer sits right next door to Wasilla, home to former governor and current congressional candidate Sarah Palin, she was nowhere to be found.
The humblest excuse for Palin’s nonattendance came from Brendan Carpenter, 53, who is running for a seat in the state House of Representatives. “I think it’s hard, once you go out, and you get into the level of economic stratosphere that she’s in now, to come back here,” he said.
But there’s a more plausible explanation. Despite Palin’s long political history in the state and her endorsement from Donald Trump, in this election, the Alaska Republican Party is not on her side. The story of how Palin’s own party soured on its former hometown hero began with her 2008 vice-presidential run, and resentments grew deeper this summer. In a stunning debut for ranked-choice voting in the state, Palin helped pave the way for a Democrat to win Alaska’s one House seat for the first time in half a century.
Republicans have a second chance to take the seat back in November—and here, over steaming bowls and knowing smiles, I got some clues about why Trump-loving officials in Alaska feel just fine about turning their backs on the Trump-backed celebrity candidate. In Alaska, where a new voting system is revealing divisions on the right, the national GOP is watching its long-held advantage implode.
In 2009, after losing her bid for the vice presidency, Palin came back to Alaska to finish out her term as governor. Then, she resigned midway through—a move that didn’t sit well with voters. She spent the next decade enjoying the trappings of her fame in the lower 48.
Palin joined the national conservative commentariat, rebranded as a reality television host, and bought and sold several properties in Arizona. As she sought a more glamorous lifestyle than Alaska could provide, the state arm of the GOP went on without her. One of its rising stars was Begich, a scion of a prominent clan of Democrats who went against family political tradition and became a protégé of the famed Republican Rep. Don Young, who held Alaska’s sole seat in the House of Representatives for nearly 50 years.
In 2021, Begich announced his intent to primary his mentor, positioning himself as a more conservative alternative, an appealing option to many party leaders who thought the 88-year-old Young had stayed in Washington for too long. But then Young died before his term was up—and what would have been a moderately contentious election became a raucous free-for-all. More than 40 other candidates, including Palin, jumped into the special-election race, competing to finish out the remainder of Young’s term. The Alaska GOP endorsed Begich, the only candidate who bothered to request the party’s backing.
To make things even messier, the special election marked the debut of a new ranked-choice voting system in Alaska. Under the new arrangement, candidates from all parties—or no party, even—now run together in an open primary. The top four vote-getters then move on to a general election in which voters rank the top four candidates in order of preference. (They can also choose to rank just one, two, or three candidates.) After the initial primary, in this summer’s special election, the four choices on the ballot were Palin, Begich, the Democrat Mary Peltola, and an independent candidate who eventually dropped out.
The Republicans split the conservative vote. Peltola, who famously ran on a “pro-fish” platform, won with 40 percent of first-choice votes and enough second-choice votes to get her over the 50 percent threshold. Palin captured 31 percent of first-choice votes, beating Begich by about 3 points.
Now, members of the Alaska GOP brass had another reason to resent Palin: Not only had she deserted Alaska to seek her fortune “down in the states,” but she came back to blow up what had potentially been an easy win for the GOP. Before Palin showed up, Begich was already in the race with a conservative platform, strong ties to Republican Party machinery, and a persona as palatable as Palin’s is divisive. When Palin swooped in, she won over the hardcore MAGA Republicans with her Trump endorsement, leaving Begich with a much narrower path to victory and allowing a particularly talented Democrat to take the seat.
In November, Palin has another chance to win her way to Washington. She is locked in a close race with Peltola and Begich—along with a different fourth candidate, this one a libertarian—for the next full term in Congress. Lest they lose to Peltola again in November, Republican officials and conservative influencers have been frantically beseeching right-leaning voters to “rank the red”—a plea to rank both Palin and Begich on their ballots, regardless of their views, to prevail against Peltola. (The Democrat is still leading the polls.)
The Palmer chili cook-off was a chance for GOP officials to take a break from such election-season anxieties, at least on the surface. After reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, they chowed down on chicken chilis, moose chilis, beef chilis, green chilis, bean chilis, and one made from blackened salmon, topped with brown sugar. None were remotely spicy. Even the sign for the “Scary Hot, Smoke’n Moose” chili clarified that it was “not THAT hot.”
Mike Shower, a state senator running for reelection, competed in the cook-off with a moose-meat entry. Towering behind his slow cooker, Shower identified himself as “the most conservative senator in Alaska” and insisted diners accessorize his chili with sour cream and herbs. “If you like cilantro, take a lot of cilantro. If you don’t like cilantro, take a little bit of cilantro,” he said.
The next morning, Shower would co-host a “rank the red” voter-education seminar at a local church. But at the cook-off, he kept election chatter to a minimum, holding court with his constituents and insisting I attend a renowned annual fireworks display in a nearby town the following evening. In his journeys to more than 70 countries as a former Air Force pilot, Shower said, “I’ve never seen better fireworks than in Houston, Alaska. I felt shell-shocked when it was over.”
Begich made the rounds in a North Face jacket and jeans, radiating buoyant vibes and singing the green chicken chili’s praises. He hadn’t yet learned that he would come in third place (alas, last place) in the special election that week, but he was already focused on the rematch in November. “I’m running against a former VP nominee who was governor, who was endorsed by our former president in a state where he won by 10 points, and I’m only down by 3. That’s amazing,” he said.
While both Begich and Palin are quite conservative, Palin has embraced the MAGA wing of the party as Begich has softened his messaging in a bid for voters in the middle. He has focused his campaign on pitching what he calls “the business case for Alaska,” with an aggressive approach to drilling and mining—popular positions in the state, even among some Democrats. And though he promotes himself to right-leaning audiences as anti-abortion, his campaign website does not mention the issue by name; it merely endorses “a textualist, originalist interpretation of the Constitution.” (Alaska is a solidly pro-choice state.)
Begich said that Palin hadn’t been putting in much face time during the campaign season, so he liked his chances of pulling ahead in November. If elected, he said, he hopes to serve long enough to develop the kind of seniority that made Young a legislative force, though he allowed that spending five decades in Congress “is probably too long.”
“I’m 44 years old. So I’ve got, pray to God, some actuarial runway here,” Begich said.
One of the highlights of the cook-off was a live auction, conducted by Ron Johnson, 72, an officer in the Alaska GOP. Artworks depicting wolves, moose, and beluga whales—all the heavy hitters of Alaskan fauna—were up for sale. But the crown jewel of the event was a Congressional Club cookbook signed by Young. There were a few interested parties at the start, then a good-natured bidding war, and finally, going once, going twice, sold—at $1,000, dripping with symbolism—to “our next congressman,” Johnson boomed, “Nick Begich!”
Sporting a sheriff badge on his gray blazer, Johnson told me he’d like to see a national abortion ban with no exceptions for rape or incest. “Because I have deep Christian beliefs, I believe the matter of life is up to God, from natural birth to natural death,” he said. “I mean, you know, I believe in capital punishment. But I believe that the taking of innocent life—I believe that’s what abortion is.”
He views Palin as a “Johnny-come-lately,” he said, someone who abandoned Alaska politics for the better part of a decade, only to make an opportunistic return when Young’s death left the congressional seat open. “I don’t know where Sarah Palin’s been,” he said. “She’s referred to the Republican Party as the corrupt bastards and the good old boys’ club. It was back when she was around. Where has she been in 10 years? There are several hundred of us who have reformed the Alaska Republican Party. We needed help. I needed help.”
Before he turned back to his chili, Johnson told me Palin’s daughter and his granddaughter used to play volleyball together. Over the course of the cook-off, I came to recognize this rhetorical move—the volunteering of a six-degrees-of-separation connection to Palin—as a common accompaniment to criticism of the former Wasilla mayor. You’ve only seen the celebrity, they seemed to say. We know Sarah.
“That family’s been around this valley forever. They’re great people. I love ’em,” said Patrick McCollum, 65, of Palin’s clan. He has voted for Palin in the past but now believes she has too much baggage to be an effective congresswoman. When asked about Trump’s endorsement of Palin, McCollum shrugged: “We all make mistakes.”
“I’ve known Sarah since she was a little girl,” said Edna DeVries, the mayor of Mat-Su Borough and former president of the women’s group that hosted the chili cook-off. “We feel Nick is more solid regarding—he’s not gonna be somebody who’s gonna chase the headlines.”
DeVries said that this isn’t the first time Palin has caused a rift among Republicans in her own backyard. When she accepted the vice-presidential nomination in 2008, some Alaskans objected, on the grounds that the then-governor should stay in Alaska and, well, govern. At the time, members of the Republican women’s club in the Mat-Su Valley were divided on whether to encourage Palin’s bid for VP, so they splintered into two factions that continue to function independently of one another: The Valley Republican Women of Alaska, they of the chili cook-off, were in favor of Palin’s higher ambitions. The Mat-Su Republican Women’s Club was not. Today, both groups favor Begich.
Nick Begich could still win in November. And if he does, it will be due to one of the primary selling points of ranked-choice voting: The system is deliberately designed to elevate candidates who are not just popular with their party’s base but whom the majority of all voters agree they can live with.
Here’s where things get a bit technical, so stay with me: If, in the special election, every conservative Alaska voter who ranked a Republican first on their ballot had ranked the other Republican second, a Republican would have won the special election. But that’s not what they did.
Begich came in third, so he was eliminated after the first round of counting in the special election. Then, his votes were redistributed to the voters’ second-choice candidates, only about half of which went to Palin. Another 29 percent of Begich voters had ranked Peltola second, giving her enough votes to exceed the 50 percent threshold needed to win. A full 21 percent of Begich voters didn’t rank any candidates in the second-place slot.
This failure of right-leaning voters to band together to get a Republican into office is partly the fault of the national GOP. Many conservative Alaskans distrust the new ranked-choice system and believe it was established to help Democrats steal the election, having bought into the GOP’s narrative that the 2020 presidential election was “rigged.” Republican leaders in the state have thrown themselves into voter education efforts to try to convince constituents to use the system anyway. But it has been a tough battle, and it didn’t help that in the months leading up to the special election, Palin repeatedly railed against ranked-choice voting, encouraging voters to rank her alone and leave the rest of the ballot blank.
Still, the fact that more than 1 in 4 Begich voters would rather have a Democrat in office than Palin is worth analyzing on its own. Alaska is one of the least partisan states in the country, with far more registered independents than Republicans and Democrats—and though the state went for Trump by 15 points in 2016 and 10 points in 2020, most voters are not keen to follow the former president’s endorsement when it comes to the congressional race. (Alaska’s idiosyncratic politics are also a function of the state’s reliance on federal aid, of which it receives the highest amount per capita, and the state’s intimate connection to federal policies on resource extraction, the military, and public lands. As one conservative power broker told me this summer, “We like to think that we’re conservative, but Alaskans have never met an infrastructure bill that they didn’t like.”)
Palin is a flawless archetype of the type of candidate that ranked-choice voting is built to disadvantage: a person who is fiercely loved but also fiercely despised, who may be able to squeak across the finish line with a plurality of votes, but who is too polarizing to achieve a majority. She retains a strong base of support among rank-and-file conservatives, and she is, again, popular among MAGA Republicans. (By way of explaining her interest in Palin, a woman waving a Palin sign on a street corner in Anchorage on the day of the special election told me, “I know Trump supports her, and I support Trump.”) But her sky-high unfavorability rating and near-total name recognition in Alaska meant she had little room to grow throughout the special election campaign. Alaska voters already knew what they thought of her, and a lot of them were unimpressed.
Indeed, a data analysis of the special election by FairVote found that, had Palin been eliminated first in the special election instead of Begich, only 6 percent of her supporters’ second-choice votes would have gone to Peltola. Begich would have won.
As Begich put it during the cook-off: “What we know from the polling data that we’ve seen, public and internal, is that if I finish second, I win.”
In the name of journalism, I sampled every single chili at the cook-off. But I opted out of the Wall of Guns.
This event, a type of firearm raffle, was overseen by Sterling Cook, 43, the proprietor of a Wasilla gun store. He explained that if I purchased an additional $20 ticket, and my number was called, I could take my pick of a dozen or so pistols and rifles that were artfully zip-tied onto a vertical metal grate. (Of the congressional race, Cook confessed that he didn’t know Palin well. “I know her dad though. Her dad’s actually a gun person,” he said.)
I was fascinated by the concept of a Wall of Guns, having never seen anything like it. “Is this just an Alaska thing, or—?” I asked one of Cook’s employees.
He regarded me with what looked like a mixture of suspicion and pity. “A Wall of Guns? No, they do them at all kinds of fundraisers,” he said. Further betraying my naïveté, I asked Cook if it was legal in Alaska to give a gun to any anonymous nogoodnik who’d entered a raffle at a chili contest. He assured me that winners must visit the shop to undergo a standard background check before claiming their weapon.
A few minutes after I slipped my voting ticket into the cup for the salmon chili—I’m a sucker for a local delicacy—I checked back to see if anyone else had voted for it. The ticket cup was empty. “What happened to my vote?” I asked my chosen chef, worried that it had been misplaced or fallen on the floor. He mumbled something about a few chefs pooling their tickets to help a certain contestant take home the trophy.
Stunned by the blatant fraud and feeling cheated out of my role in this micro-democracy, I stumbled back to my seat.
When all the votes were tallied, the winner of the rigged contest—the recipient of the secretly redistributed tickets, who, nonetheless, had whipped up an actually quite tasty moose chili—was Shower, the state senator running for reelection. He received a trophy and a hat shaped like a chili pepper for his efforts.
Wearing the hat with palpable pride, Shower told me that, a few years ago, he and several other Republicans asked Young to retire with enough time to pass on his know-how to a successor. “I said, ‘We’re all afraid you’re gonna die in office, and you’re gonna take all that with you,’ ” Shower said. “And that’s exactly what happened.”
He paused. “So it was a big loss for us. That was dangerous for us to let somebody stay in that seat so long.”
If Young had lived to endorse an heir to his seat, Republicans might have been united, rallying around a replacement. Instead, while a Democrat makes her mark in Congress, Begich and Palin are fighting it out to the finish.
So who would the chili champion vote for in November?
“I’ll tell you what I did,” Shower said, seemingly poised to explain his ranking of the candidates. Then he paused. “My campaign people are gonna be very upset if I say that,” he said. “So I’ll keep that to myself for now.”