Democrat Mary Peltola was the apparent winner of Alaska’s special U.S. House race and will become the first Alaska Native in Congress after votes were tabulated in the state’s first-ranked electoral election on Wednesday.
Peltola led Republican former government leader Sarah Palin after the ballots were tallied and the votes for third-place GOP candidate Nick Begich III were redistributed to his supporters’ second picks. Peltola, a former Yup’ik state legislator who calls Bethel home, is now slated to be the first woman to hold Alaska’s sole seat in the U.S. House.
If the results are confirmed by the state commission later this week, as expected, she will succeed U.S. Representative Don Young, the Republican who held the office for nearly five decades — since before Peltola was born. The special election was set in motion by Young’s death in March.
It’s an outcome that’s largely seen as a disruption. Peltola would be the first Democrat to join Alaska’s three-member congressional delegation since U.S. Senator Mark Begich lost re-election in 2014. And in doing so, she defeated two Republicans. Together, Palin and Nick Begich III, nephew of Mark Begich and grandson of former U.S. Representative Nick Begich, had nearly 60% of the first-place vote.
Begich was the first candidate to be eliminated, after no other candidate crossed the 50% threshold required to win under Alaska’s ranked choice voting system. The second-place votes of Begich’s supporters were then tallied in what has been called an instant runoff election. Only half of Begich’s voters put Palin in second — not enough to overtake Peltola.
Peltola had 39.7% of the vote for first place against 30.9% of Palin. In the immediate runoff, Peltola finished with 91,206 votes to Palin’s 85,987, or 51.47% to 48.53%
Peltola ran a mostly positive campaign as Begich and Palin traded barbs in the final weeks before the August 16 special election, emerging as the victor with a platform highlighting her position as the only candidate on the ballot to support access to abortion — an issue that has become important to voters with the recent US Supreme Court decision lifting federal protections for access to the procedure (the procedure remains protected under the Alaska Constitution).
Peltola has also said she is “pro-fish” and emphasized her plans to protect subsistence fisheries in Alaska as salmon stocks decline in the region where she has fished all her life.
Peltola is Yup’ik, grew up in rural villages and calls Bethel home. She served in the state house as a representative of the Bethel region from 1999 to 2009. During her time in the legislature, she led the Bush Caucus, bringing together lawmakers who represented communities in Alaska off the road network and building a reputation as someone who can work across party lines.
While in the legislature, Peltola’s path overlapped with Palin’s as governor. Both politicians were pregnant during their tenure. They exchanged friendly text messages on Election Day earlier this month.
After leaving the state house, Peltola worked in community relations for Donlin Gold, a mining project on the Kuskokwim River. Before announcing her congressional proposal, she worked on rural fisheries management and food security as the executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. Peltola, mother of four and grandmother of two, turned 49 on Wednesday.
Peltola emerged as the winner from an original field of 48 candidates for the primary race, including several incumbent and former legislators, Alaska Native leaders and Santa Claus.
Peltola is now going to Washington for just four months, where he will serve the remainder of Young’s term. Peltola, Palin and Begich will advance to the November elections, which will determine who will hold the seat for the full two-year term starting in January.
Political observers say the outcome of the special election will determine November’s race. After just a few weeks to prove her legislature in Washington, Peltola will enter the November election as the incumbent, with fundraising benefits and visibility that come with it. Republicans will likely be incentivized to tighten their posts under the ranked elective voting system — which was narrowly approved by voters via a 2020 ballot measure — and encourage their supporters to rank both red candidates on the ballot.
Palin, who ran with an endorsement from former President Donald Trump and spent part of her campaign in the Lower 48, has consistently attacked ranked choice voting as a “whack system” that “needs to be changed.” Begich had the support of many Alaska Republican Party insiders and attacked Palin for her decision to resign as governor in 2009. Palin responded by questioning Begich’s Republican bona fides and pointing out his support for his Democratic uncle’s campaigns in the Senate in 2008 and 2014.
Pre-election polls showed that Palin was a polarizing figure; three in five Alaskans had a negative view of her, according to more than one poll. But her fame, branding and use of Republican oil drilling posts propelled Palin ahead of Begich, who ran his first statewide campaign for public office after building a career in private business.
Some rural community ballots remain uncounted as of Wednesday. They will be counted when they reach the Elections Department office in Juneau, spokesman Tiffany Montemayor said. The Alaska Board of Elections is scheduled to certify the results on Friday, but that could be delayed if rural ballots are not counted.
“Those areas that don’t arrive in time for the board to certify is something we’ll have to address when that happens,” Montemayor said by email.
A candidate or group of voters can request a recount up to five days after the results are certified. A lawsuit against the results can be filed up to 10 days after certification.
This is a story in development. Come back for updates.
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