Mark Thiessen / AP Photo
A groundbreaking new election structure. The 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee. Santa Claus. What doesn’t the special election for Alaska’s U.S. House seat have?
Well, a winner. This Saturday is technically election day for the first round of the special election, which is being held to replace legendary former Rep. Don Young, the longest-serving Republican in House history who passed away on March 18. But because the election is being conducted predominantly by mail and ballots don’t need to be received until June 21, we won’t know which candidates have advanced to the second round until later in the month. And, of course, we won’t know who actually wins the seat until after the general election date of Aug. 16.
But the primary is plenty interesting on its own. First of all, it will winnow a field of 48 candidates(!) down to four. Why four and not two? Because following the passage of an election-reform ballot measure in 2020, Alaska now uses a unique top-four primary system whereby all candidates (regardless of party) run on the same ballot and the top four finishers advance to the general election. (In a further twist, the general election will also use ranked-choice voting.)
There are three front-runners who seem likely to make the cut. The first is a familiar name to not only Alaskans, but also most Americans: former Gov. Sarah Palin. It feels like a lifetime ago, but Palin was one of the most popular governors in the country when she was chosen as former Sen. John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 presidential election. But her rising star blinked out shortly after that: She came to be seen nationally as unqualified for office, and in 2009 (after losing the vice presidency) she unexpectedly resigned the governorship (apparently because ethics investigations into her were taking a financial and mental toll). For the next several years, there was speculation that she would run for office again, but she never did — until this year.
These days, though, Palin is not popular in Alaska — according to a May 6-9 poll from Alaska Survey Research, 59 percent of likely special-election voters had a negative opinion of her, while just 36 percent had a positive one. But she still has a small, devoted fan base that gave her 19 percent of the primary vote in that same poll, more than any other candidate. And that fan base includes one very important non-Alaskan: former President Donald Trump, who has endorsed her.
Still, a Republican with more room to grow might be businessman Nick Begich III. In contrast with Palin — who bought a house in Arizona after her governorship — Begich’s Alaska ties are rock-solid: His grandfather was former Rep. Nick Begich Sr., whose disappearance in 1972 triggered the special election that brought Young to Congress. (The elder Begich was actually a Democrat, but the younger one says he’s a “lifelong Republican.”) Begich has also raised $1.2 million (including $650,000 in self-funding) to Palin’s $631,690, and he enjoys the Alaska Republican Party’s endorsement. He snagged 16 percent in that Alaska Survey Research poll, too, which was good for second place.
The third front-runner is fisherman-physician Al Gross, who is the only other candidate who has raised more than a quarter of a million dollars (he’s raised $545,745) and the only other candidate who registered in the double digits in the Alaska Survey Research poll (13 percent). Gross is a contender, in part, because he still has plenty of name recognition left over from his 2020 campaign for U.S. Senate, which could help him attract support from liberal (or at least not-conservative) Alaskans; though he is an independent, he ran in 2020 as the Democratic nominee. However, this time around, Gross is leaving the door open to caucusing with either party if he wins, which has led to a messy breakup with the state’s actual Democrats.
That leaves a free-for-all for the fourth and final slot in the August general election. Financially, the best-positioned is former Assistant Secretary of the Interior Tara Sweeney, who has raised $231,364 and has also benefited from $434,652 in super PAC spending. Sweeney, who would be the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress, has pitched herself as “a Ted Stevens and Don Young Republican” in reference to two long-serving former legislators who were more focused on constituent services and appropriations than conservative dogma.
Or — and I can’t believe this is actual, serious political analysis — name recognition could propel Santa Claus into the general election. Claus (a real person) is a city councilor in North Pole (a real city) and is essentially the Sen. Bernie Sanders of this race — a self-described “independent, progressive, democratic socialist.” Though he’s not accepting campaign contributions, 59 percent of likely voters could form an opinion of him in the Alaska Survey Research poll, more than any other candidate other than Palin, Begich and Gross. It was enough for him to place fourth in that poll, albeit within the margin of error.
There are also several candidates with more traditional resumes and points in their favor. Republican John Coghill, for instance, still has 52 percent name recognition (as measured by the share of likely voters who can form an opinion of him) from his days as state Senate majority leader. Meanwhile, Republican state Sen. Josh Revak, who used to work for Young, has been endorsed by his widow. And Anchorage Assemblyman Christopher Constant, former state Rep. Mary Peltola (who would also be the first Alaska Native in Congress) and state Rep. Adam Wool all have the advantage of being actual Democrats; if they don’t go for Gross, Alaska’s Democratic voters have to vote for someone. The problem with all these candidates, though, is that they have all raised very little money, and none of them registered above 5 percent in the poll.
In all honesty, though, it may not matter much who snags the fourth slot. When it comes to the general election, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes will be eliminated and their support redistributed to the candidates their voters ranked second. So unless the complexion of the race changes drastically during the next two months, the fourth-place finisher on Saturday will probably be the first to be eliminated in August. After all, that’s what the Alaska Survey Research poll found, no matter whether Sweeney, Constant, Peltola or Claus was the fourth contender.
Moreover, in each scenario, it was Begich who emerged victorious after all the ranked-choice voting rounds were complete. This is certainly not guaranteed to be the case after two months’ of campaigning, but as a starting point, it makes sense: Among the three front-runners, Begich is the ideologically middle choice. If Palin is eliminated second, most of her support is likely to go to fellow Republican Begich, not Gross. And if Gross is eliminated second, most of his support is likely to go to Begich, not Palin.
Again, the outcome of this special election is still far from certain, but it at least looks possible that this is one election where ranked-choice voting could make a material difference. Based on her high profile, Palin may well finish the primary in first place. Under the old system (and the one that most other states use), this would have made her the Republican nominee, and in a red state like Alaska, she likely would have won the general election against whoever Democrats nominated — despite her unpopularity. But the Alaska system prevents her from winning with just a plurality of the vote and ensures that the winner is someone who can (eventually) earn majority support. That probably won’t be Palin.