Voices: How did a Democrat become the most popular politician in conservative Alaska?

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, a Democrat, is shown before a debate for Alaska’s sole U.S. House seat Wednesday, Oct. 26 (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, a Democrat, is shown before a debate for Alaska’s sole U.S. House seat Wednesday, Oct. 26 (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

It’s hard to get a Democrat elected in Alaska. The 49th state hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential nominee since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. For 49 years, Alaskans chose Republican Don Young as their US Representative for Alaska, making him the longest-serving congressman in history.

And yet, Mary Sattler Peltola, a Democrat, edged out Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich to fill Don Young’s vacant congressional seat during a special election in August. In what was widely considered a “major upset,” Palin attributed her loss to Alaska’s “new crazy, convoluted, confusing ranked-choice voting system.” While some agreed that voter confusion resulted in the upset, the conservatives I spoke with disagreed. Even Suzanne Downing of the popular right-wing blog “Must Read Alaska” indicated that several lifelong Republicans ranked Peltola second “to block Palin from office because they found her too polarizing.” Attorney Scott Kendall, with the super PAC Alaskans for Lisa, credited Begich’s loss to running a negative campaign.

This coming November, Congresswoman Mary Peltola will again need to convince conservative voters to rank her over Palin and Begich. How will she get the red state of the “Rugged Individualist” to reelect a Democrat? One obvious advantage is that she lives in a state where more than 60 percent of voters don’t affiliate with any major party.

Digging deeper, it also becomes clear that she conveys a message that neither of the other two nominees can. As a Yup’ik Native Alaskan, Representative Peltola embodies traditional Alaskan values that she reinforces through her tagline, “Fish, family, and freedom.” Her campaign has branded her as a true Alaskan undefined by political party and her messaging taps into Alaskan symbolism, mythology, and nostalgia.

Dr. Mara Einstein, the author of Black Ops Advertising, points out the importance of branding in selling anything from products to politicians. “Brands are made up of a logo or a symbol, a tagline, and a mythology,” she explains. “In Mary Peltola’s case, the logo is the candidate herself... ‘Fish, family, & freedom’ is simple and yet communicates so much – a commitment to the environment and sustainable fishing, concern about family matters even if she supports abortion, and freedom is code for support of the Second Amendment.”

Representative Don Young fit the quintessential Alaskan brand: a rough-on-the-edges frontiersman with a mouth like a sailor who made up words and loved to kill things. And while it would seem that his successor couldn’t be more different, Peltola has managed to win over Don Young’s former chiefs of staff and raise significantly more funds than her opponents.

After years of pandemic trauma, the state with the highest rates of female homicide, alcoholism, suicide, and one in eight people struggling with food insecurity, Alaska needs a hero. Peltola smiles and comes across as authentic and humble. Her poster is full of soothing, nonpartisan white space, featuring a minimalist rainbow of earthy colors discreetly positioned under her name. Beside her name is a prominent rifle scope, in case the viewer wonders how she feels about Second Amendment rights.

Many Alaskans subsistence hunt and Alaska has the third-highest gun ownership rate in the nation. Although Peltola classifies herself as a Democrat, she sends a clear message that she is a fierce supporter of the right to bear arms. Her website features hunting camouflage browns and forest greens, and Peltola’s signs often picture her outdoors, sporting a camo hunting jacket and Xtratuf boots. In line with her stance on personal freedom, she, along with 60 percent of Alaskans, supports reproductive rights.

Turn on any radio station in Alaska, and you’ll hear a Sam Elliott soundalike endorsing Peltola with her “fish, family, freedom” tagline. Maureen Patricia Hogan, author of “The Real Alaskan: Nostalgia and Rural Masculinity in the Last Frontier,” explains that the “real Alaskan” as a cultural symbol is deeply coded as masculine, rural, and white, and this recognizable drawl taps into nostalgia for such an ideal.

Even for those Alaskans who live in urban spaces, frontier nostalgia still dominates — it is reflected in Alaskan literature and art, and the tourism industry. Peltola’s ads feature color, design, and fonts similar to vintage Alaskan tourism posters.

One of her campaign videos shows her outdoors at a rural fish camp, wearing a traditional Yup’ik kuspuk and cutting up a vibrant fresh coho salmon. The message here is that Mary Peltola is a true Alaskan. “As a Native Alaskan, she embodies the state and its story in a way that her competition cannot,” Dr. Einstein explains. “Could you imagine Sarah Palin being sworn in wearing mukluks? It’s not going to happen.”

Another campaign ad replicates a vintage canned salmon ad with the words “Got fish?” Along with oil and gas and tourism, the seafood industry is one of Alaska’s top private-sector employers. Most residents have worked in, or know someone who has worked in, the fishing industry.

While opponents will point out Peltola’s liberal leanings, she has maintained a positive campaign and refrained from trash-talking her competitors. This has also become part of her brand. Contrast the Begich and Palin campaigns, which have traded insults, all working in Peltola’s favor. One Palin supporter told this journalist that “Begich is a con artist” and “does nothing more than influence peddlers.” On the other hand, when I spoke with Alaskan conservatives, Palin was labeled a “quitter,” a “pathological liar,” “only in it for herself,” and someone whose “real occupation is that of being famous.”

Representative Mary Peltola’s campaign brands her not as red or blue but authentically Alaskan. Harnessing our Alaskan pride of self-reliance, and drawing from frontier nostalgia, she represents the kind of Alaskan we want to be and the Alaska where we want to live: A place where family, fish, and freedom matter more than political affiliation.