Alaska’s special election threw up a surprise last night. With all the votes tallied at last, two weeks after the electorate went to the polls, Democratic candidate Mary Peltola beat former governor Sarah Palin to fill the congressional seat left open by the late Don Young.
First, some context. Young, who died in March at the age of 88, had held the seat since 1973, winning a special election of his own after former Democratic Representative Nick Begich’s flight mysteriously disappeared and he was declared dead. Begich’s grandson, Nick Begich III — whose uncle Mark was a former Democratic Senator — also ran for the seat this year, albeit as a Republican. And despite his Democratic pedigree, the Alaska Republican Party endorsed him, probably detecting he was a better candidate than Palin – and yet he ultimately came third.
Peltola’s three-point win is most certainly a shot in the arm for Democrats, who have have long feared they might lose their wafer-thin House majority in November. Indeed, they lost a member yesterday when Florida Congressman Charlie Crist abruptly resigned to focus on his gubernatorial campaign against Ron DeSantis.
Peltola’s Independent rival in the election’s top-four second round dropped out, giving her a free run at the seat. But on the Republican side, Begich and Palin were left to tear into each other throughout the campaign. And while Palin – who was elected governor from 2007 but resigned mid-term in 2009 after her infamous failed run for vice president – hardly lost by a wide margin, many Republicans are likely rueing the fact that she jumped into the race in the first place.
The red flags were always there. As early as April, polling showed that while Palin began her campaign in the lead, 51 per cent of Alaskans had an unfavorable opinion of her. (Incidentally, Peltola didn’t even register in that first survey.) Her numbers not only failed to improve, but in fact got even worse: a poll in July found that 43.7 per cent of voters had a “very negative” opinion of her, and 16.3 per cent a “somewhat negative” one.
Palin and Begich attacked each other incessantly. Begich ran an ad calling her a quitter, and said she was “self-aggrandizing. Uninformed. Intellectually deleterious, and [full of] empty rhetoric”. Ouch. Palin, for her part, dismissed Begich’s attacks as “full of bull”. “When you’re counting on second-choice votes,” she said, “it is the strangest tactic that he has. I think he’s very confused.”
Begich wound up placing third under the state’s newly minted ranked-choice system. But regardless of the order in which they finished, the two Republicans’ caustic campaigning against each other might have just cost their party a seat they’ve held for nearly five decades.
Fifty per cent of Begich’s voters ranked Palin second, while about 29 per cent ranked Peltola second. But perhaps most surprisingly, about 21 per cent of Begich voters didn’t give a second vote to anyone. Had enough of his supporters been able to stomach Palin, Republicans would have one more seat today.
But it’s not over yet. The special election was only held to fill the seat for the end of Young’s term, which will expire in January. That means the three major-party candidates and Libertarian candidate Chris Bye all head to a general election in November. As Peltola told Zachary Cohen at Bloomberg last week, “The only game in town really is the two-year seat.”
So far, there are no signs Palin will back down. On election night, she called on Begich to drop out of the race before the November vote; he has every reason to stay in the race after Palin’s defeat, but he will run the risk of splitting the vote again.
With Democrats starting to get hopeful about their chances in the midterms across the country, it looks like the GOP needs to get tactical here. Even in Alaska, where Republicans are used to winning, the Cook Political Report has now changed its rating for the November race from “Likely Republican” to “Toss Up”.
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