Three of the four candidates who advanced from Alaska’s all-party special House primary last weekend may have familiar names, but the Last Frontier State is living up to its nickname by venturing into unexplored territory in the way it will pick a winner in August to serve the remainder of the late Rep. Don Young’s term.
Sarah Palin, the former Republican governor who was her party’s 2008 vice presidential nominee and an early darling of the conservative tea party movement, led the 48-candidate field, from which the top four will face off on Aug. 16.
Palin, whom former President Donald Trump endorsed in the race, had 28 percent of the vote with an estimated 81 percent counted as of Thursday, according to The Associated Press.
Republican Nick Begich III was running second with 19 percent, while independent Al Gross, the 2020 challenger to GOP Sen. Dan Sullivan, was third with 13 percent. The fourth spot had not been called by the AP, but Democrat Mary Peltola was vying for it with 9 percent, followed by Republican Tara Sweeney with less than 6 percent. Independent Santa Claus, a white-bearded resident of North Pole, Alaska, who legally changed his name to that of the jolly old elf, was sixth with less than 5 percent.
Begich is a grandson of former Democratic Rep. Nick Begich, who held the seat until 1972 when he was presumed killed in a plane crash along with then-House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, a Democrat from Louisiana. Young, who died in March at age 88, held the seat after winning a special election to replace Begich.
The August runoff for the remainder of Young’s term will use ranked choice voting and will happen on the same day as the statewide primary for the next Congress. That primary will also be a top-four primary, followed by ranked choice voting in November.
Ranking their candidates
Rob Richie, president of FairVote and FairVote Action, which advocates for election overhauls including ranked choice elections, said the all-party primary and then ranked choice general elections suited Alaska, which has the greatest proportion of voters who are not members of either the Democratic or Republican parties.
“It’s a state where voters don’t fit into two neat boxes, and I think they were ready to embrace this kind of voting,” Richie said.
The ranked choice balloting, which Maine is also using in its congressional elections, essentially allows for an instant runoff, Richie said. In the general election, voters may rank up to four candidates. Their second- and third-place choices are only factored in if their first and second choices finish at the bottom of the pack and then don’t make it to the next round.
The system provides an incentive for candidates to reach beyond their base voters, Richie said.
“Candidates have a different incentive to connect with more voters, and voters have incentive to engage with more candidates,” Richie said. “It really plays out.”
The process is not without controversy or confusion.
Former GOP Rep. Bruce Poliquin, who is running again to win back the House seat in Maine’s 2nd District, unsuccessfully challenged the law setting out ranked choice voting in his state. After losing in 2018 to Democratic Rep. Jared Golden, whom he is challenging this year, Poliquin argued that ranked voting disenfranchised voters who only selected one candidate. Other opponents argue that the system causes confusion for voters, who may not be familiar with it.
The way it typically works is that voters can rank their candidates in preferred order, and then if no candidate wins a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Those who put that losing candidate first could still have their ballots counted if they picked a second choice, and so on.
The special election for Alaska’s lone House seat already has attracted some outside spending, with more on the way.
Begich, who had entered this year’s race intending to challenge Young, had raised the most money, nearly $1.2 million, as of May 22, according to Federal Election Commission reports. That includes $650,000 he loaned to his campaign.
Palin, who entered the race after Young’s death, raised about $630,000 as of May 22, including $404,000 raised from donors giving less than $200. The identity of those donors does not have to be disclosed, but of the donors who were disclosed, Palin got more money from residents of Florida and Texas than Alaska.
Gross, a doctor who raised almost $20 million for his losing effort to oust Sullivan in 2020, had raised nearly $550,000 as of May 22, FEC records show. Peltola, a former state lawmaker, raised less than $100,000.
Outside groups disclosed some spending, about $150,000 in total, ahead of the June 11 primary. The majority of that came from the conservative group Americans for Prosperity spending on digital ads and direct mail to support Begich, according to FEC disclosures. Late Breakers PAC, which describes itself as a super PAC that seeks to “identify and track races that could come down to just a few points and help push them over the top on Election Day,” invested about $20,000 in independent expenditures opposing Palin.