With new Alaska ballot, Murkowski may survive Trump’s wrath in primary

House battle pits Democrat Peltola against GOP’s Palin and Begich

A new primary process in Alaska that sends the four top vote-getters on to the general election could benefit Sen. Lisa Murkowski as she faces Republican backlash for voting to convict former President Donald Trump at his 2021 impeachment trial. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A new primary process in Alaska that sends the four top vote-getters on to the general election could benefit Sen. Lisa Murkowski as she faces Republican backlash for voting to convict former President Donald Trump at his 2021 impeachment trial. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 15, 2022 at 5:30am

Alaska voters will make pivotal picks Tuesday, including a new House member to finish out the late Rep. Don Young’s term. 

In the state’s first test of ranked-choice balloting for congressional elections, the contest is likely between two Republicans, former Gov. Sarah Palin and Nick Begich III, though Democrat Mary Peltola also has a potential to play spoiler.

It may take days, or even weeks, to declare a winner.  

Alaskans also will take the first step in determining whether GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski can survive the ire of ex-President Donald Trump. She made her way to Trump’s enemies list as one of seven Republican senators who voted to convict him after his impeachment trial for inciting insurrection with the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack. 

Murkowski, who won in 2010 as a write-in candidate after losing the GOP primary, is expected to easily coast into the top four in Tuesday’s all-party primary. The contest includes 19 candidates, including Murkowski and her likely biggest rival, Republican Kelly Tshibaka, who has Trump’s backing.

Murkowski reported $5.3 million cash on hand as of July 27, according to Federal Election Commission disclosures. Nearly $1.9 million of her total haul of $7.5 million came from political action committees. Tshibaka held more than $800,000 after raising $3.3 million through July 27;  just $16,000 of that came from PACs. No other contender had raised anywhere near that, and given Murkowski’s moderate voting record, she may well attract a sizable chunk of votes from Democrats as well as from independents. 

The top four candidates in the primary will compete in November, when voters will have the opportunity to rank them. The system sets out something of an instant runoff. Voters’ second and other subsequent choices are factored in only if their first and later choices finish at the bottom of the pack and then don’t make it to the next round. The counting stops when one candidate gets over 50 percent.

The system got an earlier-than-expected test after Young died in March and a special primary was held in June to pick four contenders for Tuesday’s race to serve the remainder of his term. 

Because one of the top four dropped out of the special election race, it’s a three-way contest. Peltola may actually win the most votes on the first counting, said Deb Otis, the director of research for FairVote, which advocates for ranked-choice voting. 

That’s because Palin, who was the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2008 and later became a darling of the tea party movement, and Begich are likely to split GOP or conservative-leaning voters.  Peltola is unlikely to win but does have a path, depending on subsequent balloting. 

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 had held the seat after winning a special election to replace Begich. 

Also on Tuesday, voters will pick the four candidates who will compete in November for a full term in the 118th Congress as the state’s lone House member. Palin, Begich and Peltola are also on the ballot in that race, too, along with 19 other candidates. It’s another all-party primary in which voters pick one candidate and the top four vote-getters advance to a ranked-choice  ballot in November. 

Combining the special election with already-scheduled primaries is “helping to boost turnout,” said Otis. “I think they’re doing a lot of things right here.” 

Otis noted that because Alaska allows for voting by mail and also has a big contingent of military voters, the state will allow ballots to come in for 15 days in the special, meaning that a winner may not be determined quickly in a tight race. For primary elections, Alaska allows up to 10 days for absentee ballots to come in.

Polling has indicated a tight race in the special, with Begich having an advantage in the second round of balloting. 

Begich disclosed $655,000 cash on hand as of July 27 to Palin’s almost $110,000. Democrat Peltola held about $125,000, according to FEC reports. 

The House and Senate races have attracted a total of more than $4.4 million, and counting, in outside spending. The conservative group Americans for Prosperity has spent about $750,000 in support of Begich, according to FEC filings. The Protect Freedom PAC, a super PAC linked to Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul, disclosed nearly $300,000 in recent days in support of Palin. The group said in a news release that it would spend a total of $400,000. 

On the Senate side, Alaskans for L.I.S.A. (or Leadership In a Strong Alaska) disclosed spending $2.7 million in support of Murkowski, FEC records showed.