Gross withdraws, leaving uncertainty about his spot in the special election

(Photo by Al Gross campaign/Facebook)

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The race for U.S. House got a whole lot more interesting over the long weekend.

Rumors and chatter quickly turned into an announcement on Monday that independent candidate Al Gross would be ending his campaign for the office altogether, withdrawing from both the special election and the regular election. With his third-place finish, strong fundraising and campaigning up through Friday, there’s certainly going to be more to the story, but for now there’s still plenty to unpack. In his statement, which gives no reason for his decision, Gross endorses both Democrat Mary Peltola and Republican Tara Sweeney… without naming either.

“It is with great hope for Alaska’s future that I have decided to end my campaign to become our state’s next Congressman,” he said. “There are two outstanding Alaska Native women in this race who would both serve our state well, and I encourage my supporters to stay engaged and consider giving their first-place vote to whichever of them best matches their own values. Thank you for your support.”

The announcement follows the withdrawals of every other Democrat save for Peltola—Christopher Constant, Mike Milligan and Adam Wool—to clear the way for the general election. Alaska Native leader Emil Notti also officially conceded from the special election last week, endorsing Peltola. It’s unlikely that Gross has had any mending with the Alaska Democratic Party, however, which had called him a “proven loser” after he suggested caucusing with Republicans (a position he later backtracked on).

Anyway.

The big question now is just what happens to the Gross’ spot on the special election ballot. Will Sweeney, who finished in fifth place, get the nod or will a slate of three candidates—Peltola and Republicans Nick Begich and Sarah Palin—advance to the ranked-choice special election on Aug. 16? It’s a question that doesn’t have a clear answer, yet, and the Division of Elections is in the process of reviewing the issue.

This is where the reforms in ballot Measure 2 come into play. Remember that prior to the initiative, special elections were driven by the political parties. They would have picked the candidates and the state wouldn’t be going through this special primary process. The Alaska Beacon’s James Brooks dug into the text of the initiative looking for an answer, this is what he found:

The text of Alaska’s Better Elections Initiative, better known as Ballot Measure 2, says the person who received the fifth-most votes advances if “a candidate nominated at the primary election dies, withdraws, resigns, becomes disqualified from holding office for which the candidate is nominated, or is certified as being incapacitated in the manner prescribed by this section after the primary election and 64 days or more before the general election.”

Monday was 57 days before the Aug. 16 special general election for U.S. House.

Attorney Scott Kendall, the key architect of the initiative, told the Beacon that the 64-day deadline applies only to the regular primary elections, not special elections, and he believes that the Department of Law analysis will results in Sweeney getting the spot. Worth adding to the conversation: There is language dealing with the special election and withdrawals—specifically the language that should be printed on election pamphlets—that contains exactly the same 64-day window BUT it doesn’t contain the same reference to the U.S. House, only state office or U.S. Senator:

“The four candidates who receive the most votes for a state office or United States senator will advance to the special election. However, if, after the special primary election and 64 days or more before the special election, one of the four candidates who received the most votes for a state office or United States senator at the primary election dies, withdraws, resigns, is disqualified, or is certified as incapacitated, the candidate who received the fifth most votes for the office will advance to the general election.”

Which is all to say, who really knows. Not this layman political writer.

The reality is that this will likely be resolved in the same way every other controversial decision that’s come across the Alaska Division of Elections over the last four years: The Division of Elections, on the advice of the Department of Law, will do what it’s going to do and, depending on what that is, someone will sue, and the issue will ultimately be decided by the courts. (See also: The rejection of the Dunleavy recall, the language on the oil tax initiative, the language for independent Democrat-backed candidates and the witness signature requirement during the pandemic.)

If the Division of Elections agrees with Kendall that the language should see Sweeney advancing to the general election, we might see a lawsuit from one of the three candidates seeking to block her from joining. If the Division of Elections argues that the window is already closed under the new language of Ballot Measure 2 and Sweeney won’t be advancing, then the Sweeney campaign will likely be heading to court. And, hey, I know an attorney who might know a thing or two about Ballot Measure 2 and how it’s supposed to work.

It’s also here that I feel like it’s worth bringing up a few conversations I had about the rejected ballots over the weekend where the common question I got is: Why isn’t anyone suing over it? My answer is: If someone thought it would make a difference in the results, they would.

The ballot rejections won’t make a difference in the final rankings but the Division of Elections’ interpretation of how state law handles withdrawals in special elections certainly will.

Stay tuned.

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