Moderate Republican candidate Tara Sweeney announced over the weekend that she will run in the general election for U.S. House after a separate effort to get her on the special election ballot came up short with the Alaska Supreme Court.
On Saturday, the Alaska Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that state law forbids Sweeney—who finished fifth in the special election primary—from taking the spot in the special election that was vacated after third-place finisher independent candidate Al Gross suddenly withdrew from the race.
The decision keeps the race a three-way contest between Democratic candidate Mary Peltola and Republican candidates Sarah Palin and Nick Begich. Sweeney, whose campaign did not personally get involved in the litigation, said she’s focused on the general election now.
“While I am disappointed, I respect the decision by the Alaska Supreme Court not to advance me into the final four for the special congressional election. I hoped to offer voters another choice in filling out the remainder of Congressman Young’s term,” Sweeney said in a prepared statement. “Concerning the regular election for the next two-year term, I am staying in the race. Alaska politics has a history of comeback stories, and I look forward to writing the next chapter by fighting to represent Alaska.”
Sweeney, who was the co-chair of the late U.S. Rep. Don Young’s re-election campaign, finished fifth in the June 11 special primary election with 5.92% of the vote. Following her finish, she said she was considering her next steps and had not yet committed to running in the general election race. Several other candidates who filed in both the special election and the general election ended their bids following the special election, including Democrats Christopher Constant, Adam Wool and Mike Milligan, Republicans John Coghill and Josh Revak, and independent Jeff Lowenfels.
In the run-up to the court’s decision, Sweeney took special aim at the Begich campaign for taking legal action against her status on the ballot.
“It is concerning to me that Nick Begich sought immediate legal action to block the advancement of my candidacy to limit the choices for Alaskans,” she said in a prior statement. “He is clearly threatened by my candidacy and for good reason – I’m focused on empowerment, bringing people together and doing what is right for Alaska and Nick Begich is only concerned about his political ambitions.”
The election was the state’s first by-mail election and the first conducted under the election reforms approved by voters with 2020’s Ballot Measure 2. Along with introducing ranked-choice voting and open primaries to the state’s regular elections, the initiative overhauled how special elections are operated. Instead of parties nominating their preferred candidates, the system now calls for an open special primary (which attracted 48 candidates) with the top four candidates advancing to a ranked-choice special election (which will be held on the same ballot as the Aug. 16 regular primary election).
The legislation includes language for what happens if a candidate withdraws from a regular election, specifically that the fifth-place finisher would take the open spot, but that’s only if it happened 64 days prior to the special general election. The law is silent on what happens in a special election, which means the procedures for operating the special elections fall back to the rules for a general election. Gross’ withdrawal—as well as the certification of the election—came after that deadline.
While the supporters of Sweeney argued that it violated the spirit of a law intended to increase choice and options for voters, the Division of Elections and the courts agreed the law was clear that the 64-day window applied to special elections. This was a point also backed by the Begich campaign, which also went to court to block Sweeney’s participation on the general election ballot.
Even the courts conceded it was unusual but said there was nothing to be done when the law is clear.
“The Plaintiffs argue that the admittedly somewhat arbitrary cutoff deadlines established for general elections may fit awkwardly within the more compressed timelines of a particular special election. The court does not disagree with that observation,” wrote Judge William Morse in a ruling Friday, noting that the window would have required Gross to withdraw just two days after the election in order for Sweeney to have advanced. “That two-day window could hardly be briefer. Nonetheless, that is the period set by statute and the one the Division must apply.
“Despite the extremely narrow window of opportunity for a substitution in this special election, the court finds that AS 12.25.100(c) applies and establishes this window. The Division of Elections need not replace Al Gross with the fifth-place vote getter on the special general election ballot.”