With Sweeney blocked from the special election ballot, path gets tougher for Palin and Begich in state’s first ranked election

The Midtown Mall polling location was packed on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, which marked the first day of early in-person voting for Alaska's general election. (Photo by Matt Buxton/TMS)

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Moderate Republican candidate Tara Sweeney saw her chances of appearing on the special election ballot for U.S. House evaporate this weekend with a ruling by the Alaska Supreme Court, but it could be the remaining Republicans in the race—Nick Begich and Sarah Palin—who could be the real losers.

From the get-go, it always seemed like a long shot for Sweeney to make the special general election ballot. The law is pretty clear that anything not specifically lined out for special elections will default to the general election process, which means the 64-day deadline to fill vacancies on the ballot had already passed by the time independent candidate Al Gross surprisingly withdrew from the race. Sure, it doesn’t really make sense given the tight deadlines of a special election but, after all, it’s not like the law has always made sense and was free of internal conflicts.

Sweeney has already moved on and has set her sights on the regular primary election, she announced following the court’s weekend ruling.

Still, that’s all to say that the intervention of Republican Nick Begich’s campaign seems particularly weird, especially when it ended up not being a particularly close call in the eyes of the courts.

Not only is it a bit of ugly, insider politics that hands Sweeney effective messaging moving forward—like “Nick Begich is only concerned about his political ambitions” and “Nick Begich sought immediate legal action to block the advancement of my candidacy to limit the choices for Alaskans” that she’s already been using—but it could very well cost Begich the special election.

Without anyone on the left or really even in the center (which would be Sweeney) to split votes in the special general election, Democratic candidate Mary Peltola has a pretty clear runway to get somewhere in the 40% to 45% range of the vote on the first round (at least when judging Democratic performance in previous elections). That would leave some 60% to 55% of the vote for the Republican candidates to split, which means there isn’t enough votes for both Republicans to outpace Peltola on the first round of the ranked-choice special general election and hope to improve their chances on the later rounds.

Either Begich or Palin will finish in third place (with the other, possibly, finishing in second), leading to their elimination on the first round with their votes being redistributed. Just how those votes will play out is unclear but polling suggests that votes won’t distributed neatly to the candidate with the nearest politics (in most polling, for example, Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy sees a not-insignificant bump when Democratic candidate Les Gara is eliminated in a hypothetical contest).

Given the results of the special primary, Begich would need to improve his performance if he wants to stay out of a third-place finish. As I wrote previously, Republicans did a better job about consolidating around their leading candidates in the primary election with Palin landing at 27% and Begich landing at 19.21%. However, that leaves little remaining conservative votes to pursue. Of the Republicans in the special primary, Sweeney got 5.9% of the vote, John Coghill got 2.38% and Josh Revak got 2.34%. There’s just not a lot of obvious places for Begich to be looking for the votes he needs, especially when the candidate of the largest group of voters is calling foul.

Then again, Palin has fantastically bad negatives when it comes to public opinion that may put a firm cap on her moving forward. 

So, what does this all mean in the grand scheme of the race? It’s really hard to say. After all, this entire election is still in uncharted waters. But the result of Sweeney being blocked from the special general election race certainly helps Peltola’s chances far more than it does for Begich. 

The regular general election, however, will be an entirely different story.

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