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We’re a day away from knowing the results in the special election for the U.S. House, which will mark Alaska’s first election conducted under the new open primary and ranked choice voting system.
Will frontrunner Democrat Mary Peltola hold onto her significant lead, making her the first Alaska Native in Congress and the first Democrat to hold that seat since 1972, or will Republican former Gov. Sarah Palin win enough votes from the roughly 30% of voters whose didn’t pick either first to seize the lead?
No one knows for sure.
But one thing is for sure: The outcome of this race will look nothing like what we would have expected under the old system where political parties had final say in who could appear on the ballot. And that’s probably why the GOP is already talking about repealing the voter-approved law and why a Palin victory isn’t likely to cool that drive.
To be clear, neither Palin nor Peltola would be in this spot if not for the new system.
Under the old system, parties played a strong role in shaping the semi-closed party primaries and had direct control of who appeared on the ballot in special elections. If not for the voters’ approval of Ballot Measure 2, there would have been no 48-member open primary (which, admittedly, would have shortened the vacancy) and no opportunity for the party establishments to be proven wrong.
The result is a race where the differences between the old and the new—particularly when it comes to a political party’s influence on the outcome—couldn’t be clearer.
It’s worked out surprisingly well for the Democrats, leading to the rise of a likeable candidate to rally the party and who has a better chance of winning than most, while it couldn’t be a bigger nightmare for the Republicans, despite having a candidate who’s well-positioned to win once votes are tabulated on Wednesday.
Under the old system, it would have been unimaginable for the Alaska Republican Party to even entertain nominating the former governor. Instead, they would have put forward the establishment pick in wealthy Republican Nick Begich, who is currently in third place and is slated to be on the chopping block once the RCV tabulation takes place. Despite Trump’s endorsement of Palin, the Republican party establishment has been solidly united behind Begich with the party even delivering its endorsement of Begich ahead of the state’s convention. It’s a move that rankled existing grievances between the party’s establishment and its populist far right (which, yes, there is a difference as minimal as it may seem on most days) that extends to the Legislature.
Even as thousands turned out for Trump’s rally, many elected Republicans who were effusive in their support for U.S. Senate candidate Kelly Tshibaka turned around to hold Palin at arm’s length, claiming neutrality in the race for U.S. House… only to later co-host Begich fundraisers.
The iron grip the party establishment has enjoyed in picking and electing its preferred candidates is clearly evaporating. And to be clear, it’s evaporating for a whole host of reasons beyond just ranked choice voting (namely, a base that’s been fed a steady diet of anti-establishment conspiracy), but a victory here for anyone other than Begich will likely be viewed a fault in the system for the establishment Republicans who are accustomed to calling the shots.
Ranked choice voting and the open primary wrench that control away. Whether it be opening the door for an assault from the far right—see also the fourth-place finish of hard-right Republican Buzz Kelley in the U.S. Senate race—or clearing a pathway for “moderate” Republicans who don’t like Trump and/or Dunleavy to stay in office, the parties now have less control than they did in the past.
Meanwhile, it’s as close to a success story as can be for the Alaska Democratic Party.
Under the previous system, Anchorage Assemblymember Christopher Constant would have likely been the favored candidate given he was already fundraising and campaigning. Instead, Ballot Measure 2 created a free-for-all on the Democratic side of the ticket with many, many candidates old, new, known and unknown all vying for a limited amount of air. Constant was lost in the crowd, and it was former state legislator Mary Peltola who emerged and who the party ultimately rallied around. That’s a big deal for a party that’s been going through an identity crisis over much of the last decade.
Much to the consternation of some party diehards, the Alaska Democratic Party has leaned heavily on its alliance with Democrat-aligned independents over the last decade to mixed success in the statewide contests. While it worked with independent Gov. Bill Walker’s win in 2014 and for some legislative races, it’s been a source of heartburn for campaigners who worry they’ve been training Democrats to not vote for Democrats. The latest big-ticket marriage with independent Al Gross for the 2020 U.S. Senate race ended in a bitter divorce with the party calling him a “proven loser” before he ultimately withdrew from the special election.
As for the special U.S. House race, I’m sure officials within the Alaska Democratic Party would have had plenty of ideas of who to run in the special election and I doubt many were Mary Peltola.
But putting the voters in control of choosing their candidate has proven successful.
Rather than running with the Chosen One—which didn’t work out well for the Republicans and hasn’t worked out well for Democrats in the past—the Democrats have essentially stumbled into having an affable moderate candidate who seems well-suited to counter the increasingly acrimonious state of modern politics. As discussed in reporting by Alaska Public Media, Peltola entered the race with little current name recognition but has won over many with a disarming niceness and openness.
“It’s very easy for things to get personal and defensive and inflammatory really quickly, and then everything breaks down,” Peltola told Alaska Public Media. “In order to make the progress that we need in Alaska, in order to make the right decisions, we have to have a lower blood pressure. We have to respect all the people in the conversation at the table, or else we’re just not going to be productive.”
It’s been a while since I recall seeing legislative candidates essentially stumble over themselves to cozy up to a Democrat in a statewide race, but it seems like just about every candidate has been posting a picture with Peltola in the last month.
Democrats got here by embracing the system and trusting voters to sort through the chaos. Republicans, meanwhile, have continued to wrestle with the system and may very well fumble their opportunity away.