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The victory of Mary Peltola in Alaska’s special election for the U.S. House caught plenty of Republicans by surprise. Alaska saw about 60% of voters select one of the two GOP candidates on the first round, so therefore all 60% of those votes should align behind Republican Sarah Palin and it should have been a slam dunk, right?
That’s not at all how it played out, but it hasn’t stopped GOP surprise from turning into anger and kneejerk accusations that it’s the new voting system—not the way they ran the race or the candidates they put forward—that cost them a seat in Congress. And, you know what? That failure of self-reflection could cost them the next one, too.
Both Palin and third-place finisher Republican Nick Begich III responded to the results with tantrums on Wednesday night. Palin, who was counting on Begich voters to align behind her despite bad-mouthing him throughout the race, seemed to be set on blaming everyone but herself, pledging “to explain to Alaskans why ranked choice voting is not in the public’s best interest” (and presumably why electing her is in the public’s best interest) and continued to bag on Begich.
“I don’t even know the dude,” Palin said at her campaign headquarters, according to ADN reporting. “I’ve lived here all my life. I don’t know who he is, why is he taking all these pot shots?”
Begich was similarly tone-deaf in a statement that aimed much of its vitriol at Palin.
“The biggest lesson as we move into the 2022 general election, is that ranked choice voting showed that a vote for Sara Palin is in reality a vote for Mary Peltola,” he said. “Palin simply doesn’t have enough support from Alaskans to win an election.”
It should be noted that 28% of the votes for Begich were quite literally votes for Peltola, ensuring the moderate Democrat secured her win on Wednesday night.
That Begich voters didn’t neatly line up behind Palin—who’s deeply unpopular even among Republican voters but still popular enough to finish ahead of the Alaska Republican Party-endorsed Begich—seems to be unthinkable for Republicans, some of whom rushed to sow doubt on the system.
“Ranked-choice voting is a scam to rig elections,” tweeted Arkansas Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton. “60% of Alaska voters voted for a Republican, but thanks to a convoluted process and ballot exhaustion—which disenfranchises voters—a Democrat ‘won.’”
If Republicans continue to rail against the system, failing to understand the new rules of a political system aimed at minimizing the vitriol of the zero-sum politics requires a new approach by candidates and parties, then there’s going to be a lot more Democrat wins in the future.
A strategy from a different time
That’s because on paper this was a race that was a prime case for a comeback vote. Republicans are right that the 60% of the votes they commanded in the first round should have given them an advantage, but it overlooks the acrimony in each candidates’ campaign as well as their refusal to truly embrace the system like Peltola has done on the campaign trail. Instead, they chose infighting.
One of the most important takeaways from last night is that about half of all Begich voters looked at Palin and found it preferrable to vote for a Democrat (28.7%) or not at all (20.9%) in the subsequent rankings. It suggests that among many things, voters are relying on factors beyond simple party labels. It also suggests that not everyone has forgotten Palin’s time as governor that ended in giving up on the state to chase the celebrity of the national right-wing media sphere.
The quality of a candidate matters.
Would Begich have beat Peltola in a head-to-head race? Perhaps but then again, he couldn’t beat Palin despite having the bulk of the Alaska GOP’s apparatus and elected officials on his side. If Begich wants to prove that he would’ve won in a head-to-head race, then he needed to convince more voters to send their first place votes his way. It’s not the system’s fault that voters picked Palin and Peltola over him.
Again, the quality of a candidate matters.
And that’s perhaps the most galling takeaway from the reactions of Republican officials as they try to explain away the loss: That somehow Republican voters were tricked into electing a Democrat rather than it being an expression of their own political preferences. They’re seemingly convinced that Republican voters will stick with Republicans no matter the quality. Instead, this election is a reminder that Alaska voters are not monolithic blocs that can be led by the nose to vote for certain candidates because of the letter next to their name.
In the big picture, this aggrieved response on the far right reflects the problems that have been festering within the GOP for years. With a primary system and media machine that has long awarded the most extreme and vitriolic of policy positions, Republicans by and large have barreled off into the wilds of the extreme-right. The party is high on its own supply. Now, voters are looking at the Trump-endorsed Palin and Begich (who really isn’t all that far off politics-wise) and a significant chunk of voters decided to give the moderate Democrat a shot.
The refusal to look inwards to understand where they may be out of step with public perception—after all a poll this week found 63% Alaskans support abortion access—and adjust to appeal to more voters is a recipe for that disconnect to only deepen. Even Palin adjusting to appeal to a chunk of the 11,222 Begich voters who decided not to vote for anyone could have changed the outcome.
And, as of today, it doesn’t appear that Palin’s willing to see reality.
“Ranked-choice voting was sold as the way to make elections better reflect the will of the people,” Palin wrote in a statement released on Thursday. “As Alaska—and America—now sees, the exact opposite is true. The people of Alaska do not want the destructive democrat agenda to rule our land and our lives, but that’s what resulted from someone’s experiment.”
Apparently, she alone knows what Alaskans want.
Don’t discount Peltola
Of course, it’s easy to get completely caught up on the mess that is the Republican side of the equation. Just as critical to Mary Peltola’s victory is, well, Mary Peltola and the campaign that she has assembled with just a fraction of what Palin and Begich have spent. As I’ve written before, Peltola’s emergence has been a stroke of good luck for the Democrats who’ve found limited success with statewide candidates in recent years and may not have happened without the chaos of the special election.
Without the same constraint that the GOP showed in the special primary—where the only serious Republican candidates on the slate were the party-endorsed Begich and Palin—the progressives saw a flood of Democratic candidates and progressive independents. Given a wide slate of options, voters picked Peltola and in doing so found a candidate who seems well-suited to navigate the new election system with a disarming niceness and willingness to reach out to voters and make the appeal for their second-choice rankings.
Turns out that’s what the voters want.