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First go at ranked-choice voting adds drama to Alaska primary

In addition to filling the congressional seat held by the late Don Young, Alaskans will also decide if Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski should keep her seat despite her moderate views.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CN) — In one week, Alaska voters will head to the polls for midterm primaries. But on the flip side of the regular ballot they will find a special election to decide which of three candidates to send to Capitol Hill to finish out the late Republican Don Young’s seat in the House of Representatives.

Whoever voters choose Aug. 16 may not be in Congress long: The term for Young's seat ends in January. Voters will decide in November who will serve after that.

The primary election will also mark Alaska’s first use of ranked-choice voting.

Young, known as “Dean of the House,” was the longest-serving Republican in congressional history, having been the U.S. representative for Alaska's at-large congressional district for 49 years, from 1973 until his unexpected death in March. A special open June primary whittled the 48 contenders vying for Young's seat down to the top four vote-getters. However, only three candidates made it on ballot — Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich III and Democrat Mary Peltola — after the third-place finisher, independent Al Gross, dropped out of the race. Voters will be asked to rank these candidates in order of preference.

Palin’s run for Congress is her first campaign for elected office since quitting as governor in 2009 and as vice presidential candidate on the failed 2008 Republican presidential ticket alongside then-Senator John McCain of Arizona. Palin has been mostly absent in the Last Frontier since standing on the podium next to Trump at a July 9 “Save America Rally” in Anchorage. She’s opted instead to attend national GOP fundraising events in the Lower 48 and declined invitations to several in-state candidate forums attended by her rivals.

“Sarah Palin is Alaska’s ambassador, and her ability to leverage existing relationships with influential leaders from all over the country is one of the main reasons she is ready to hit the ground running,” Palin’s campaign manager, Kris Perry, said in a written statement after Palin missed an Aug. 5 forum hosted by the Soldotna and Kenai Chambers of Commerce. The fishing, boating and tourism-based communities are about five hours south of Anchorage.

Palin also did not respond to an invitation by the Anchorage Daily News, the state’s largest newspaper, for candidates to present their priorities if elected and give their views on key issues ahead of the primary. The newspaper published the piece on Aug. 6.

Begich, 44, is founder of a reported million-dollar software development company and the grandson of Democrat Nick Begich Sr., who served as Alaska's congressman until he disappeared in a plane crash in 1972. He is also the nephew of former U.S. Senator Mark Begich and current state Senator Tom Begich, both Democrats. The younger Begich has often said his biggest challenge in the campaign has been convincing voters that, unlike his grandfather and two uncles, he’s a Republican.

With that statement and by campaigning as a more conservative alternative to Don Young, long before the congressman’s untimely death, the Alaska Republican Party has endorsed Begich. Despite stating he will vote red for first and second rankings on the ballot he has knocked Palin for her repeated no-shows to forums.

Peltola, 48, served in the Alaska Legislature for a decade, representing the Bethel area, a predominantly Alaska Native region in the western part of the state. As a Yup’ik woman, a victory for her would mean the first Alaska Native to Congress. Peltola has a long history of making fellow politicians her friends rather than enemies and declined on several occasions to comment negatively about Palin’s absences.

“I have a proven track record of working in a nonpartisan way with all of my former colleagues in the Legislature. I also have a proven track record of creating bipartisan coalitions to address real Alaskan challenges,” she stated to the daily news Q&A.

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An online poll conducted the first week of July by Alaska Survey Research has Begich and Palin running neck and neck, predicting that Begich will ultimately take the win due to the ranked-choice system and in a state that, while it has been shading purple still leans red. Peltola is expected to get the largest share of first-place votes since she is the sole Democratic party candidate, while Begich and Palin split the conservative vote.

On Monday, Glenn Daniel Wright, an associate professor of political science at University of Alaska, Southeast, concurred that the new voting system will benefit Begich, and in fact already has.

“In the House race, the new system has already benefitted Begich (who would have been eliminated in a traditional party primary in favor of Palin),” Wright said in an email. “Under the old system, with a Palin primary victory, it’s very likely that we would be looking at a Palin victory in the general against Peltola (or, alternately, Al Gross) and if history is any guide we could expect Palin to represent the state in the U.S. House for many years."

Dr. Amy Lauren Lovecraft, professor of political science at University of Alaska at Fairbanks, said this election is more difficult to analyze because there are more variables than usual, to include rank choice, a special election, followed by the general. “But, this is positive in terms of helping to break up the grip of the two party system in U.S. politics,” she said in an email. “Clearly citizens and voters are not only blue or red, straight Democrat or Republican — there exists nuance in the human mind.”

Voting tabulation for the special election is anticipated to last more than two weeks after the polls close. Final results are expected to be certified and a winner sworn into Congress in early September.

The other hot primary ticket to watch next week will determine if Republican incumbent U.S. Senate Lisa Murkowski can hang on to the seat she has held since 2002 after a tumultuous term that saw her break from GOP colleagues more than once during crucial Senate votes.

The moderate Republican was censured by the Alaska Republican party in March 2021 for voting to convict Donald Trump at his impeachment trial. They also cited her for her opposition to placing limits on abortion, voting against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, voicing opposition to the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and demanding Trump’s resignation after the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.

Alaska GOP and Trump have come out to endorse Kelly Tshibaka. The 42-year-old Anchorage resident lists her occupation as wife and mother of five.

On the question “Why are you running for office?” Tschibaka answered, “Our resource industries and economy have been destroyed by Joe Biden and his radical cabinet members — nearly all of whom were confirmed by our 21-year Senate incumbent.”

On the question of challenges facing Alaska and what to do about them, Tschibaka responded, “Our state is under relentless assault from President Biden and the Washington, D.C. elite who are destroying our industries, killing our jobs, driving up inflation and gas prices, and crushing our families. I will work to protect our jobs, build affordable housing, cut federal spending and taxes, and block those trying to shut down our resource industries.”

In addition to the two expected front-runners Murkowski and Tschibaka, Alaskans can add two additional names to the November ballot in the first use of the top-four primary system. All candidates, regardless of party affiliation, run in a single primary election with the top four candidates to receive the most votes advancing to the general election where rank choice will decide that winner.

The race includes five other Republicans running, three Democrats, two independents, one Libertarian, two nonpartisan party and two undeclared. None have the name recognition or experience in public office as Murkowski, nor do they have Tshibaka's significant endorsements.

Both Lovecraft and Wright, the political science professors, agree that Murkowski is likely to keep her seat.

“Senator Murkowski is likely to retain her seat given not only her current popularity as a moderate Republican in the state, but also consider that she won a write-in election based on her personality and ability to generate 'purple politics,'" Lovecraft said, referring to the 2010 upset when Joe Miller won the Republican primary and Murkowski then defeated Miller in the general election as a write-in candidate.

“At this point, I think it’s fair to say that Lisa Murkowski would have a very strong chance of winning reelection regardless of the system of election we use,” Wright said. “But there’s no question that the new system will boost her chances.”

He added: “Alaska has a reputation as a red state — which is true — but we’re not a deep red state like Oklahoma or South Dakota; Alaskans on average are center-right on most political issues and Murkowski, as a center-right Republican, as well as an Alaska-style politician with deep roots in the state and a history of successfully bringing home tangible benefits to Alaska (including federal transportation spending, new ferries for coastal Alaska, etc.) has the policy chops to succeed with Alaskan voters.”

Lovecraft thinks both U.S. House and U.S. Senate elections will prove interesting, now and in the general election in November. “The dynamics of the race will tell us more about the nature of Alaska's Republicans these days — have they shifted more towards the style, and thus candidates, of Trump? Or do they retain a desire for a senator like Murkowski who breaks from her party line when she feels it is important for Alaska?" she said.

The rest of the ballot will likely not have as much excitement as U.S. House and Senate, save one: The governor’s race pits Republican incumbent Michael Dunleavy, backed by Trump, against former independent Governor Bill Walker. Both are known entities and according to Wright will make for a squeaker of an election come November.

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