Alaska vote tests Trump’s influence, Palin’s bid and new electoral system

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ANCHORING – Sarah Palin’s bid to join the U.S. House, Senator Lisa Murkowski’s bid to retain her Senate seat and Donald Trump’s influence over both their races will be tested Tuesday in two simultaneous elections in Alaska , where voters cast their votes under unusual new circumstances.

On one side of the ballot, Alaskans will vote in a three-way special general election to fill the remainder of the term left open by Republican Don Young, who was the longest-serving member of the chamber until his sudden death in March. The 45th president has backed Palin, a former governor and vice presidential candidate, over fellow Republican Nick Begich III and Democrat Mary Peltola. The election will be the first in Alaska to use a ranked-choice system adopted by voters in 2020.

Final results will probably not be determined for at least two weeks. State election officials say they won’t start counting second picks and redistributing votes until the absentee ballot deadline, and political observers see a race without a runaway candidate.

On the other side of the ballot is Murkowski’s Senate primary election, where she will face Trump-approved Republican Kelly Tshibaka, a former division commissioner in the Alaska state government. Throughout the first season, Trump has attempted to oust Republicans across the country whom he considers hostile to him. After Murkowski voted against the nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in 2018, Trump attacked her sharply, predicting her political demise.

Unlike in 2010, when Murkowski lost the Republican primaries to a tea party candidate and won the general election only after a registration campaign, she prefers to advance to the November general election on Tuesday. That’s because of Alaska’s new open primary system, in which all 19 candidates for the U.S. Senate run on a single, unbiased ballot, with the top four advancing to the November ballot.

Murkowski, Tshibaka and Democratic Party-backed Pat Chesbro, a retired principal and school superintendent, are considered the frontrunners to advance, leading to a relatively low drama primary.

“There’s no great expectation about whether or not Lisa Murkowski is moving forward,” Murkowski said in a telephone interview Sunday from outside Fairbanks, where she sat between a renewable energy exchange and a dip in a pool at a local hot spring resort. “So it has a different feel.”

The race to replace Young was more lively.

Palin surprised many Alaskans by running at the last minute for her first election since her failed vice presidential bid in 2008 and since her decision to resign as Alaska governor a year later.

Forty-seven others also applied to run in the June special primaries. Among them were the anchorage newspaper’s garden columnist, a Southeast Alaska halibut fisherman, and a man legally named Santa Claus — who lives in the town of North Pole.

Palin, Begich and Peltola advanced to the general election, along with left-wing independent Al Gross. But Gross quit soon after, leaving the three others as the only candidates in Tuesday’s vote.

The three special election finalists are also candidates in the House primaries for the November general election. That race appears on the same side of the vote as the Senate primaries on Tuesday’s vote. The top four finishers in the House’s first pick advance to November.

With the new ranked choice system used in the special election, voters indicate their top candidate preferences. Unless a candidate gets more than half of the first-choice vote — in which case that candidate would outright win — state election officials will remove third place from the fray. Their voters’ second choice would then be handed over to the two remaining candidates.

While there have been few polls on the race, strategists in the state say they expect most of the first-choice votes to go to Peltola, a former state legislator who would be the first Alaska Native member of the state’s congressional delegation. While Alaska leans Republican, Begich and Palin are likely to split the conservative vote, they said.

Palin, whose campaign has pushed “energy independence” and carried out attacks on President Biden, held a meeting with Trump in a packed Anchorage arena last month. Since then, she has not announced any public events in Alaska and has received endorsement from national conservative figures such as former housing and urban development secretary Ben Carson. Palin spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas earlier this month, and she dismissed the FBI’s search for Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club last week.

Palin campaign officials did not respond to requests for comment. Begich was quick to highlight her absence from events in Alaska.

“Her track record is really about making a case for herself — not for the state, not for the people around her, but really about building her personal brand,” said Begich, a cousin of the Democratic former American Senator Mark Begich and a grandson of Nick Begich, a Democrat who held Alaska’s seat in Congress until his plane went missing in 1972.

Palin, meanwhile, has taken her own shot at Begich, worrying some conservatives: The two Republicans’ negative campaigning threatens to cost them each other’s second-choice votes, analysts say, making Peltola more likely to be elected.

“You want them to look at their second choice as someone they can live with. You can’t turn second choice into someone they would never vote for,” said Sarah Erkmann Ward, an Anchorage GOP strategist. special election wins, she added: “The Republicans will have a collective moment when they need to rethink their strategy.”

Peltola’s campaign, meanwhile, has focused more on local issues, such as declining salmon in some Alaskan rivers, and she praises her background as a fisheries manager.

Responding to assault ads tying her to Biden, she raised gas prices by joking that residents of her rural southwest Alaska home region would be happy to pay $5 a gallon because prices there were significantly higher.

However, Peltola has also emphasized her support for abortion rights, and her volunteers have called independents and moderate Republicans — especially women — in an effort to snatch first- and second-choice votes.

Alaska elections are the latest in a series of special US House elections following the Supreme Court’s decision to Roe v. Wade, which established a constitutional right to abortion. Democrats and impartial analysts have said they have seen signs of more democratic optimism about the midterm elections in the special election results. But they acknowledged that Biden and his party still face significant political headwinds.

While Alaska-based agents across the political spectrum say Peltola has a realistic chance of winning Tuesday’s election, national party weapons like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) have so far been out of the race.

Peltola called that decision “bizarre” in a phone interview on Sunday, though she said it should tell voters she’s “just a regular Alaskan” and not a “DC politician.” Her allies, meanwhile, hope Peltola will gain more support in November’s general election, when she would serve a full two-year term in Congress.

“It’s understandable, in a year when Democrats have been on the defensive, that they’ve been cautious about investing and learning in more red states,” said John-Henry Heckendorn, an impartial political adviser in Anchorage who works on Peltola’s campaign. “But I think it’s very clear to the people on the ground that they’re missing out on a huge opportunity if they don’t invest in this race.”

Maddy Mundy, a DCCC spokesperson, said in a statement that ranking voting could create new opportunities for the party. “We are watching this race closely and look forward to the final results of Tuesday’s election,” Mundy said.

If Palin is eliminated, enough of her voters are expected to put Begich in second place for him to beat Peltola from behind, said Ivan Moore, whose Alaska Survey Research firm has done some of the only polls in the race. But if Begich, a businessman and software entrepreneur, comes in third, Moore said, he expects Peltola to win, because too many Alaskans have messed up Palin to consider her their second choice.

“That will catch up with you when you get to the last two,” Moore said in a phone interview on Sunday.

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