When Sarah Palin launched a campaign for Congress in Alaska earlier this year, her comeback bid seemed to promise a fresh supply of wacky antics from the former vice presidential pick who emerged from a decade in the political wilderness.
What Palin’s return did not obviously promise was the most surprising Democratic upset of the 2src22 election cycle so far.
But that’s exactly what happened last month, when Mary Peltola—who campaigned as a “pro-jobs, pro-choice, pro-fish, and pro-family” Democrat—won an upset victory in the special election to serve the rest of the late Rep. Don Young’s term. She beat out both Palin and Nick Begich, a scion of a famous Alaska Democratic family who ran as a conservative upstart.
Sobered by the sight of a Democrat in the state’s lone U.S. House seat for the first time in six decades, Republicans looked to either Palin or Begich to drop out in order to give the GOP their best shot at winning the November general election.
Ahead of the filing deadline on Monday, both Begich and Palin said the other should be the one to drop out. But when the deadline passed, neither of them had, and each is equally convinced they are the Republican with the real path to victory.
Their standoff not only guarantees another two months of Republican-on-Republican violence—which had already exhausted and divided Alaska GOP circles—but could end up costing the party this seat for the next two years or longer.
“As Palin and Begich beat the fuck out of each other, [Peltola] is going to coast,” said a GOP operative who has managed campaigns in Alaska. “Until Palin and Begich figure this out, it’s going to be problematic.”
During the special election campaign, Palin and Begich seemed more interested in attacking each other than making the case against a Democrat. Begich’s strategy was to brutally attack Palin—calling her at one point “uninformed” and “intellectually deleterious”—in hopes of owning the GOP vote share.
Put off by the attacks, Palin was far harsher on Begich than she was on Peltola. The two women coincidentally have a years-long friendship, dating back to when Peltola was a pregnant member of the state legislature just as Palin was expecting her final child while governor.
Ivan Moore, an Anchorage-based pollster, argued the “ongoing, ludicrous, counter-productive, self-destructive spat” was “predominantly being driven by Sarah Palin.”
Even after Peltola’s win, Alaska political observers see few signs that the fundamental dynamic between the candidates would change. “Republicans are scared so straight they’re attacking each other harder,” said Cale Green, a GOP strategist based in Alaska. “If Nick and Sarah don’t pivot, Mary could walk in.”
Indeed, after Peltola was called the winner of the special election, Palin tweeted effusive praise for the Democrat and wished her well. In a barely veiled shot at Begich, Palin said civil debate is possible if candidates follow the “golden rule.”
“May all candidates left in Alaska’s congressional race follow suit,” she said.
As long as Palin and her peculiar campaign strategy are dominating the race, Democrats are feeling bullish on their prospects of winning in November. In a midterm cycle in which the GOP is favored to capture control of the House, flipping Alaska—long something of a white whale for Democrats—would be a significant boost for the party, both in morale and in math.
“The Republicans are kind of screwed,” said Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, a Democratic state legislator from southeast Alaska. “Speaking as a Democrat, I’d say it’s a gift that Sarah Palin is in this congressional race, because she’s not acting rationally, she’s extremely unpopular, and it sets the stage for Mary to win in November.”
Josh Wilson, a spokesperson for Peltola, indicated the congresswoman-elect plans to run her general election campaign in the same above-the-fray way.
“She’s always believed that Alaskans, like most Americans, are tired of the divisive political rhetoric that too quickly takes over campaigns,” Wilson said. “She will continue to share her positive vision for Alaska with voters and refrain from engaging in any political feuds that pop up.”
The underlying reason Peltola could ride above a GOP civil war and into a seat in Congress is rooted in Alaska’s unusual election system.
It is one of only two states that uses the method known as ranked choice voting for its federal elections, in which voters are asked to rank their first choice, second choice, and so on. On top of that, in Alaska, the top four primary candidates, regardless of party, appear on the general election ballot.
On the first ballot of the special election, Peltola mustered a plurality of 4src percent, while Palin placed second and Begich third. Under the rules, Begich was then eliminated, and his supporters’ votes transferred to their second choices. Over one third of them picked Peltola—a surprisingly high crossover—allowing her to edge out Palin by 3 percentage points on the final ballot.
Republicans have howled that the ranked choice system is deeply flawed. The chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN), went so far as to decry the system as “unconstitutional” on Wednesday.
But many Republican operatives nevertheless know that, in order to keep Alaska red, they’ll need their voters to savvily play the system. Despite the fiery rhetoric from GOP leaders, some politicos expect party organizations to bankroll outreach campaigns urging voters to “rank the red.”
Still, the continuation of a nasty fight between Palin and Begich could make for vanishingly few team players. During the special election campaign, Begich told his supporters to rank Palin second—while Palin urged hers to reject the system altogether.
If candidates aren’t on the same page with their ranked choice messaging, Republicans fret they will have a very hard time closing off Peltola’s path to victory. Peltola’s win in the special election should serve as a “wake-up call” to Republicans, said Matt Shuckerow, a political strategist who has worked for Young and for Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK).
“Unless Republicans unify, or begin operating under the constructs of ranked choice voting, Mary Peltola could very possibly win and have a strong path to victory in November,” Shuckerow said.
Additionally, ranked choice encourages candidates to appeal to the middle of the electorate, not the fringes—something Begich and Palin aren’t doing as long as the other is in the race.
“Nick Begich and Sarah Palin are fighting for each other’s votes—but with ranked choice, candidates are often encouraged to be nice in order to get the other person’s second vote,” Shuckerow said. “By attacking each other, they’re causing a lot of pain and only empowering Peltola.”
The results of the ranked choice system have given both Palin and Begich fuel for their arguments that the other is not a viable candidate.
Through a spokesperson, Begich told The Daily Beast that Palin’s loss to Peltola—which he called “embarrassing as a former governor and vice presidential candidate”—showed that she “simply doesn’t have enough support from Alaskans” to win a statewide election.
“I will continue traveling the state, making the case that this election is about a choice between Mary Peltola and Nick Begich,” Begich said. “We are confident that we are on a positive trajectory to win in November.”
Palin’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment. But Palin, in calling on Begich to drop out, argued she is the “only true conservative in this race who can win.”
National Republicans publicly remain confident they can win in November no matter what. “Sixty percent of Alaska voters chose the Republican agenda in the special election,” said Courtney Parella, a spokesperson for the NRCC, pointing to Begich and Palin’s combined vote share. “We are confident Alaska will be represented by a Republican next January because Alaskans want nothing to do with Nancy Pelosi’s socialist agenda.”
Even if both Begich and Palin remain dug in, Republicans could easily get some breaks that would keep the seat red in November. The expectation of increased turnout in the general election—and the impact of the hotly contested U.S. Senate race, featuring GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski—could affect the House race in profound, if yet unknown, ways.
The national political environment is still tilted heavily against Democrats, and President Joe Biden is deeply unpopular in Alaska. But Peltola is a formidable candidate, and her profile may be uniquely suited to the race.
A rural Alaskan with more favorable views than most Democrats on energy and land use, Peltola has emphasized a pro-abortion rights stance that is popular in this libertarian-tinged state—a powerful asset with voters energized by the overturning of Roe v. Wade at the Supreme Court.
Maddy Mundy, a spokesperson for House Democrats’ official campaign arm, said Palin and Begich “are on a path toward mutually assured destruction as they vie to restrict Alaskans’ freedoms.”
Palin has, in the eyes of many Alaska politicos, run a subpar and low-energy campaign so far. “I expected Sarah to run a better campaign, be more attentive to the people of Alaska—that didn’t end up manifesting through the course of her race,” said Green, the Alaska GOP strategist. “I don’t know what she did here.”
Still, many have marveled at how the former governor—a onetime rising star who left her office under a cloud of scandal a decade ago—has still managed to command the enthusiasm of much of the GOP grassroots.
“Her campaign has been relatively anemic,” said Kreiss-Tomkins, the Democratic state legislator. “I’m unsure how to analyze how she’s able to get that kind of support.”