Democrat Mary Peltola smiles at supporters after delivering remarks at a fundraiser on Aug. 12, 2022, in Juneau, Alaska. Peltola is in two races on the Aug. 16, 2022, ballot in Alaska. One is the U.S. House special election, a ranked choice election in which she is competing against Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich. The winner of that race will serve the remainder of the late U.S. Rep. Don Young’s term, which ends early next year. The other race she is in is the U.S. House primary. (AP Photo / Becky Bohrer)

Democrat Mary Peltola smiles at supporters after delivering remarks at a fundraiser on Aug. 12, 2022, in Juneau, Alaska. Peltola is in two races on the Aug. 16, 2022, ballot in Alaska. One is the U.S. House special election, a ranked choice election in which she is competing against Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich. The winner of that race will serve the remainder of the late U.S. Rep. Don Young’s term, which ends early next year. The other race she is in is the U.S. House primary. (AP Photo / Becky Bohrer)

Peltola steps into spotlight of national political stage

Special election victor gets call from Biden, readies for encore that may decide control of Congress

To gauge the significance of Mary Peltola’s presumptive victory, the portion of the United States represented by a Democratic U.S. House member just doubled, according to the “land mass” standard often touted by Republicans. And her Wikipedia page tripled in size overnight.

Symbolic representations, to be sure, but the recently obscure Yup’ik Democrat is likely to be one of the most targeted politicians in the country for the next two months, according to the barrage of experts suddenly paying attention to the outcome of Wednesday’s special election.

The partisanship of her newfound fame is evident in the congratulations she’s receiving. President Joe Biden called shortly afterward, and “congratulated her for her historic victory and wished her a very happy birthday,” according to a White House statement. Defeated opponent Nick Begich III, meanwhile, issued a statement hoping she won’t “burn Alaska’s economy to the ground.”

Now the question is how Peltola, the candidates she will face in the November general election, and the national political apparatus respond to a race that in theory could decide which party controls Congress.

Democrat Mary Peltola smiles at supporters after delivering remarks at a fundraiser on Aug. 12, 2022, in Juneau, Alaska. Peltola is in two races on the Aug. 16, 2022, ballot in Alaska. One is the U.S. House special election, a ranked choice election in which she is competing against Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich. The winner of that race will serve the remainder of the late U.S. Rep. Don Young’s term, which ends early next year. The other race she is in is the U.S. House primary. (AP Photo / Becky Bohrer)

Democrat Mary Peltola smiles at supporters after delivering remarks at a fundraiser on Aug. 12, 2022, in Juneau, Alaska. Peltola is in two races on the Aug. 16, 2022, ballot in Alaska. One is the U.S. House special election, a ranked choice election in which she is competing against Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich. The winner of that race will serve the remainder of the late U.S. Rep. Don Young’s term, which ends early next year. The other race she is in is the U.S. House primary. (AP Photo / Becky Bohrer)

“Everything is going to be fair play at this point,” Josh Wilson, a Peltola campaign spokesperson, said Thursday morning after a nearly non-stop night of fielding inquiries from media and political entities. Serving a decade in the Alaska State Legislature and two years on the Bethel City Council means “Mary’s cast a lot of votes, (but) our camp is prepared to answer for those votes.”

The ramp-up to first-tier national politics will be speedy for a candidate who reportedly celebrated her victory (and 49th birthday) that night eating akutaq with her family.

Traveling to Washington, D.C., in the near future is a near-certain part of Peltola’s plans, Wilson said, but when she actually gets sworn in if her victory become official is unknown.

There’s also the provision “a defeated candidate or 10 qualified voters” can contest the results in court up to 10 days after the results are certified — meaning a likely Sept. 12 deadline in this case — and there’s no set timeline for when a judge must issue a ruling.

“I don’t know because we’ve never done this before,” said Tiffany Montemayor, a spokesperson for the Alaska Division of Elections, when asked how long contesting the results might take.

Alaska’s election law states results can be contested on the grounds of “malconduct, fraud, or corruption on the part of an election official sufficient to change the result of the election”; “when the person certified as elected or nominated is not qualified as required by law; and/or “any corrupt practice as defined by law sufficient to change the results of the election.”

Inquires Thursday to the campaigns of Begich and fellow Republican Sarah Palin about requesting a recount or contesting the results did not receive a response. But Palin issued a statement that, while mostly calling for “three-time loser Nick Begich to drop out,” also continued her fierce attacks on the ranked choice voting process used in Alaska for the first time during the special election.

“On behalf of all Alaskans, I call on the Division of Elections to release all data on the number of ballots they, via the Dominion Computer System, rejected, the precise reason for rejecting ballots, and an explanation for this extended timeline in allowing our state to be represented in Washington, for we’ll have gone nearly eight months with no representation in Congress,” she said.

Begich, on the other hand, seemed accepting of the legitimacy of the process and highly critical of Palin hurting the possibility of a Republican victory by posting a Twitter message containing a video of her attacks on ranked choice voting.

“I consistently encouraged my supporters to ’rank the red,’ ranking Sarah Palin second,” Begich wrote. “It is clear from this video that Sarah did not recommend doing the same as she shouts in regard to ranking, ’I was telling people all along, don’t comply!’”

Even if the swearing in doesn’t happen quickly “I would anticipate Mary would be travelling to D.C. just to prepare,” Wilson said. He said among the things that will need doing much more quickly than for a typical new member of Congress is appointing staff, and rather than focusing on legislative staff at the Capitol “it’s probably far more likely we’ll staff up in the Alaska regional offices we have” to handle constituent services that have been largely absent following Rep. Don Young’s death in March.

Young’s death after serving nearly 50 years in Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat resulted in the special election to fill the remainder of his term in what was presumed a safe “red state.”

But shakeups in the national political landscape were evident Wednesday night when the Cook Political Report shifted its general election forecast for Alaska’s U.S. House seat from “Likely Republican” to “toss up.” Political pundit website FiveThirtyEight updated its forecast to state Democrats have a 24% chance of retaining control of the House, a goal once seen as virtually impossible prior to the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the landmark abortion case Roe V. Wade.

“Democrats have clearly overperformed in special elections since the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson in June, but the reasons for Peltola’s win may have been more local than national,” the analysis states. “Namely, Palin was a very flawed candidate.”

Among the many heavy-hitting political names offering insight was David Axelrod, a top adviser to former President Barack Obama, who in a Twitter post declared “this was a bad loss & bad sign for Rs, and can’t be read any other way. But Alaska’s new ranked choice voting system, the savagery with which Rs went after each other, an exceptional D candidate and Alaska’s quirky nature makes it risky to generalize TOO much.”

Peltola received generally positive coverage by media outside Alaska in the immediate aftermath of her unofficial victory, such as The New York Times calling her “a Democrat with a reputation for kindness” who focused primarily on local issues. Conversely, Palin, who got by far the most coverage before the election and remains prominent afterward, was frequently linked to her support for former President Donald Trump, large numbers of harsh and sometimes misleading attacks, and participation in various conservative political gatherings and fundraisers outside the state.

Palin is arguably the last Alaska politician to receive such a sudden increase in national prominence, where initially glowing coverage quickly shifted to national-level vetting by both supporters and opponents scouring the Last Frontier for every vote ever cast and everything the candidate ever said out loud. When Palin was selected to be John McCain’s running mate in 2008 the headlines within a couple of days were focusing on things such as the flip-flop on the so-called “Bridge to Nowhere” and whether the campaign had sufficiently examined her past.

One common bond between the two women, at least in media reports and their public statements, is an expressed friendliness after many overlapping years in Alaska politics. Both were pregnant when Palin was governor and Peltola a state lawmaker, they exchanged friendly messages during the Aug. 16 special and primary elections, and embraced before a candidate forum in Anchorage an hour before the special election results were announced Wednesday.

“Gov. Palin and I were at the forefront of making sure that during those high-oil years Alaskans were benefiting with additional money to the dividend to pay for those higher prices in home heating cost,” Peltola said during the forum, referencing a special $1,200 payout added to the 2008 Alaska Permanent Fund dividend, according to the Alaska Beacon.

Palin — while attacking Begich, ranked choice voting and “the destructive Biden agenda” after the tally — did not include Peltola by name in her comments.

Meanwhile, Begich was largely overlooked in the post-election coverage — beyond noting half of his voters ranked Palin second on their ballots, 29% did so for Peltola and 21% did not pick a candidate. But the frequent references to Palin’s unpopularity and inability to get more of his second-choice votes has some analysts arguing he actually could be the candidate most likely to win the full two-year term in the general election if enough Republicans unite in his corner.

“Alaska voters will be presented with roughly the same choices come November: Peltola, Palin, Begich and a Libertarian who took less than one percent of the primary vote,” Henry Olsen, a self-described “Reagan Republican” and longtime Washington Post columnist, wrote Thursday. “This gives Begich a chance to win a full term: If Peltola doesn’t get a majority in the early rounds, Begich could get enough votes to finish ahead of Palin and then pass Peltola with second-choice votes from Palin supporters — provided he hasn’t infuriated them during the campaign.”

If Peltola is indeed certified as the special election winner there will likely be at least a few weeks before and after the general election when Congress is in session, and thus she may be involved in major legislative actions. While much of that will involve working with the Democratic majority, both of Alaska’s Republican U.S. Senators issued statements after Wednesday’s tally expressing congratulations and hopes of working with her cooperatively.

“While it will be impossible for Alaska to replace Congressman Young, Mary has a long track record of public service to our great state — including our time working together in the Alaska State Legislature — and I look forward to her join Senator Sullivan and I as we advance Alaska’s priorities over the coming months,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski said.

Sullivan said he hopes to work with Peltola on issues such as inflation, utilization of Alaska’s natural resources, infrastructure and fisheries.

“The three-person Alaska congressional delegation has a long and distinguished record of working together to advance and defend the interests of Alaskans, despite not always agreeing on different aspects of politics and policy,” he said.

Juneau Empire reporter Mark Sabbatini can be reached at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

Mary Peltola celebrates her win in the special election for Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat at her campaign office in Anchorage as results are announced Wednesday night. She will be the first Democrat to serve in that seat in 50 years if the results are certified, which is expected to occur Friday. (Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News)
Mary Peltola celebrates her win in the special election for Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat at her campaign office in Anchorage as results are announced Wednesday night. She will be the first Democrat to serve in that seat in 50 years if the results are certified, which is expected to occur Friday. (Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News)

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