Most of the major players in Alaska’s general election now face a mix of opportunities and obstacles regardless of whether they won or lost.
Defeated candidates such as Kelly Tshibaka, Nick Begich III and Les Gara may have futures as viable political c0ntenders or public personas, while other losers such as Sarah Palin and Bill Walker are unlikely to be serious candidates again, according to some Alaska political experts.
The reelected Congressional duo of Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Mary Peltola may be an overlapping Alaska presence as swing votes in their narrowly-divided chambers, while Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s second term may be more defined by oil prices than any shifts in the leadership of the Alaska State Legislature.
National pundits are predicting a gridlocked Congress for the next two years due to the House being controlled by a slim Republican majority that has stated its top priority is investigating Hunter Biden, while the Senate remains under Democratic leadership. But Murkowski and Peltola are well positioned to have outsized influence as minority members due to the narrowly divided chambers, especially since the two are closely aligned on Alaska policy goals and may be key crossover votes on anything that does pass, said Andrew Halcro, a former state Republican lawmaker and current political analyst.
“Peltola has the same amount of power and has the same amount of viability to be a swing vote as Lisa Murkowski has had during the last six years in the Senate,” he said. “They both have in-roads among their parties. I would imagine in the next two years you’ll see some incredibly important things coming forward from Alaska.”
Tshibaka, meanwhile, is among the biggest “winners” of the defeated candidates as her high-profile support by former President Donald Trump — without the baggage Palin carries as an elected official with a challengeable record, including her sudden resignation as governor – ensures she can be a prominent conservative media presence while preparing for a challenge to Peltola in 2024 or Sen. Dan Sullivan in 2026, as well as a likely surrogate for Trump’s 2024 campaign.
“I think it’s almost guaranteed,” Halcro said. “Kelly Tshibaka isn’t going away. She’s going to accept almost any platform that will keep her in the eye of the Republican party.”
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski: Will continue her now 20-year career as a ranking member of the minority Republican party, but without much prospect of repeating landmark accomplishments such as the infrastructure bill since the now Republican-led House will likely balk at any legislation that might give President Joe Biden or Democrats anything they can also call a win. But the Senate map is favorable for her party to again take over the leadership 2024, when there may also again be a Republican president.
Kelly Tshibaka: Emerges with a higher public profile and a supporter base likely to believe she was deprived of a Senate seat by ranked choice voting. Numerous analysts and commenters see her as a potential challenger to Peltola in 2024 or Sullivan in 2026 — if Tshibaka chooses to remain in Alaska after moving back from Washington, D.C., in 2019. With a couple decades of administrative leadership she could also be a surrogate for the presidential campaigns of Trump and/or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and then seek a job in their administration. Tshibaka, in her Election Night concession statement, declared “I will continue to fight for Alaska and for we, the people, but will take some time to reflect upon what that may look like.”
U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola: Gets a full two-year term as one of the rising stars of the Democratic Party, and the first in Alaska to win a general election U.S. House race in 50 years. But it won’t be the honeymoon of her temporary seat during the past few months since, as noted above, the House is now led by Republicans expressing more interest in investigations than legislation. Her short-term priority will be getting as much through during the lame duck session before January, after which her focus will be largely on the “constituent services” her staff frequently emphasizes. Her biggest challenge to gaining a longer-term foothold in Washington, as with most first-term members of Congress, will come in two years when conventional wisdom suggests she’ll be most vulnerable to a strong challenger.
Sarah Palin: Will go on being the conservative political/media celebrity she’s been since quitting as governor in 2009, and largely continued during the campaign with appearances at out-of-state events rather than those in-state (including a Knicks basketball game in New York a few days before Election Day). After the ranked choice results were announced Thursday she told reporters she planned to engage in public policy activities, without knowing specifically what. The week before results were announced when she was the first to sign a petition calling for a ballot initiative to repeal ranked choice voting, and a high-profile role in that campaign can help keep her in the public eye. Also, like Tshibaka, Palin’s “anti-elite vernacular” means her defeat “won’t stop her from being a very powerful surrogate for some people if she wants to,” Brad Todd, a Republican strategist, told The Associated Press.
Nick Begich III: Going from the smart-money winner of the U.S. House race this spring to an afterthought on Election Day, Begich caused some wounded feeling in his party by announcing his run against Young while he was still alive and then attacking his legacy during the closing weeks of the campaign, in addition to those who feel he robbed Palin of a victory by splitting votes. But Begich’s future as a viable candidate is brighter than Palin’s, Halcro said. “I think Nick Begich has built an organization, he certainly had the party support,” Halcro said, and that makes him a seemingly obvious and strong challenger for a rematch with Peltola when she has to run on a legislative record. At the same time, Halcro said. “I think there was a lot of bloodletting (from Begich’s early candidacy). I think those people will have a hard time coming back.”
Gov. Mike Dunleavy: Arguably the election’s biggest winner as the first Alaska governor reelected since 1998 and only statewide candidate to get a majority of first-choice votes, his fate may nonetheless be the least dependent on Alaska politics due to the ever-present reality of oil prices literally determining the state’s fortunes. The beginning of his first term was marked by drastic and controversial budget cuts resulting in an unsuccessful recall effort, while a huge upward spike in oil prices during the past year allowed more generous budgeting and the biggest Permanent Fund Dividends in history (not adjusted for inflation). But prices have dropped from their peak and Alaska is thus again facing deficits the next couple of years at current spending levels, meaning his budget-cutting ways may return to an extent to be determined. Pragmatism may result from him again facing a legislature were at least one chamber will be led by a bipartisan coalition, and his recent appointments to high-ranking fiscal positions suggests he is opting for expertise over political agenda setters.
Les Gara: “I think Les emerged as the most prominent Democrat in the statewide races,” Halcro said, quickly adding Peltola obviously has emerged as the face of the state’s party. But Gara, a former state legislator, currently appears to be the strongest Democrat for a U.S. House run in 2024 “if something happens to Peltola” or Sullivan in 2026.
Bill Walker: The former independent governor, defeated by Dunleavy in 2018, finished in third place this year after running a hard-truths campaign that saw him sticking to unpopular policy decisions such as reducing Permanent Fund dividends to boost state government spending. “I would think unless something dramatic happens Bill is done,” Halcro said. “He’s run for governor the last three cycles.”
Ranked choice voting: Widely praised by the many watching nationwide for ensuring “sensible” candidates keep the “fringe” contenders out, Nevada is already on its way to becoming the third state to implement in (with Maine being the first) after a narrow majority of voters approved a ballot question that sets up a final vote for 2024. But Alaskans may well be voting on the question again as well with the petition launched last week seeking its repeal. Ivan Moore, owner of Alaska Survey Research, said he believes the system will survive the recall, writing in a Twitter message “I swear people across the political spectrum in Alaska (and in Lower 48) will come to know and trust (it) in time.”
Alaska State Senate: Becomes more moderate with a bipartisan leadership coalition announced Friday, rather than the Republican leadership of recent years. Republicans won 11 of the 20 seats, but eight of them decided it was preferable to join with the nine Democrats rather than three highly conservative and controversial members of their own party.
Alaska State House: Republicans hold 21 of the 40 seats after two candidates rallied from behind during the ranked choice tally, putting the party in a more favorable position to form a majority coalition instead of continuing the bipartisan arrangements of recent years. But lots of uncertainty remains, including one race a Republican won by vote fours where a recount is certain. Beyond that, as with previous years where leadership battles have dragged on beyond the start of sessions, the question will be if moderate Republicans prefer to align with Democrats instead of the most conservative members of their own party.
Constitutional convention: Back on the shelf for another decade after another overwhelming defeat.
• Contact Mark Sabbatini at firstname.lastname@example.org