Split: Alaska liberals fear a shutout in 48-way race for US House

ballot and pen
The ballot for the U.S. House special election. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

For weeks, Fairbanks mathematician Leah Berman Williams was in a quandary over which candidate to vote for in the special primary for U.S. House. She’s a Democrat and sees several good choices among the 48 people running. And that poses a double dilemma: Who is her favorite, and who does she think is the favorite of other left-of-center voters?

“There are five or six that I think would be excellent,” she said. “Are any of those candidates going to make it through the gauntlet of the primary? And should I even bother to be thinking strategically?” 

Williams is looking forward to the special general election in August, when she’ll have a chance to rank four candidates. But in this special primary, she can only choose one. Her fear is that progressive voters will split their vote every which way so that none of their candidates will advance.

“I worry about that a lot,” she said. “I have seen no consensus … there’s no coalescing around a single progressive candidate.”

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woman in field of fireweed
Leah Berman Williams is a mathematician and a Democrat who just finished a term on the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly. (Photo supplied by Berman Williams)

Williams isn’t the only one concerned about that. There’s an angst gnawing at Alaska’s liberals as they contemplate the special primary election to fill the remainder of the late Congressman Don Young’s term. The feeling isn’t as acute on the right. The left has a smaller share of the Alaska electorate to start with. They feel they can’t afford a split.

On social media you can find them casting about, testing strategic theories and taking each other’s temperature with Twitter polls.

Vote for Al Gross, some say, because he’s got the best name recognition. Others fret that he won’t capture enough of the Democratic vote, now that the Democratic Party has broken with him

The far left is drawn to Santa Claus, the North Pole City councilman, for his ideological purity. But some question his viability since he isn’t accepting campaign contributions. 

Many Democrats like former legislator Mary Peltola but worry labor voters won’t forgive her 2005 vote to cut teacher retirement, which she calls the “biggest regret” of her legislative career.

They also like Anchorage Assemblyman Chris Constant but wonder if he’s got statewide appeal. 

And so it goes. What progressive voters fear is squandering their votes and allowing four conservatives to advance.

Pollster Ivan Moore says there’s not much chance of a shutout, by either side. He conducted a poll in early May that was not commissioned by any candidate or campaign. The situation is fluid, and campaigning could change the picture significantly, he noted. 

“I hate to say this, but to a certain extent, you’ve got to take things with a pinch of salt, because there’ll be a lot of jumping around, right? This really is a snapshot in time,” he warned.

So, with those caveats in mind: His poll showed Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich were leading the pack, followed by Gross. (The poll was conducted around the time the Democratic Party denounced Gross for sounding non-committal about which side he’d caucus with if elected.) After those three, a lot of candidates were bunched in the middle.

Looking at the top 5 Republican candidates, Moore says it’s not clear more than two will advance.

“Most of the Republicans have gone over and voted for one of Sarah Palin, or Begich, and that doesn’t leave much for the other three,” he said. “So it’s going to be tough for them.”

If Moore is right about that, the concentration of Republican votes on two candidates virtually assures that conservatives can’t be shut out, and it leaves room for one or two non-Republicans to advance. 

And yet the liberal angst is real.

Anchorage health care professional Carrie Harris feels it. 

“I really like Chris Constant. I really like Mary Peltola. And Santa Claus,” she said. 

She’s holding on to her ballot while she listens to friends and people on social media whose opinion she values to learn more. 

“I’m not a numbers-cruncher,” she said. “I want to vote intelligently … but really, for this election, strategically is more important to me, to make sure that we get a truly viable candidate.”

As for Williams, the mathematician in Fairbanks, she gave up on working the numbers and just chose the candidate she likes best. 

“I think the primary, with 48 people — it’s just too complicated to be trying to strategize our way into the general,” Williams said.

Williams filled in the oval for Peltola, added the necessary signatures and dropped her ballot in the mail on Sunday.

For voters still deciding, ballots must be postmarked by June 11. 

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.