Why Republicans in Alaska’s first ranked choice election reserve their venom for each other

three people standing, with two women shaking hands.
Democrat Mary Peltola, left, keeps it cordial between herself and rival Republicans Nick Begich and Sarah Palin. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

One of the selling points of ranked choice voting is that it’s supposed to make elections more civil. 

But in Alaska, Republican U.S. House candidates Sarah Palin and Nick Begich are getting nasty with each other.

“Sarah Palin IS a quitter,” says the voiceover on one Begich ad. “She’s a quitter. She quit on us. She left us. She abandoned us. We picked her to do a job, and she didn’t bother to finish it. Because she wanted to go out there and get rich and famous.” 

In an interview, Begich sounded even less generous, saying Palin isn’t the right personality to represent Alaska.

“Self-aggrandizing. Uninformed. Intellectually deleterious, and empty rhetoric would be some of those qualities,” Begich said.

Palin, in a tele-rally this week, said Begich is “full of bull.” She said Begich isn’t smart about how he’s running for office.

“He clearly hasn’t allowed rank choice voting to impact the way that he negatively campaigns, as one would expect,” she said in a brief phone interview Wednesday afternoon. “When you’re counting on second-choice votes, it is the strangest tactic that he has. I think he’s very confused.”

Palin bashes Begich for his past support of Democratic candidates, like his uncle, former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich. She accuses him of being a RINO — Republican in Name Only. Even in this supposedly less partisan election system, evidence of bipartisanship is a weapon Palin wields to hit back at a fellow Republican.

The odd part about Alaska’s new system, Begich said, is that the primary no longer ends fighting among Republicans. 

“Traditionally, we would have our intra-party debates and discussions through a primary process and only one winner would emerge and proceed to the general election,” he said. “Today, we don’t have that opportunity.”

Both conservatives in the race would like each other’s supporters to rank them as a second, but there’s a more immediate concern. 

“Game No. 1 has to be that you don’t come in third,” Art Hackney, a Republican consultant working for Begich, said. “Because if you come in third, you are, you know, moot to the whole thing, and it becomes your second-choice votes that are the things that matter.”

Several research studies suggest ranked choice voting does sometimes produce less political rancor.

Jeannette Lee, Alaska researcher for the Sightline Institute think tank, said the race is tense because Begich and Palin know that one of them is likely to be the first candidate eliminated, and they’re fighting over the same pool of conservative voters.

“They’ve really been focused on going after each other,” Lee said. “It’s sort of like a family feud situation.”

It actually is a family feud. Begich is holding an election eve fundraiser at the Wasilla home of Jim and Faye Palin, Sarah Palin’s ex -in-laws. While Begich has their support, he doesn’t have the support of other Begich family members, some of whom are raising money for the campaign of Democrat Mary Peltola.

If ranked choice voting is taking any venom out of the  race, it’s most evident in the way Peltola is running. The Democrat takes selfies with her rivals at every opportunity and posts them on her social media accounts. Peltola said she had a great time walking in the Golden Days Parade in Fairbanks last month, beaming whenever she saw an attendee with a Palin or Begich sign.

“I think they were surprised to see me smile and get excited that they had a sign,” Peltola said. Each sign she saw “was an opening for me to say,’ Hey, you know, good choice. Please think of me second.’”

The voters seemed so startled by her approach, Peltola said, that they took it as humor. But Peltola claims she does have a lot in common with her Republican opponents. She said they have common ground on national security, concern for the economy and the need for development projects.

“All three of us understand Alaska has to continue to pay its bills, and we are a resource extraction state,’ she said.

Begich and Palin smile for her camera when Peltola takes her selfies with them. They apparently see little value in attacking the lone Democrat in the race. 

For more elections news visit alaskapublic.org/elections.

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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.