How did Peltola beat Palin? Political analysts in Alaska say ‘civility matters’

woman at helm of boat
Mary Peltola won the special U.S. House election Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

Mary Peltola flipped a historically Republican seat for U.S. House on Wednesday. She will also be the first Alaska Native person to serve in Congress. And she won with the smallest fundraising budget of the three final candidates in the race.

Her victory against Trump-backed Republican Sarah Palin sets the stage for a contentious next few months as she, Palin and Republican Nick Begich compete for the full two-year term that begins in January.

Political consultant Jim Lottsfeldt said Thursday there are a number of reasons Peltola won, but a big one was excitement supporters felt for a progressive candidate focused on local issues, like sustainable fisheries management and protecting abortion rights.

“The enthusiasm that people had, among moderates to liberals for Mary Peltola was palpable,” he said. “[Not just] her ethnicity, but that she’s nice, she’s got this great track record, she’s got these great retail political skills.”

Lottsfeldt currently works for the super PAC Alaskans for Lisa, supporting Lisa Murkowski’s Senate reelection bid.

The election was also an indictment of Republican Sarah Palin, he said. Palin’s political capital in Alaska has waned in the last decade since she resigned as governor and later began to focus on her national celebrity. 

“Sarah Palin has really soiled her welcome with Alaskans. And there is just a supermajority of Alaskans that are done with her,” Lottsfeldt said, adding that he was unimpressed with her campaign this summer. 

“She avoided the press. She did very few public things. And when she was ever asked a question in public, her answers were simplistic and ‘slogan-y.’” he said.

A woman stands in front of a political campaign sign.
Sarah Palin at her Anchorage campaign headquarters on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022. (Valerie Kern/Alaska Public Media)

Then there’s the question of how Republican Nick Begich, who finished third, influenced the outcome of the race. In the ranked choice election, Begich was eliminated first. Just over half of his voters ranked Palin as their second choice. Nearly a third picked Peltola second. And the remaining 21% either left their second choice empty or chose a write-in candidate second and ranked no third candidate.

Lottsfeldt said he was surprised at the number of Begich-Peltola voters, but said again, distaste for Palin may have played a role. For those voters, a moderate Democrat like Peltola, who supports “possible exploration” of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain for drilling, could have felt like a better second choice.

Attorney Scott Kendall, who is also currently working for Alaskans for Lisa, said given the bruising campaigns Palin and Begich ran this cycle, it makes sense that Begich voters chose not to peel off for Palin in higher numbers. 

He said it likely cost Palin a victory.

“I go back to the very, very negative campaign, Nick Begich ran. It’s very tough to spend three months demonizing a person and then expect your supporters en masse to support that person. I think if there’s a single factor, it was Nick Begich’s campaign tactics,” Kendall said.

A man with a sign that says "Nick Begich for Congress" surrounded by people with the same sign
Nick Begich campaigns in Anchorage. (Alaska Public Media)

If the two Republican candidates hope to turn things around for November, Kendall argues that they’ll need to tone down the animosity that is keeping their supporters from ranking one another second. 

Already, it’s looking unlikely that will happen.

Talking to reporters after results came out Wednesday, Palin said she was waiting to see if Begich was “man enough” to drop out of the race to ensure a Republican win. Begich, meanwhile, attempted to gain support in a statement late Wednesday, saying Palin could not win “because her unfavorability rating is so high.”

It appears unlikely that either Republican candidate will drop out of the race, and it remains to be seen how party support will tip. The question now, Lottsfeldt said, is money.

“Can Begich raise any money? Or is he just going to have to spend all his own? Palin has the ability to raise a lot of money, but people sort of thought this was her race to lose — and she lost it. So is there less enthusiasm there?” Lottsfeldt asked.

Kendall said even if Begich beats Palin and comes in second in the general election, it’s unlikely he’d win a ranked choice run-off against Peltola.

“There is no question in my mind that if he overtakes [Palin] employing the same tactics that he’s used to date, there will be an enormous bleed-off, maybe even more bleed-off than we just saw of votes for Palin that either don’t rank [a second-choice candidate] or go to Peltola,” Kendall said. “Because civility matters.”

Meanwhile, Peltola’s path to a November victory is by no means assured, but Lottsfeldt said getting to campaign as the incumbent is a huge boost, both in name recognition and in fundraising.

Peltola was reportedly taking congratulatory phone calls from President Joe Biden and Sen. Murkowski after her win. Her name was splashed across national news sites Thursday morning.

“She’s a national figure. She just knocked off the number one Donald Trump surrogate in the universe, Sarah Palin,” Lottsfeldt said. “So will they capitalize on it? And instead of running a campaign that was spending a couple hundred thousand dollars, will they now be sitting on $20 million?”

Peltola is expected to be sworn into office later this month. The general election for the full U.S. House term is Nov. 8. 

Find other elections coverage and voter resources at alaskapublic.org/elections.

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Remember: You have until Oct. 9 to register to vote or to update your voter registration. Find out how here.

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Kavitha George is the host of Alaska Morning News at Alaska Public Media. She also reports on business, labor and the economy. Reach her at kgeorge@alaskapublic.org.