The surprise victory of Democratic congressional candidate Mary Peltola on Wednesday night delighted Democrats and divided Republicans. Peltola technically won the election with fewer votes than both Republican candidates Nick Begich and Sarah Palin combined, a quirk of the ranked-choice voting system used in the special election.
It was a huge upset for the Republicans, handing over a vital congressional seat to a Democrat at a time when Democrats need every vote they can get, but the GOP has a chance to win back the seat within a matter of months. Peltola’s win could be temporary if only the Republican Party could choose a single candidate to go up against her in the November general election.
Among the vocal Republicans criticizing GOP leadership and the Begich campaign are Ryan Girdusky, political consultant and founder of the 1776 Project PAC. Girdusky tells 19FortyFive that the loss boils down to two significant problems – corporate GOP groups backing Begich and Palin’s campaign struggling to defend her record.
Republicans Voice Their Discontent With Alaska’s Run-Off
“Rank-choice voting definitely played a part but two major things were going on,” Girdusky told 19FortyFive. “Outside money from corporate GOP groups flooded in for Begich, the NRCC [National Republican Congressional Committee] refused to pick one or the other, and Palin’s campaign was unable to change the narrative over her record and improve her negatives.”
Peltola may have become the first Democrat elected to Congress in Alaska in 50 years, but her victory doesn’t necessarily hint at a Blue Wave in November, nor does it show a radical shift to the left in the state of Alaska. The newly elected Democrat won 74,807 first-round votes in the election, 39.66 percent of the total votes cast. Palin won 58,328 votes and 30.93 percent of the total votes cast, while fellow Republican Nick Begich won 52,504 and 27.84 percent. After moving on to the second round of voting, Peltola won 51.47 percent of the vote and Palin 48.53 percent.
The Republicans won more first-preference votes than Democrats, and by a substantial margin. Palin and Begich also won a more significant percentage of the vote than former President Donald Trump did in 2020, with 61 percent to Trump’s 53 percent in 2020. Even as the Democrats work tirelessly to paint the Republican Party as a threat to democracy and former President Donald Trump’s populist agenda as “backward,” Republicans increased their support in Alaska with two candidates running on right-wing, populist platforms.
That being said, Girdusky says that Palin is unquestionably the most populist candidate of the two.
“Palin is undeniably the populist candidate, she took on the establishment for decades as well as major corporations that were screwing over Alaskans,” he said. “Her career as governor was brilliant.
Despite any common ground on policy, however, the two candidates have some unreconcilable differences – meaning Palin’s inability to win over enough second-preference votes from Begich’s supporters shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
Begich fought hard against Palin, and in his concession statement reiterated his claim that Palin is so disliked that she can’t win in a head-to-head race against Peltola. Roughly 50 percent of Begich voters chose Palin as their second preference in the special election, while around 30 percent chose Peltola and 20 percent decided not to cast a second preference vote at all.
GOP Couldn’t Make Up Its Mind
The Republican Party’s inability to decide on one candidate, and Begich’s insistence that Palin could not win, ultimately lost Palin this election. But there’s more to it than just Begich.
In a Twitter post on Wednesday, Girdusky also pointed fingers at the GOP establishment, blaming chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee Tom Emmer for the party underperforming in every special election since he announced he was running for party whip.
As the votes were being counted on Wednesday, Emmer claimed that the NRCC was limited in what it could do because of the extreme division between the two Republican candidates.
“Regarding the NRCC’s effort, since there were two Republicans on that ballot that were very divided (President Trump endorsed Palin and the Alaska GOP endorsed Begich) we were limited in what we could do,” Emmer said.
The fact that the GOP couldn’t decide on one candidate isn’t exactly ideal in a race with two Republican candidates, but worse is the fact that those two candidates couldn’t convince their supporters to back the other Republican in their second preference vote. Whether that’s solely the result of partisanship between the two campaigns or GOP voters just not understanding how rank-choice voting works is unclear. What we do know, though, is that had those 20 percent of Begich voters who didn’t cast a second-preference vote given their second vote to Palin, she’d have beaten Peltola by around 5,000 votes.
In a tweet on Thursday, however, Begich insisted that he “consistently encouraged” his supporters to “rank the red,” meaning backing Sarah Palin as a second choice on the ballot. Begich uploaded a video of Palin which he said showed the former Alaska governor telling voters not to back him.
“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!” Begich said.
Can Palin Win In November?
Palin lost this time, but it doesn’t mean she can’t win when voters go to the polls in November to choose a candidate to see out a full two years in Congress.
If Democrats had hoped the introduction of ranked-choice in this election would help them, they may only be half right. While splitting the vote between two Republicans gave Peltola the edge this time, it could encourage Palin and Begich voters to think differently in November. If neither candidate backs out before then – something both Palin and Begich appear to have ruled out already – they could at least spend more time telling their supporters to give their second preference vote to the other Republican candidate.
Even if Palin is reluctant to do that, as Begich claims, she may not need to. Simply seeing a Democrat in Congress, especially at a time when Democrats brand Republicans “extremists” and a “threat to democracy,” may be exactly what Palin needs to win over reluctant Begich voters.
Palin may also be able to improve her campaign messaging.
Girdusky, a champion of populism within the GOP, expressed optimism that Palin can win the election if she doubles down and reminds Alaska voters who she was before she was famous.
“She needs to remind people she is the champion of the people, she’s the one who made sure they got their funds from big oil, she was their champion way before she was a celebrity,” he said. “She needs to remind them of her roots and what she did.”
Palin only lost to Peltola by 5,000 votes, and there’s everything to play for in November.
1776 Project PAC is a PAC dedicated to electing school board members committed to abolishing Critical Race Theory from the public school curriculum. The campaign recently won a series of victories in Texas and Florida and hopes to take the project nationwide.
Jack Buckby is a British author, counter-extremism researcher, and journalist based in New York. Reporting on the U.K., Europe, and the U.S., he works to analyze and understand left-wing and right-wing radicalization, and reports on Western governments’ approaches to the pressing issues of today. His books and research papers explore these themes and propose pragmatic solutions to our increasingly polarized society.