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Democrats seek to hold Alaska House seat in maverick state

Democrats are bracing for a tough fight in Alaska, where Rep. Mary Peltola (D) is seeking to win reelection after a surprise midterm victory in 2022 turned a House seat that had been held by a Republican for five decades blue.

Peltola became the first Native Alaskan to serve in Congress and has positioned herself as a moderate focused on state-specific issues for her constituents.

But she may face a more difficult reelection race in November if former President Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee, is on the ballot and brings GOP voters to the polls.

“Having Trump at the top of the ballot and [President] Biden at the top of the ballot is going to have impacts on turnout among Democrats and Republicans,” said strategist Robert Dillon, who previously worked for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). 

“I expect to have Republicans turn out strongly for Trump. The farther-right Republicans, you could have more people turn out because Trump’s on the ballot than would turn out in the past to vote Republican. They’re probably going to vote for straight ticket,” he said.

Alaska has had only had one at-large representative in the House for the entire state since it joined the union in 1959. Before Peltola’s election, the state nicknamed the “Last Frontier” had not been represented by a Democrat in the House since 1972, when then-Rep. Nick Begich (D) was presumed dead in a plane crash. 

The late Rep. Don Young (R) narrowly won a special election to succeed him the next year, and he held the seat for nearly 50 years. He served until he died in March 2022, triggering another special election. 

Peltola, previously a member of the Alaska state House, prevailed in that race, which was the first time Alaska used a ranked-choice voting system that voters narrowly approved in 2020. She also won in the general election that November, giving her a full term in office. 

Peltola defeated former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who was the GOP vice presidential nominee in 2008, and businessman Nick Begich III, the grandson of the former representative, in both the special and general election. This year, her main opponents will be Begich and Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom (R). 

Alaska has been a reliably red state at the presidential level and has not elected a Democratic governor since the 1990s, but more than half of all voters are not registered with one political party. With ranked-choice voting, candidates’ goal is to build a broader source of support, including from voters who prefer another candidate. 

“The system is designed to support candidates that can build the broadest possible coalition. So a candidate that can expand their appeal beyond just their hardcore base is likely to do better under this system because there’s an opportunity to get second votes,” said Dillon, who was involved in advocating for the ranked-choice ballot measure in 2020. 

Begich said in an interview that the best opportunity for Republicans to win back the seat is to coalesce around one candidate. He said he and Dahlstrom publicly committed to rank each other second on their ballots. 

Alaska’s electoral system consists of a blanket primary in which all candidates compete on the same ballot, with the top four candidates advancing to the general election. 

Voters then rank those candidates in the order they prefer them. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, the candidate in last is eliminated and their votes are redistributed according to their voters’ second preference. The process continues until one candidate has a majority. 

“My hope would be that we can get this race back down to one candidate on the right side of the aisle so that we can really have an opportunity to contrast Mary Peltola’s record with the policies that conservatives in Alaska want to see implemented in D.C.,” Begich said. 

He said he sees immigration as a top issue in Alaska for the first time in his memory with the spread of fentanyl in the state, and he expects energy issues to be prominent in the race as the August primary approaches.

He noted Peltola’s votes against Republican-led legislation addressing the border and energy production. 

Begich also argued Peltola’s endorsement of Biden will hurt her, as the Biden administration has limited drilling in the state. 

“We’ve got a fantastic opportunity for Republicans to take the seat back,” he said. “It certainly has the attention of folks not just in Alaska but across the nation.” 

He pointed to a poll from a left-leaning pollster that showed him and Peltola tied with 50 percent support in the final round of a hypothetical, ranked-choice match-up. 

House Republicans’ campaign arm has placed Peltola’s seat on a list they are specifically targeting in 2024. 

Dahlstrom said in a statement that the race is about “bringing conservative leadership back to Alaska.” She noted Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) and GOP leaders including House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) have endorsed her. 

“I stepped up to run because our current representative is failing us,” she said. “I will focus on ending Biden’s countless executive actions crushing our state, stopping the flood of illegal immigrants and drugs into our country, and unleashing Alaska’s energy potential to get our economy back on track.” 

Peltola has established a reputation for being a moderate willing to buck her party through her votes in the House, where she is among the most common Democratic defectors in the chamber. She still overwhelmingly votes in line with Democrats, which Republicans will seek to go after her for. 

Peltola campaign manager Elisa Rios said in a statement that the congresswoman has worked across the aisle and fought gridlock to help Alaskan families. She said Peltola’s advocacy for the Willow Project — which the Biden administration approved — brought more jobs and tax revenue to the state, and she has opposed the proposed merger between Kroger and Albertsons that she argues would increase grocery costs.

“[Peltola] always says the best strategy for winning reelection is doing the job well. We think she’s doing that, and voters will agree,” Rios said.

Alaska-based strategist John-Henry Heckendorn said the candidates face a challenge campaigning in Alaska because of its geography, calling it the most “logistically complicated congressional seat to campaign in anywhere in the country.” He noted that some parts of the state are only accessible by ferry or plane, and Alaska has “enormous” regional, cultural and economic diversity. 

“It’s a big hurdle. I also think that’s one of [Peltola’s] biggest strengths. The story is less that Peltola was able to convince voters to vote for a Democrat and more that she was able to convince them to vote for an Alaskan,” he said, referring to how she won in 2022. 

Begich said the first use of ranked-choice voting had implications for the House race two years ago, with Peltola as the only Democrat in the race and Republicans divided between himself and Palin. But voters have now seen the results of electing a Democrat to the House, and at least one poll showed a tight race despite Peltola’s significant fundraising advantage, he added. 

“We’ve been able to pull dead even with her in this race, and I think that momentum is going to continue forward into November,” he said. 

But strategists noted that Peltola is the most popular statewide official in Alaska, with one poll last month showing 51 percent of respondents viewing her favorably. 

Heckendorn noted that Young’s slogan while in office was “Congressman for all of Alaska” and was able to build a coalition based on being an “Alaskan first and a Republican second.” He compared this to Peltola’s strategy. 

“If you look at Peltola and Young on paper, you got a young, dynamic Alaska Native woman and an older crusty white guy, and yet their playbook for success is very similar,” he said.

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