Alaska’s midterm elections were a win for moderate politics. A moderate Republican regained her US Senate seat. A moderate Democrat will continue to serve as Alaska’s lone Congressperson in the US House. A conservative Republican returned to the governor’s mansion, while the state legislature appears poised to form a bipartisan majority in the Senate, with a much smaller chance the House does the same.
In the state’s first regular ranked choice general election, the politically mixed results reflected the independent streak of Alaska voters. The pairing of the open primary with ranked choice voting yielded a group of winning candidates that, collectively, is moderate and independent, just like Alaska’s electorate. The system also helped to check extremist candidates; was easy for voters to understand; reduced the power of political parties and hyperpartisan primary voters; and ensured no candidate won without a majority in the final round.
Alaska Division of Elections director Gail Fenumiai presented the results live on KTOO 360TV and KTOO-FM. Voters approved Alaska’s election reforms in 2020, meaning Fenumiai and her agency have spent the last two years setting up the election system. Fenumiai choked up while thanking election workers before painstakingly walking viewers through the tabulations.
Murkowski keeps US Senate seat
Moderate Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski was reelected to the US Senate for the fourth time, beating out challengers Kelly Tshibaka, a Trump-backed Republican, and Pat Chesbro, a Democrat.
Murkowski barely led Tshibaka in first round results, 43.37 percent to 42.6 percent, then pulled ahead for the win in Round 3, after votes for Republican Buzz Kelley, who dropped out but was still on the ballot, and then Chesbro, were redistributed. Murkowski captured 54 percent of final round votes. It’s the first time Murkowski has crested the 50 percent mark in a race.
The US Senate race was always between Murkowski and Tshibaka, the latest iteration of a struggle between the moderate and extreme strains of Republican politics in Alaska. Murkowski’s insistence on holding the middle-ish ground even as her party shifted to the right has angered a large chunk of Alaska Republicans for at least a decade. In 2010, Joe Miller, a candidate from the Tea Party, the precursor to Trump-centric conservative politics, bested Murkowski in the Republican primary. Murkowski then ran and won a write-in campaign in the general election. She roundly defeated Miller in 2016.
In 2022, Trump and Alaska’s Republican Party shunned Murkowski, but without a closed primary, the party couldn’t keep her out of the general election. Murkowski and Tshibaka easily secured spots on the November ranked choice ballot. Chesbro and Kelley rounded out the top four.
Murkowski’s campaign went full-on bipartisan, a smart move given that she needed Democrats’ rankings, first or second, to win, and because, as she told the Anchorage Daily News, “that’s who I am.” She endorsed Peltola, spoke about her support of women’s right to choose, and touted the benefits to Alaska of the $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill, a key piece of President Joe Biden’s agenda that Murkowski helped hammer out with a bipartisan group of lawmakers. She also stuck to her commitment to develop Alaska’s oil and gas fields, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And she voted against Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, which directed $369 billion to clean energy, health care, and other climate investments.
Tshibaka, a pro-Trump conservative, grew up in Alaska, but lived outside the state for most of her adult life. She spent much of her campaign reestablishing her Alaska cred. Murkowski had eaten muktuk? She was carrying some in her purse? Well, Tshibaka had made muktuk, according to a story in The New Yorker. (Muktuk is whale skin and blubber, a traditional food for many Alaska Natives.) She campaigned alongside Trump during his trip to Alaska in July and described Murkowski as politically “purple,” perhaps not realizing how much many Alaskans appreciate that hue. A cool $5 million in anti-Tshibaka attack ads bankrolled by the super PAC linked to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did nothing to sway the Alaska Republican Party from supporting Tshibaka. In a symbolic vote, the party censured McConnell.
Under the old system, Murkowski may well have had to run a second write-in campaign. But as the candidate with the most support, the open primary guaranteed her a spot on the general election ballot. In the ranked choice general, Murkowski did not have to worry about splitting the vote. Chesbro never gained enough traction, even with Democrats, to pose a true threat. And the lion’s share of her second-choice ballots went to Murkowski. Were Murkowski to run against a strong Democrat, she might well lose. But given the importance of seniority in the Senate for securing federal dollars and the strong relationships she’s built since being appointed to the Senate by her father in 2004, her seat seems safe for as long as she wants it.
Peltola wins US House race
Rep. Peltola extended her stay in Congress by a full two-year term, beating Republican rivals Sarah Palin and Nick Begich. Libertarian Chris Bye was eliminated in Round 1. Begich lost Round 2, and his votes were redistributed to hand Peltola the win in Round 3, with 136,893 votes, or 55 percent.
In August, Peltola won a special election to finish out the term of Representative Don Young, a Republican, who died suddenly in his 49th year in the House. Peltola was a former state legislator but did not enter the special election as a statewide household name. Still, enough voters liked her that she made it through the 48-candidate special open primary in June to finish in the top four. In a regular Democratic primary, it’s highly unlikely Peltola would have advanced to the general election. Other Democratic and Independent candidates were more Alaska-famous or had locked up key endorsements and donors.
Peltola then won the special ranked choice general election in August, becoming the first person of Alaska Native heritage to serve in Congress and the first woman to represent Alaska in the House. As a sitting member of Congress with enhanced name recognition, Peltola became the favorite to retake the seat for a full term. Her victory attracted new, deep-pocketed donors, including Hollywood celebrities, giving her more campaign resources than ever.
How did a relatively unknown Democrat win two elections to replace the longest-serving Republican in Congress? Peltola was a relatable candidate who emphasized bipartisanship and kindness in her campaign style, both good fits for the new system. She was so likeable that even she and Palin got along well. (In fact, Palin had more nice things to say about Peltola than she did about Begich.) Peltola’s friendship with the Young family further established her cross-party appeal. Young’s daughters endorsed Peltola onstage in the packed main ballroom at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in October. They even presented Peltola with their father’s bolo tie. Former Young staffers also endorsed Peltola, and she ended up hiring Young’s former chief of staff. Her pro-fish message resonated with many Alaskans and spawned stories in national press outlets.
Ranked choice voting should have boosted the Republican Party in the House race by helping supporters avoid vote-splitting. Under normal partisan circumstances, Begich’s second-place votes would have gone to Palin and she would have won. But Palin and Begich repeated the same mistake they made in the special ranked choice election. Knowing only one of them could survive Round 1, they continued attacking each other rather than helping each other out. Begich called Palin a “quitter” for leaving the governorship to chase national fame and fortune before her term was up. Palin questioned Begich’s credentials as an Alaskan, threw shade on his relative lack of political experience, and cast doubt on his fealty to the Republican cause.
Another reason for the fractured Republican vote: Palin isn’t well-liked by Alaska’s Republican establishment, which supported Begich. A critical number of Begich voters chose not to support Palin. Nearly 14,000 of his voters didn’t even bother ranking a second candidate, while another 7,460 Begich votes went to Peltola. The candidates also gave Republican voters mixed messages about ranked choice voting. While the Republican Party was telling voters to “rank the red,” Palin spent most of election season telling supporters not to rank candidates.
These unforced errors may have cost Republicans the race. A more collegial and disciplined pair of Republican candidates may well have worked together to drum up votes for each other. Peltola’s position will be more precarious next time around if she faces less polarizing opponents who are savvier about ranked choice voting.
Dunleavy wins second term as governor
The very same voters who are sending Sen. Murkowski and Rep. Peltola back to Washington also chose conservative Gov. Mike Dunleavy for another term. Dunleavy won the race outright with 50.3 percent of the vote against former Gov. Bill Walker, former state House Representative Les Gara, and Charlie Pierce, the former mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
In this race, the main focus for voters was three letters: PFD. They stand for Permanent Fund Dividend, the royalty check sent each year from the state to all Alaskans. In 2022, each Alaskan, kids included, received a giant PFD, plus an energy relief check, totaling more than $3200. Adjusted for inflation, it’s among the highest payouts in state history. The PFD is a form of universal basic income, with many lower-income families depending on it for food, gas, housing, and other necessities.
Dunleavy has positioned himself as the champion of a full dividend while at the same time cutting state services. In Dunleavy’s first year in office, his proposed budget contained deep cuts to the Alaska Marine Highway and increased rates at the state’s Pioneer Homes for seniors. Dunleavy also vetoed funding for state courts because he disagreed with their constitutionally correct rulings on abortion. His cuts angered so many Alaskans, including fellow Republicans, they launched a recall campaign against him. The campaign attracted tens of thousands of signatures, even during the pandemic, but ultimately failed. Still, it may have served as a wake-up call; Dunleavy has never again proposed such drastic cuts.
The pandemic helped distance Dunleavy from his unpopular budget decisions. And his insistence on a fully funded PFD gained him support during a time of high inflation and economic hardship. Dunleavy instructed the state’s PFD division to release the historically large checks earlier than usual this year, in September instead of October.
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Walker and Gara played by ranked choice rules, though it wasn’t enough to beat Dunleavy. Citing the urgency of removing Dunleavy from office, they encouraged each other’s supporters to rank the other second. Gara had 24 percent of first-choice votes, while Walker earned 21 percent.
Dunleavy maintained a low profile throughout campaign season, skipping candidate debates and choosing not to attend an Anchorage rally Trump held in July. Trump endorsed Dunleavy, but the governor told the Anchorage Daily News that the two did not meet during the visit.
Interestingly, though Dunleavy won, the constitutional convention he encouraged Alaskans to support lost by an overwhelming margin, with 70 percent of voters saying no. Dunleavy and other supporters had seen the chance for a broad rewrite of Alaska’s constitution as a way to enshrine the PFD, change Alaska’s judicial selection process, and curb abortion rights.
The state Senate will form a bipartisan majority; possibly the state House will too
Election results show Alaska’s state Senate will likely shift from Republican control to a bipartisan majority coalition. The makeup of the state House, which has had a multipartisan majority since 2017, is far less certain. The new election system, redistricting, and a large number of departing legislators all were factors in changing who will be representing Alaskans in Juneau come January.
In the state Senate, Democrats will have 9 seats and Republicans will have 11. The Republicans are split between moderate and conservative wings, with some moderates likely to form a bipartisan majority coalition with Democrats, outgoing Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, told the Anchorage Daily News: “The question isn’t whether there will be one. The question is what size will it be?”
The return of former Senate President Cathy Giessel cements it. Giessel was among the lawmakers who opposed Dunleavy’s 2019 budget cuts and co-chaired the group that successfully opposed a constitutional convention. Giessel lost the 2020 Republican primary to Roger Holland, who accused her in an Alaska Public Media interview of losing touch with “what her job should be as a Republican senator in a Republican state.”
In 2022, Giessel, a strong supporter of the election reforms, no longer had to worry about losing to Holland in the top-four open primary. In the ranked choice general, Giessel hit 57 percent for the win, buoyed by a wave of second-place votes from Cacy ballots.
In the 40-seat state House, Democrats won 13 seats and Republicans had 20. Independents took 6 seats. One race, between Republican Thomas McKay and Democrat Denny Wells, was too close to call. McKay is ahead by a mere four votes, triggering a recount. A Wells win would make a coalition far more likely, though still not a guarantee. And there will be many other factors and personalities in play as the House organizes.
Already, opponents of Alaska’s open primaries and ranked choice general election system are gearing up to take it down. Palin recently was the first signatory of a ballot initiative petition to go back to the old system of closed and semi-closed primaries and plurality voting in general elections.
But now that Alaska voters have tried it, they may not want to go back. Alaskans had more choice, particularly among statewide candidates. The system ensured that candidates who were popular with general election voters weren’t shut out in partisan primaries. And it’s likely that most Alaskans are genuinely happy about at least one of the statewide candidates, and at least a little annoyed about one of the others. That’s democracy. You win some, but only some.
When discussing the mix of candidates projected to win, Murkowski told the Anchorage Daily News: “Alaska’s politics are different than the national politics. My takeaway is that Alaskans, once again, are reflecting their independence, they are reflecting that they will choose person over party.”
Why give that up?