EDITOR’S NOTE: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full archive of Katrina’s Washington Post columns here.
Last month, when Mary Peltola won the special election for Alaska’s sole seat in the US House of Representatives, Democrats gained major ground—literally. By flipping that seat, they doubled the amount of land they represent in the lower chamber of Congress, reflecting how unusual it is that the party was able to succeed in the massive rural state.
Of course, Peltola’s victory won’t necessarily translate into broader success for Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections. It would be easy to dismiss her race as idiosyncratic: She faced a deeply unpopular opponent in Sarah Palin; Alaska has the nation’s highest rate of voters not affiliated with a major political party; and the state recently adopted ranked-choice voting. These factors made a traditionally deep-red district more attainable for a Democrat—especially one who ran her campaign on “Fish, Family, & Freedom.”
But every election has its idiosyncrasies; what matters is whether a candidate can seize on them and turn them into opportunities. Peltola’s victory offers important reminders about how Democratic candidates can stay competitive across all kinds of regional races, and her campaign could provide a road map for progressives looking to flip seats in areas the party has lately written off.
First, Peltola’s success demonstrates the value of putting a genuine effort into regions where Democrats have historically not invested enough. Although Alaska hadn’t elected a Democrat to the US House since 1972—and it’s one of the most rural states in the country—Peltola emerged victorious. To be sure, it can be difficult to predict which seemingly long-shot races are worth pursuing—but if Democrats put up a real fight in as many races as possible, they can sometimes find themselves electing a Mary Peltola in Alaska, a Jon Tester in Montana, a Laura Kelly in Kansas. (See also: former Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy.) That isn’t possible when Democrats allow Republicans to run unopposed, or when they nominate candidates who serve as little more than decoration on the ballot.
Second, this race shows us what a genuine effort looks like. Despite the increasing nationalization of congressional campaign efforts, Peltola didn’t win by pulling in money, attention, and phone-bankers from the contiguous 48. Her meager $380,000 war chest pales in comparison with those in other toss-up special-election campaigns. Pat Ryan garnered more than $1.5 million for his upset in New York’s 19th Congressional District last month, and in 2017, Jon Ossoff spent more than $30 million to lose in Georgia’s sixth. Both of Peltola’s Republican opponents—Palin and Nick Begich III—significantly outraised and outspent her. Still, she prevailed. (Though make no mistake, she will certainly need plenty of financial support to succeed in November!)
With little out-of-state money, Peltola focused on connecting with voters about in-state issues—including, most significantly, fish. An Alaska Yup’ik Native, Peltola can point to a lifetime of fishing on the Kuskokwim River and boasts such professional titles as “Salmon Fellow,” so she offered practical expertise about a resource that provides subsistence, sport and sales for her constituents.
And those constituents need help: Last year’s salmon returns were down a whopping 87 percent, and rising water temperatures have meant more than 100 mass salmon die-offs in the state. Peltola cut through the intraparty squabbling of her opponents and became the definitive voice on an issue that mattered to her prospective constituents. Strong fish policy might not capture the imagination of out-of-state donors, but it took hold in a district that borders three oceans.
Third, Alaska’s special election demonstrated the power of ranked-choice voting to pull a consensus candidate from the fray. Among first-choice votes, Peltola led the pack by nine points, but she crossed the critical 50 percent threshold thanks to people whose first choice was Begich— 29 percent of these voters crossed party lines to rank Peltola over Palin.
Despite what opponents of ranked-choice voting (a group that, no surprise, includes Palin and Begich) say, ranked-choice is good for democracy. It rewards candidates who build consensus instead of catering to their party’s fringe and allows people to indicate support for multiple candidates instead of strategically voting based on (often inaccurate) perceptions about who is likely to win.
Thanks to efforts by advocates nationwide, the system is reaching more voters. According to the nonpartisan electoral reform organization FairVote, 55 cities, counties and states will adopt ranked-choice voting by their next election—and a November ballot initiative could put Nevada on the path to doing so. But the state’s Democratic Party is mobilizing against the initiative—even though Democrats used ranked-choice voting themselves for the 2020 presidential caucus. Perhaps the party that has lately positioned itself as singularly committed to democracy ought to be more supportive of reforms that give voters more control.
Ultimately, a politician succeeds by genuinely connecting on the issues that matter most to their community—like “pro-jobs, pro-fish, pro-family, and pro-choice” Peltola.