The weirdest subplot of the off-the-rails 2022 midterm election cycle is the desperate attempt by Sarah Palin to get back into politics.
The former governor of Alaska, 2008 Republican nominee for vice president, and longtime favorite of the Republican right planned to make a triumphal return to government earlier this year, with what was expected to be an easy win in a special election to fill the Alaska US seat that came open with the death of Republican Representative Don Young. She had the highest name recognition in the state. She was a prominent Republican running in a solidly Republican state. She had an endorsement from fellow reality-TV show politician Donald Trump. And she had more than enough money collected from gullible donors around the country to mount a statewide campaign.
What she lacked was a good argument for why anyone would want to be represented in Congress by a self-absorbed, self-serving, and self-dealing huckster like Sarah Palin. That proved to be a problem.
Palin lost the special election to Mary Peltola, a pro-choice, pro-labor working-class Democrat with deep roots in rural Alaska. who became the first member of her party to win Alaska’s sole House seat since 1972. It was a historic moment, as Peltola, a Yup’ik Eskimo, became the first Native Alaskan and the first woman to represent the state in the House.
But Palin thought the moment would be short-lived. The former governor assumed that in the November 8 general election voters would change course and elect her. “I never retreat,” announced Palin. “I reload.”
As Palin aims at the seat she covets in Congress, she keeps misfiring. She’s been complaining about the election system in Alaska, where the top four candidates from the primary election advance to a general election in which voters rank the candidates from favorite to least favorite. Under this ranked-choice voting system, if no candidate gets over 50 percent in the initial count, votes for the fourth- and third-place contenders are ultimately redistributed to the top two. When one of front-runners passes the 50 percent mark, that’s the winner. The system measures the actual will of the people, and it worked smoothly in August. Still, Palin found something to gripe about. “The people of Alaska do not want the destructive Democrat agenda to ruin our land and our lives, but that’s what resulted from someone’s experiment with this new crazy, convoluted, confusing ranked-choice voting system,” she claimed. “It’s effectively disenfranchised 60 percent of Alaska voters.”
As has so often been the case during the course of her career, Palin was wrong. There’s nothing “new” or “crazy” about ranked-choice voting. The system has been used successfully in countries around the world. It’s employed in statewide elections in Maine, and in New York City and other major metropolitan centers across the country. Her claim that 60 percent of Alaskan voters were disenfranchised in the August primary is simply false. Peltola led Palin and another Republican, Nick Begich, in the first round of counting. Begich’s votes were redistributed and Peltola got 52 percent of the vote in the final count, versus 48 percent for Palin. No one was disenfranchised. Palin’s complaints about the system also conveniently missed the point that the voters of Alaska approved the ranked-choice voting system in a 2020 statewide referendum.
But her whining did drive home the point that she’s running scared. The general election will essentially be a repeat of the special election, with Peltola, Palin, and Begich as the major contenders. All three are still running hard, and there is an expectation that, just in the special election, if Begich finishes third in the ranked-choice voting, a substantial portion of his votes will go to Peltola. If Peltola wins, that will be a major boost for Democrats in a year when the party’s control of the House is threatened by surging Republicans.
But could an Alaska Democrat really beat Sarah Palin twice in one year? Polls consistently put Peltola in the lead this fall. In fact, Peltola could even run stronger this time, as she’s now the incumbent in a state that tends to reelect its representatives.
Peltola hit the ground running in Washington. A former state legislator, she adapted quickly to her role as a US House member and has gotten high marks for providing engaged and effective constituent service in a sprawling state where voters place a lot of demands of their congressional representatives. In fact, Peltola has done such a good job that she’s attracted endorsements from top Republicans—including Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, who hailed the Democrat last week in a speech at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage.
Asked after the address if she was planning to rank Peltola as her first choice in the November 8 election, Murkowski replied, “Yeah, I am.”
Pressed on the question of why a Republican would back a Democrat, Murkowski, one of the last reasonably moderate Republicans in the Senate, said, “Because in Alaska, I think it’s still different. Mary is a friend.… We have been friends for 25 years, and the fact that we’re Republican and Democrat has never interfered with that friendship.”
Murkowski added, “I know that bothers some people who want me to be that rigid, partisan person, and I’m just not. I’m not, haven’t been, and I won’t be. I do not toe the party line just because party leaders have asked or because it may be expected. My first obligation is to the people of the state of Alaska.”
Murkowski’s up for reelection herself this year in her own ranked-choice voting contest. She faces several rivals, including a more conservative Republican who has been endorsed by former president Donald Trump. Murkowski is counting on crossover votes from Democrats, and one of them will come from Peltola, who responded to Murkowski’s statement by saying, “I’m voting for her, so we’re even-steven.”
That sort of bipartisanship is uncommon in this divisive election year. But it appears to be popular in Alaska. In the latest Alaska Survey Research poll of 1,276 likely voters in the state, Pelota was viewed positively by 52 percent of Alaskans. Palin’s positive rating was a paltry 33 percent.