With 50 people in the race for Alaska’s lone congressional seat, politicos are noodling through the shifting math problem for how many votes the candidates would probably need to emerge from the June 11 special election primary into in the final four for the special general election set for Aug. 16.
Alaska’s new voting system is made more complicated this year by the need to conduct a special election to temporarily replace Congressman Don Young, who died March 18, 2022. It’s the first time Alaskans have had a special election to replace a congressman since Young’s predecessor, Congressman Nick Begich, died in office in 1972.
The stampede to sign up at the Division of Elections ended at 5 pm on April 1, and among the hopefuls are a pair of former lawmakers: former State Rep. Andrew Halcro of Anchorage, and former State Sen. John Coghill of Fairbanks. There are a couple of sitting lawmakers as well: State Rep. Adam Wool of Fairbanks and State Sen. Josh Revak of Anchorage.
Most voters in Kasaan or Kaktovik won’t likely recognize those names when they receive their mail-in ballots from the Elections Division at the end of May.
But nearly all voters will know a few names on the list at the end of this story: former Gov. Sarah Palin, Nick Begich, Alan Gross, and … wait for it … Santa Claus.
Claus, who changed his birth name from Thomas Patrick O’Connor in 2005, is a no-party candidate who serves on the North Pole City Council. In an array of names that may not mean much to the average set-netter in Egegik or truck driver in Glennallen, Santa Claus could be where the hard-working, distracted, or tuned-out Alaskan voter makes his mark. For the primary, it’s a “pick one” choice. After all, how bad can a guy named Santa Claus be?
The timeframe is short for any of the candidates to build a loyal following, much less the political tribe needed to propel them to victory. Most are starting from scratch with no money and no volunteers, and if 50 remain on the ballot in June, (Jesse Sumner has dropped already) it’s almost a given that none who reach the final four ballot on Aug. 16 will do so with more than 22 percent of the vote.
The top contenders will be the ones who already have that political tribe — or some undeniable name recognition factor, someone like actor Chuck Norris or NASCAR driver Danica Patrick. Alaska has four with such name recognition who have signed up for the special primary election.
Here are four who have the political tribe or name recognition needed:
Alan Gross: He ran in 2020 against Sen. Dan Sullivan and raised over $9 million, much it from Outside Alaska. He had tens of millions spent on his behalf by Democrat political groups that thought they could unseat Sullivan. It was more money than had ever been seen in Alaska’s senatorial races. In the general election he received 146,068 votes, or 41 percent of the vote. Those voters are his political tribe now; he has their contact information and he knows how to reach them. He also has an experienced political team to fall back on with the Ship Creek Group. The Democratic Party backed Gross before and will probably back him again, even though he is a registered nonpartisan.
Gross has kept up a steady pace with his social media presence. He posts positive pictures of his family and their exciting and happy life. He just returned from Cambodia, where he was teaching surgery. He is not starting this race from zero, like he did in 2020 when he challenged Sullivan.
Sarah Palin: Palin is a money-raising machine on the national level. She has over 4 million followers on Facebook, and 207,000 followers on Instagram. As Alaska’s former governor, her social media score is higher than any other Alaskan. A low-propensity voter looking at 50 names on a ballot that arrived in the mailbox might seize on her name as the only one he or she knows.
In 2006, Palin won the governor’s race against Gov. Tony Knowles with over 114,000 votes, or 48 percent of all votes. At least some of those voters still live in the state, and a percentage of them still remember the hounding she endured from the Anchorage Daily News. Some would like to see her vanquish the media that hates her. A vote for Palin is a vote against mainstream media. Newcomers to the state might be attracted to her name due to her undeniable star factor, even if the political wizards of the state don’t think she has what it takes.
Palin is a communication expert and has kept her profile high since prematurely quitting as governor in 2009. She will have to overcome the reputation as “quitter,” because few will remember that, as described by a close associate, “Attacks inside Alaska and largely invisible to the national media had paralyzed her administration. She was fully aware she would be branded a ‘quitter.’ She did not want to disappoint her constituents, but she was no longer able to do the job she had been elected to do. Essentially, the taxpayers were paying for Sarah to go to work every day and defend herself.” It was death by a 1,000 public records requests by the mainstream media in 2009. (Wall Street Journal, July 8, 2009).
Palin is now embroiled in a lawsuit against the New York Times for defamation regarding their editorial characterization of her political action committee somehow fomenting a climate of political violence that led to a mass shooting in Arizona. She is appealing the Manhattan federal court’s ruling against her case. Now that the ink is dry on her divorce papers with Todd Palin, she has the bandwidth to launch a campaign. The political insiders in Alaska say she has been working with Corey Lewandowski, of Trumpworld. Lewandowski was the first campaign manager of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, and has been an analyst for One America News Network, Fox News and CNN. That could lead to an endorsement from Donald Trump, who has also endorsed Kelly Tshibaka against incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
Nick Begich: Begich is the grandson of Congressman Begich, who died in a plane crash in October of 1972, just before the election. Even then, Begich, after whom Nick III is named, won the election over Don Young. Young then won the special election in 1973. In a twist of fate, Young died on a plane on March 18, 2022. Nick III, a Republican in a family known for Democrats, has been in the race to replace him since October, and has a huge following, with over 100 influential endorsements, a list that seems to grow daily. An argument can be made that he has built enough of a following to make it to the final four in August.
Begich immediately contracted with Axiom Strategies, which has just come off of a win for Glenn Youngkin for the the governor’s race in Virginia, and before that, a successful Dave Bronson for mayor of Anchorage. Read about that in this Must Read Alaska story from 2021. Axiom is the largest Republican campaign firm in the nation. Its president, Jeff Roe, cut his teeth by helping a relatively unknown Hispanic win for U.S. Senate for Texas. That winner was Sen. Ted Cruz, who beat David Dewhurst in the Texas Senate Republican primary.
Santa Claus: The jolly elf who typically votes Democrat sits on the North Pole City Council. He has the requisite fluffy beard and bowl-full-of-jelly belly, and he’s got centuries of marketing behind his name, with no baggage to speak of. Claus really won’t have to do much to attract the voters who take one look at the ballot; some will vote under the influence of a whim or dram of whiskey. Others will be the “to heck with them all” voters who pick Claus as a protest of the whole confusing election process this year.
Claus is a happy liberal who once told Congressman Young that if he ever ran against him it would be “Santa vs. Pinocchio.” Claus isn’t in it for the full two-year term. He’s only interested in serving as a temporary congressman. After all, he’s 74 going on 75.
Claus is an independent, progressive, democratic socialist type, and shares many of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ positions. He was a Sanders alternate delegate to the National Democratic Nominating Convention. Sanders was very, very popular with Alaska Democrats in 2016, beating Hillary Clinton in a landslide at the Democratic caucuses. Clinton seemed to win the party nomination by hook or by crook that year, however, as evidenced in the WikiLeaks episode that showed party leaders colluded to cut out Sanders. That story is told in Must Read Alaska here.
Claus does not solicit or accept campaign contributions. His campaign will by by social media.
The runners up may be cringing at the thought of losing to Palin, Begich, Claus, and Gross, but only 70 days remain before the June 11 special election primary comes to a close. Anyone without the name recognition not coming with a massive campaign war chest to build that public profile and get out the vote is starting at a great disadvantage. To be clear, it’s almost an impossible disadvantage as Alaskans move into their busy summer season and are distracted by fish and home improvements.
The current elected officials who are running for the seat have a unique problem: Adam Wool and Josh Revak will not know until the third week of June if they have made the final four for the August 16 special general election. But they will have to come off of the regular primary ballot if they intend to move forward. Why? They cannot appear on the ballot in two spots — as a state candidate and as a congressional candidate.
As for Tara Sweeney, a Native leader and political insider with the Sen. Lisa Murkowski and her strong network, she may have built a political tribe among influential Natives, Democrats, and Republicans over the years. Although the Native vote has been somewhat weak in the past, the thought of having an Alaska Native in Congress may invigorate the vote. Sweeney was appointed by President Donald Trump to lead the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a position she left when President Biden was sworn into office. Emil Notti, a Native elder, will peel off votes from some who recall that he ran against Don Young in 1973, and came close. But Sweeney takes votes from Revak; the two were the co-chairs for the Alaskans for Don Young campaign this year.
For the June 11 special primary, the candidates have until close of business Monday to withdraw. Ballots will be mailed to qualified voters no later than May 20. The target date for certification of the final four is June 25.
Another consideration: With so many on the ballot, the likelihood of someone asking for a recount is strong. That could delay the process in late June.
On Aug. 16, the final four will be in a ranked choice voting general election, which will take place at the same time the regular primary election is held in Alaska. Answers to questions about the entire process are here.
CURRENT FIELD FOR SPECIAL PRIMARY (Independent = nonpartisan or undeclared with a party):