Alaska special election for House seat becoming a crowded, unpredictable affair


Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin would typically have an immediate “name ID” advantage in a race for public office, but that’s not the case this year in the state’s special congressional election where she‘s running against Santa Claus.

Ms. Palin and Mr. Claus, however, are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the multitude of variables at play in the volatile special election race to replace late Rep. Don Young, who represented Alaska’s at-large congressional district from 1973 until his death this year.

For starters, 48 people are running. There are registered Republicans and registered Democrats, as well as libertarian, nonpartisan and undeclared candidates.

Aside from Ms. Palin and Mr. Claus, other candidates garnering attention include: Al Gross, the 2020 Democratic Senate nominee who is running as an independent; Tara Sweeney, an assistant secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs under former President Trump; Nick Begich III, the Republican nephew of a former Democratic Sen. Mark Begich and grandson of the man who held the House seat before Mr. Young; state Sen. Josh Revak, who has won the endorsement of Mr. Young’s widow, Anne Garland Walton; Christopher Constant, a Democrat who sits on the Anchorage Assembly; and Emil Notti, a Democrat who narrowly lost to Mr. Young in 1973.

If that’s not enough, the special election race also is serving as a test case for the state’s new system of open primaries and ranked-choice voting which voters narrowly approved in a 2020 referendum.

The top four vote-getters in the June 11 special election primary will advance to the Aug. 16 special general election, where voters will rank each candidate in order of preference.

If a candidate receives more than 50% of the first-choice votes, he or she win the race outright.

Otherwise, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and those votes shift toward the next choice on each voter’s ballot.

The ranked-choice process repeats itself from there until a candidate captures a majority.

The winner of the special election will serve out the remainder of Mr. Young’s term, which ends in January.

But that’s not the end of the story.

Voters on Aug. 16 also decide which of the four candidates running for the full two-year term that starts next year will advance to the November general election, which also will be decided through ranked-choice voting.

The deadline for candidates to file for that race is June 1.

J. Miles Coleman, of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the multi-layered process could yield a unique result.

“It is weird because you have had Don Young, who has been there for 50 years, and it is going to be a big change for Alaska because you could potentially have a year in which Alaska has had with three different members of Congress,” Mr. Coleman said.

In other words, the winner of the special election could be different from the winner of the November election.

“The seat is probably going to end up staying in Republican hands, but we can’t say for sure with all these candidates,” Mr. Coleman said. “It is just hard to get a handle on.”

Mr. Coleman said name recognition could end up playing a big role in the races, and it could cut both ways for someone like Ms. Palin, the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee.

“I feel like Palin is one of those candidates who is probably going to get to the top four, but she is just so polarizing that I can see her getting some people’s first choice votes, but not register high after that,” he said.

In a recent interview, Ms. Palin, Mr. Trump’s prefered pick, said Mr. Young has left some big shoes to fill, saying he was “Trump before Trump” and “politically incorrect in a good way.”

Aligning herself with hard-line House conservatives, Ms. Palin said the state needs someone who can come busting “out of the chute from Day One [and] be able to have some influence back East and be able to work with those in leadership in Congress and specifically those who make up the [House] Freedom Caucus.”

Mr. Begich, meanwhile, had a headstart on the field after launching a bid to challenge Mr. Young before he passed away. The Alaska Republican Party endorsed him.

“Alaska isn’t for quitters,” Mr. Begich said in a recent radio ad, apparently alluding to Ms. Palin resigning as governor in 2009, 18 months before the end of her term. “I’m a lifelong businessman, not a politician. I started, operated and invested in businesses across our nation. I know America’s strength and prosperity comes from free enterprise, limited government and hard work.”

For his part, Mr. Claus has had so many media inquiries that he at times has directed reporters to his campaign website, where visitors are greeted with a snapshot of a portly, white-bearded man. He changed his legal name in 2005 from Thomas O’Connor.

“Santa is a two-term Councilman and current Mayor Pro Tem of the City of North Pole, Alaska,” the website reads. “Santa Claus is an independent, progressive, democratic socialist, and shares many of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders’s positions.”

The site also shares a tidbit about the roots of his name.

“For those who may be interested, his name, Santa Claus, is derived from the Dutch expression for Saint Nicholas: Sinterklaas,” it says. “Nicholas was the Christian Bishop of Myra who lived in Asia Minor, where Turkey is now, during the fourth century.”

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