Is Alaska a New National Bellwether?
All along — far before Palin got on board — Begich had encouraged his supporters to mark Palin second on their ballots. But he has also cast Palin as a “quitter” incapable of beating Peltola. And in his effort to contrast his candidacy with hers, he has not been above provocation. He has distributed buttons poking Palin’s brand that say, “Another hockey mom for Nick Begich.”
In the parking lot of the restaurant where the Republicans met, Aaron Coman, the owner of a hit music station in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, shook his head at the animosity between the two Republicans. He said he’d appealed personally to both Palin’s and Begich’s campaigns to “stop beating each other up.”
“If you continue to bash each other, we’re going to get another Mary Peltola win,” he said. “And that’s a fact.”
But when I asked if he was confident the result would be any different in November, he said, “No.”
Normally, a party goes through a primary, takes their shots at each other, and then coalesces around a nominee. But in Alaska, where ranked choice voting has everyone still running against one another, “really what it’s doing is splitting up the Republicans, in goodwill and also votes,” said Kathy McCollum, president of the Mat-Su Republican Women’s Club, which hosted the event where Brown spoke.
She said, “It’s really caused a lot of grief.”
If Alaska’s voting system is unusual, the issues and logistics of campaigning here are something else, too.
One recent morning, Begich and Murkowski, piled onto the same Alaska Airlines flight from Anchorage to the city of Kodiak, located on an island about 30 miles off the coast where, despite the pilot’s warning that inclement weather might force them to turn back, they landed in heavy rain to attend, along with Palin and Peltola, a series of candidate debates focused on fisheries. (On the return flight, Begich and Murkowski shared a row, and Peltola sat across from them: “I’m on the inside, Nick,” Murkowski said when she boarded.)
In a high school auditorium, the House candidates fielded questions about bycatch, dwindling salmon populations and the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which governs fishing in federal waters, and about whether they had ever fished commercially, what kind of white fish is their favorite and, “How often do you eat seafood?”
“I’d say I eat seafood about four or five times a week,” Peltola said. “And if I’m not eating seafood, I’m eating moose meat.”
Murkowski, after de-planing in Kodiak, told me that ranked choice voting had introduced a “newfound freedom for individuals to be released from the construct that the parties had put in place.” For Murkowski, a pro-abortion rights Republican who supported Trump’s second impeachment, it’s the support of moderates, independents and crossover Democrats that has kept her in the Senate — and will keep her there if she can defeat a Trump-backed challenger, Kelly Tshibaka, in November.
Ranked choice voting, Murkowski said, has “prompted the independence that I think is just inherent in Alaskans.”
This is the read of the House race in Alaska in much of the Lower 48, as well. To them, the failure of Republicans to hold Alaska’s House seat is all about ranked choice voting — or the weirdness of the vast, sparsely populated 49th state.
“Alaska’s kind of its own, different animal up there,” said Jim McLaughlin, a veteran Republican pollster. “I think a lot of it, it’s personality-driven in a place like that.”
But Alaska is not the only state where the politics of personality are being tested in the GOP, and it’s possible that the difficulties Republicans are having here are less an outlier than an early indication of a specific problem for the party in states where Republicans have nominated candidates as polarizing as Palin — and where independents are keeping Democrats afloat.
Republicans are still widely expected to win the House in November. But the large number of voters who are unaffiliated with either party in Alaska — about 58 percent — may be telling the GOP something about its future in more competitive states, as well. The proportion of people nationally who identify as independent has been growing in recent decades, according to Gallup, now accounting for about 43 percent of American adults. That may not be a problem for Republicans broadly in November. In a New York Times/Siena College poll that was ricocheting around Democratic Party circles this week, independents were breaking for Republicans by a 10 percentage point margin over Democrats on the generic congressional ballot.
But the polling is mixed. One recent CBS News/YouGov survey showed independents favoring Democrats over Republicans in congressional elections by a narrow margin. President Joe Biden’s approval rating — a measure closely tied to a party’s performance in the midterms — is still dismal with independent voters, at 39 percent, according to an NPR/Marist poll released earlier this month. Still, that’s a dramatic improvement from July, when his approval rating among independents was 11 percentage points worse.
Where Republicans do appear vulnerable with independents are places the party is running candidates like Trump, who carried independents by 6 percentage points in 2016, according to exit polls, before losing them to Biden by 13 percentage points four years later. There are a lot of similar hard-liners running this year, including in Alaska, where independents are far more likely to view Peltola favorably than Palin: The Democrat is running 26 percentage points ahead of Palin with independents who rank at least one of them, according to one recent poll.
And in other states where Republicans have nominated Trumpian standard-bearers, it’s a similar story. It’s one reason Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan is making a competitive run for Senate in Republican-heavy Ohio, where a Marist Poll last month had Ryan up 2 percentage points over Republican J.D. Vance with independents. In Georgia’s Senate race, Republican Herschel Walker is running 15 percentage points behind Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock among independents, according to a Quinnipiac University poll, while incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp, a more traditionalist Republican, is faring far better. In Pennsylvania, Republican Mehmet Oz is down double digits among independents, as well.
Those numbers may shift back toward Republicans as Election Day nears and partisan leanings solidify. But between moderate Republicans defecting from Trumpian Republicans like Palin and the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade — just as much an issue in Alaska as anywhere else, with polls suggesting a majority of Alaskans support abortion rights — the most polarizing Republicans, like Palin, have reason for concern.