Mary Peltola tamped down expectations on election night, even as her lead grew over Sarah Palin in the special election for Alaska’s sole seat in the U.S. House.
“There's a saying that you don't sharpen your knife until you have some meat to cut,” Peltola told me as her supporters celebrated at her election night party in downtown Anchorage.
We don’t yet know who will fly to D.C. next month, receive the keys to Rep. Don Young’s old office and raise her hand on the House floor to take the oath of office. Only first-choice ballots have been counted so far. Palin is 6 percentage points behind Peltola, and votes are still being tallied that could nudge that gap slightly.
The winner will be determined on Aug. 31, when the ranked choice part of this election kicks in.
Assuming the current order holds, Nick Begich will be eliminated. The ballots that went to him will be re-allocated according to the voter’s second choice.
The big unknown is what else is marked on the 44,000 ballots sitting in Begich’s pile. What did his voters do with Column 2?
Did they mark it for Palin? Begich did all he could to dissuade voters from choosing her. He said Palin didn’t have the smarts or the commitment to represent Alaska in Congress. He went after her full throttle.
Some of his supporters had even harsher words for Palin in private. “But sure, I’d prefer her to a Democrat,” one told me.
If even a modest portion of Begich supporters let that sentiment show in Column 2 of their ranked choice ballot, say hello to Rep. Sarah Palin.
But no one yet knows what is in Column 2 of the Begich ballots. Some will be blank. Some will be marked for Peltola.
My guess? Brace for a lot of bad Alaska takes on cable news this fall as the Capitol press corps camps outside Young’s old office in the Rayburn Building, waiting for Palin to emerge and malign them.
Could one candidate win the special and a different one win the full House term in November?
Peltola’s camp points out that some of the populations inclined to vote for her – like Democrats and rural residents – are under-represented at primary elections.
“August is a tough time for Alaskans to make it to the polls,” Peltola said on election night. “A lot of people are out still, fishing and berry-picking and getting ready for the winter … So many more Alaskans remember that the second Tuesday in November is Election Day.”
There’s evidence to support the notion that voter turnout among Alaska lefties and centerists is higher in November elections compared to August primaries.
On the other hand, whoever wins the special will have a tremendous leg up on the competition in November. Incumbency, even if it’s only a few months long, brings huge advantages.
Let’s not forget that the last Alaskan to win a special election for a partial term in the U.S. House – a state senator from Fort Yukon named Don Young, in 1973 – held the seat for the rest of his life.
- Liz Ruskin
Follow me on twitter: @lruskin