Unusual House primary in Alaska draws Palin, Santa and 46 others
JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Voters in Alaska face an unprecedented election, with 48 candidates vying to succeed the man who held the state’s only seat in the United States for 49 years.
While some of the candidates for this week’s special primary have name recognition, including Sarah Palin and Santa Claus – yes, Santa Claus – many are relative strangers or political newbies – a fishing guide, a contractor, a gold digger who went to jail for allegedly threatening federal land managers.
The sheer number of candidates and the short timeframe for holding the election following the March 18 death of Republican U.S. Representative Don Young has overwhelmed some voters and rushed to learn more about their options. It will be the first election under a voter-approved system in 2020 that ends party primaries, meaning all candidates are on the same one-page ballot.
The four candidates with the most votes will advance to a special election in August, in which preferential-choice voting will be used. The winner of this competition will serve the remainder of Young’s term, which ends in January. A series of separate elections later this year will decide who will serve a two-year term beginning in January.
Max Sumner, a general contractor from Wasilla running for the seat as a Republican, said he was as serious about his candidacy “as anyone knows he’s not going to win.” He said he was interested in being part of the “first experience” in the new electoral process and saying he had run for Congress.
“I don’t agree with the government being run by career politicians. I think it should be like a few terms and you’re out,” he said.
He said he voted for himself and asked others to do so, but did not campaign. He said he was also shooting for another Republican in the race, Josh Revak, a state senator who was co-chairman of Young’s re-election campaign and was endorsed by Young’s widow.
In all, there are 16 Republican candidates including Palin, a former governor of Alaska; Nick Begich, a businessman from a political family of prominent Democrats; former state legislator John Coghill; and Tara Sweeney, who also served as Young’s campaign co-chair and was endorsed by a group representing leaders of the state’s influential Alaska Native regional societies.
Almost half of the candidates in the running, 22, are independents. That includes Al Gross, an orthopedic surgeon who ran for the Senate in 2020 with the support of the state’s Democratic party, and a self-proclaimed “independent, progressive, democratic socialist” whose legal name is Santa Claus and who sits to the city council for the North Pole community.
Gross angered some Democrats when, in an interview with the Anchorage Daily News, he did not commit to caucusing with Democrats if elected. He has since said he would. The Alaska Democratic Party has urged voters to choose from one of six running Democrats.
The closest a Democrat has come to beating Young in the past 20 years was in 2008, when Young won 50% of the vote and Ethan Berkowitz 45%.
“Alaskans have this propensity to vote for the status quo, to assess viability, to vote for the devil, you know, and I really think that under this new system, especially with ranked voting, we have the opportunity to change” that dynamic, said Lindsay Kavanaugh, executive director of the Alaska Democratic Party.
Revak posted a video in which he says he is “warring Santa Claus” and his “Marxist fantasies”. Revak’s campaign said the video was meant to be light-hearted, but Claus said he didn’t come across as a joke.
“I’m 75 and I want to spend my time and energy wisely,” Claus said.
Claus’ candidacy and in particular his support for abortion rights caught the eye of voter Sandi Hicks, an independent in Juneau. Last month, she sought advice on a community Facebook page about where to find candidate information. Commenters shared links to news sites, including one that posted candidate polls.
Others on his short list include Gross; Democrat Mary Peltola, former lawmaker; and independent Jeff Lowenfels, a gardening expert with a legal background, including as a former assistant attorney general.
“I feel more comfortable with, you know, instead of 48 people, I’m three or four people,” Hicks said.
Around 100,000 ballots have already been returned in what is mostly a mail-in election. This is more than the 88,817 players in the ordinary primary of 2016, when the participation rate was only 17%. No one can guess how many ballots sent to registered voters will be returned.
There are opportunities for in-person or advance voting in about 165 communities, many of which are rural, where postal service can be spotty. The state Division of Elections and advocacy groups worked to educate voters about the new election process, including reminding them that they are choosing only one candidate for this round.
The division’s online candidate list includes contact information and links to candidate websites, for those who have them. One candidate, Republican John T. Callahan, has a website simply featuring a quote often attributed to Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman: “If I get nominated, I won’t run. If elected, I will not serve.
Libertarian Chris Bye said his candidacy began with him and others complaining to Congress and challenging each other to run. He decided to go there. He is one of the few candidates, including Begich and Democrat Christopher Constant, who began running for the House before Young’s death.
Bye, who said he quit his job in the military to run, calls himself a “normal guy”. He said he worked in retail and as a fishing guide and that Congress needed people like him.
“I believe typical Alaskans can make better decisions than neat or professional politicians, period,” he said.
Coghill, whose late father was heavily involved in Alaska politics, said he was “sorry” there were so many candidates “because it makes it more confusing (in) a very confusing election.”
Name recognition in this race is important, he said.
“My name is at least recognized, sometimes well respected, sometimes not so well – but at least known,” Coghill said.
Adam Wool, a state lawmaker running as a Democrat in the race, said the election reminded him of the online poll in Britain years ago in which people were asked how the new ship of the country’s polar research should be called. The winning suggestion on the run: Boaty McBoatface.
“This election has a bit of that, with a bunch of people we don’t know and people with funny names and celebrity-type candidates, like Sarah Palin,” he said, adding that he doesn’t didn’t want the election to turn into an election where people make choices for “shock value”.
“I don’t want Boaty McBoat (voters) facing the election in Alaska,” he said.