Democrat Mary Peltola, a former state representative, will be the first Alaska Native in Congress after she won a special election that included GOP candidates Nick Begich and former Gov. Sarah Palin, NBC News projects.
Peltola, who is the executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, served 10 years in the state Legislature and campaigned as “Alaska’s best shot at keeping an extremist from winning.”
“It is a GOOD DAY,” Peltola tweeted following the election results. “We’ve won tonight, but we’re still going to have to hold this seat in November.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., lauded Peltola for “making history as the first Alaska Native ever elected to the Congress.”
“Her valuable and unifying perspective, deep experience in public service and commitment to working families will strengthen the work of our Caucus and the Congress,” Pelosi said in a statement.
Peltola finished fourth in a crowded nonpartisan primary in June, when 48 candidates battled to secure one of the four spots on the Aug. 16 special election ballot. But heading into Wednesday’s final tabulation, Peltola was leading the pack.
The special election was the state’s first test of ranked-choice voting, which was implemented after a 2020 ballot measure. The same system will be used in November.
With 93% of votes counted in the ranked-choice results Wednesday night, Peltola had 51.5% of the vote to Palin’s 48.5%.
Voters cast their ballots more than two weeks ago to determine who will serve out the final four months of Rep. Don Young’s term after he died in March at age 88. The longtime GOP lawmaker represented Alaska for almost 50 years in Congress.
No candidate won more than 50% of the vote in the Aug. 16 election, which triggered runoffs under the new system, in which voters ranked the candidates in order of preference.
Based on the ranked-choice system, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and votes are redistributed to the remaining candidates according to voters’ ranked preferences. The rounds continue until one of two remaining candidates with the most votes wins.
The elimination process didn’t start until Wednesday, the last day elections officials could receive absentee ballots.
Palin, the GOP’s vice presidential candidate in 2008, will have another chance at reviving her political comeback. She will compete against Peltola and Begich again in November to determine who will serve a full two-year term in the House. The three candidates received the most votes in the primary; the fourth qualifying candidate, independent Al Gross, later dropped out of the race.
Following her loss, Palin called ranked-choice voting a “mistake” for Alaska, a state where then-President Donald Trump beat Joe Biden by 10 percentage points in the 2020 election.
“Ranked-choice voting was sold as the way to make elections better reflect the will of the people. As Alaska — and America — now sees, the exact opposite is true,” she said in a statement. “Though we’re disappointed in this outcome, Alaskans know I’m the last one who’ll ever retreat. Instead, I’m going to reload.”
Begich on Wednesday congratulated Peltola and went after Palin, saying she “cannot win a statewide race because her unfavorable rating is so high.”
“The biggest lesson as we move into the 2022 General Election, is that ranked choice voting showed that a vote for Sarah Palin is in reality a vote for Mary Peltola. Palin simply doesn’t have enough support from Alaskans to win an election,” Begich said in a statement. “As we look forward to the November election, I will work hard to earn the vote of Alaskans all across the state.
Mary Peltola made history and beat Sarah Palin in Alaska’s special U.S. House election. Who is she?
Alaska Democrat Mary Peltola made history this week, becoming the state’s first Alaska Native member of Congress. Peltola beat out former Alaska Governor and Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin in a special U.S. House election. But who is she?
Peltola is a Yup’ik Alaska Native, and grew up on the state’s Kuskokwim River, according to her campaign website. She began fishing at 6 years old and worked as a herring and salmon technician for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game while in college. She is a self-proclaimed salmon advocate, as the fish is a big part of Alaska’s culture and its third-largest industry.
Her political career began at age 22, when she interned with the Alaska legislature and ran for office that same year. While she lost that race, two years later she became a state representative for Alaska’s Bethel region. She was a state representative from 1999 to 2006.
She developed a reputation in office and on the campaign trail for being kind, reported local TV station KTOO.
“The region where I’m from, there is a big premium on being respectful, on not using inflammatory language or harsh tones, not speaking to things that you haven’t seen with your own eyes or heard with your own ears, you know, hearsay, not gossiping,” she told the station. “I think that those are really good principles to live by.”
While in the legislature, she helped rebuild and became chair of Alaska’s Bush Caucus, a nonpartisan group of legislators that focuses on rural communities. She later worked as executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and helped tribe members and rural Alaskans advocate for the protection of salmon season fishing in Western Alaska.
She also worked for Alaska Humanities Forum’s Alaska Salmon Fellowship, which was created to help resolve issues in the industry like “racial justice, the urban-rural divide, and balancing sustainability against the needs of resource development.”
When asked by Alaska public radio station KTOO about her stance on abortion, Peltola said: “Everyone deserves quality health care. That includes access to safe, legal abortions, with no exceptions. A repeal of abortion access would disproportionately impact people of color and low-income women who already experience unfair barriers to health care. I will fight to codify Roe v. Wade and guarantee the right to individual choice.”
During her campaign for the special U.S. House election, Peltola’s campaign raised just $379,088 and spent $254,299. That is much lower than what most campaigns spend, including her competitors, such as Sarah Palin, who raised more than $1 million and spent $996,291, according to Ballotpedia.
In June, after Peltola won the primary, Republican media consultant Art Hackney commended her campaign for its spending. At the time, she had spent less than $40,000 by May 22. “I give the Peltola team huge marks for ending up where they’re at,” he told KTOO. “I just think Mary’s an impressive person,” Hackney said.
Though she won the special election, she’ll only be in Congress for the few months left in the late Rep. Don Young’s term — unless she wins a full two-year term in November, when she will again face Palin and Republican Nick Begich III. Peltola and Palin have been friends for years — Palin even called her “a beautiful soul” after Peltola’s win Wednesday, Alaska Public Media reported.
Peltola has four children. Two are members of the U.S. Coast Guard, and she is married to Gene Peltola. She also happened to win her race in the U.S.’s 49th state on her 49th birthday, Aug. 31.
The Democrat Who Become the First Alaska Native in Congress
For 50 years, Alaska’s lone House seat was held by the same larger-than-life Republican — a sharp-edged congressman with a history of incendiary remarks.
The woman leading the race to replace Representative Don Young after Tuesday’s electoral contests is in many ways his opposite: a Democrat with a reputation for kindness, even to the Republicans she is trying to beat.
On Election Day, Mary Peltola, 48, exchanged well wishes over text with her more famous and more outspoken Republican rival on the ballot, Sarah Palin. The two have been close since they were both expectant mothers working together in Alaska’s Statehouse, Ms. Palin as governor and Ms. Peltola as a lawmaker.
“I think respect is just a fundamental part of getting things done and working through problems,” Ms. Peltola told reporters Tuesday, explaining her approach to campaigning as the first vote tallies rolled in.
Ms. Peltola, 48, was leading Ms. Palin, 58, in unofficial results on Wednesday, a strong showing that thrilled and surprised Democrats eager to see her become the first Alaska Native in Congress and the first woman ever to hold the seat.
Ms. Peltola, who is Yup’ik, is seen as having the same independent streak and devotion to Alaskan interests as Mr. Young, who died in March. Her father and the longtime congressman were close friends, and, as a young girl, she would tag along as he campaigned for Mr. Young. But she sharply diverges from Mr. Young and her top Republican contenders, including Ms. Palin, in her support for abortion rights, her understanding of fishing industries, her clear warnings about climate change and her commitment to sustain communities over corporate interests in developing Alaska’s resources.
“Mary has a real shot at this,” said Beth Kerttula, a Democrat and former minority leader of the Alaska House who served with Ms. Peltola in the State Legislature.
The winner of the House race could remain unknown for days or even weeks as Alaskan election officials continue to count mail-in ballots sent from some of the most far-flung reaches of the state.
Ms. Peltola took 38 percent of the vote in the special election to fill the House seat through January. She is ahead of two top Republicans: Ms. Palin, the state’s former governor and Senator John McCain’s 2008 running mate, and Nick Begich III, a businessman and son of the best-known Democratic family in Alaska politics. Ms. Peltola was also leading Ms. Palin, Mr. Begich and 20 other candidates in a second, separate primary race to fill that seat beyond 2023. If she wins the special election to fill the seat immediately, she will have an incumbent’s advantage in the general election in November.
Ms. Peltola has sought to highlight her Native roots in a state where more than 15 percent of the population identifies as Indigenous. As a Yup’ik woman, she said, she has sought to use the teachings of her community in her broader appeals for bipartisanship. “Dry fish and pilot bread — that is how I got other legislators in the room when I was rebuilding the bipartisan Bush caucus,” she said in an ad introducing herself to voters. (“Bush caucus” refers to a group of legislators from rural Alaska.)
On Tuesday night, Ms. Peltola mingled with a couple dozen supporters at a brewery in central Anchorage. She embraced relatives, campaign workers and longtime friends who had served with her in the Legislature. “I’ve really been an advocate of thinking beyond partisanship and seeing people beyond party lines,” she said in an interview. “I think Alaskans are very receptive to that. We often vote for the person and not the party.”
Ms. Peltola — the only Democrat in the 22-candidate primary — served in the Alaska House from 1999 to 2009 before becoming the executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which works with tribes to manage salmon resources. She has also served as a councilwoman in Bethel, a small city in western Alaska, and as a judge on the Orutsararmuit Native Council Tribal Court.
She has had a sharp rise in the public eye since she came in fourth out of 48 people in a June special-election primary. The candidates included Ms. Palin, Mr. Begich and even a councilman legally named Santa Claus. Al Gross, an independent who unsuccessfully ran for Senate in 2020 and came in third, soon dropped out of the race and endorsed Ms. Peltola, helping clear her path for a strong performance on Tuesday.
Democratic and Republican pollsters and strategists said Ms. Peltola’s lead in the race stemmed from her focus on forging a coalition across class, party and ethnic lines, the skepticism of Ms. Palin’s political comeback and the bickering between Ms. Palin and Mr. Begich in the campaign. Another advantage was the new, complex voting system that allowed voters on Tuesday to rank their preferences in the special election and was widely seen as designed to favor more centrist candidates.
Leaving a polling location in South Anchorage, Maeve Watkins, 52, a nurse, and her 20-year-old daughter, Isabelle, a university student, said they were drawn to Ms. Peltola for her strong stance on abortion rights and her pledges to protect Alaska’s resources.
“She is a quiet force,” Ms. Watkins said. “She is such a good listener. She’s all about kindness and hearing from everyone, but, at the same time, she has a backbone.”