Early results show incumbent Republican Lisa Murkowski narrowly trailing her challenger and fellow Republican Kelly Tshibaka in Alaska’s U.S. Senate election, while Democrat Mary Peltola is far ahead of her Republican rivals in the U.S. House race.
With nearly all precincts counted by early Wednesday, Peltola had about 47% of the vote in the election for Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat. Sarah Palin was in second place with roughly 27% and Nick Begich was third with about 24%.
In the U.S. Senate race, Tshibaka had about 44% of the vote to Murkowski’s nearly 43%. Democrat Pat Chesbro was far behind with almost 10%, and if she is eventually eliminated in Alaska’s new ranked choice voting system, the Senate election might come down to whom Chesbro’s first-choice voters selected as their second favorite.
Tshibaka said she was feeling hopeful and confident Tuesday night as election results were released in batches.
“But it’s way too early to take this as any indication of anything, so we’re still going to have to wait out the night,” Tshibaka said. “I know a lot of Alaskans I talked to were confused and upset about the process, but I think that we did enough voter education that we got good voter turnout. At least that’s what I’m hopeful for.”
Murkowski and her supporters at an election night party in downtown Anchorage remained hopeful, too. But between chants of “LI-SA, LI-SA, LI-SA,” some admitted in private they were nervous.
Murkowski, who’s held the seat since 2002 and rebounded from a primary loss in 2010 with the first successful write-in campaign for U.S. Senate in more than 50 years, told her fans not to worry.
“As we’re looking to the lay of the land and what is still out there to be counted, we feel very strongly about how they’re going to move and where they’re going to move us to,” Murkowski said.
The Division of Elections is only counting first-place votes this week. It’s likely that the congressional races won’t be decided until second rankings are tallied on Nov. 23. That’s when the division will eliminate the third- and fourth-place finishers and reallocate the ballots according to their voters’ rankings.
The U.S. Senate race is a contest between Murkowski, who is one of the most moderate Republican senators, and Tshibaka, who has the endorsements of former President Donald Trump and the state Republican party.
Murkowski said she’s still a Republican, despite the current direction of the party. She said she’s still rooted in the values that drew her to the GOP when she first registered to vote at 18 – a strong defense, smaller government and personal liberty.
“I’m looking at some of what we have seen in this state and around the country, and I’ve seen that others have kind of strayed from those values that I feel pretty squarely anchored with,” she said at her campaign headquarters on Tuesday. “It’s them.”
A political action committee linked to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell poured millions of dollars into helping Murkowski win re-election. Tshibaka said it showed Murkowski was a tool of the “D.C. establishment.”
Tshibaka voted Tuesday morning at a South Anchorage school. She said she “ranked the red” – except in her own race, because, she said, there’s no other Republican to rank.
“Lisa Murkowski’s been censured by the Alaska Republican Party and she’s been removed from membership,” Tshibaka said. “She’s out there actively campaigning for Nancy Pelosi to keep the leadership in the House. So that’s not a red candidate in Alaska. That’s a blue candidate.”
Murkowski has not been campaigning for Nancy Pelosi. Tshibaka was referring to the senator’s endorsement of Mary Peltola.
Peltola, the incumbent in the U.S. House race, was at a bustling election party Tuesday night in downtown Anchorage, where she told reporters she would also be waiting for the final results in two weeks, despite the early lead.
“So it’s like being an Alaskan traveler,” Peltola said. “You go to the airport, knowing full well it could be a five-hour delay before you actually are wheels up.”
This is the first November in five decades that Don Young isn’t on the ballot. The longtime congressman died in March. It was an earthquake in Alaska’s political scene. Forty-eight people filed to run in the special election to fill the remainder of his term.
Peltola won the special general election in August and was sworn in the next month, making history as the first Alaska Native elected to Congress. For much of her time in office, she’s had to focus on running for re-election.
The campaign was marked by animosity between the two Republicans. Begich went after Palin early with ads reminding Alaskans that Palin resigned as governor in 2009, before her term was up. After Peltola won the special, Begich repeatedly called on Palin to drop out so that a Republican could have the seat.
It clearly got under Palin’s skin.
“He keeps calling me a quitter,” Palin told reporters in September. “And now he wants me, the one who is clearly the only true conservative in this race who can win, he wants me to quit! Now that’s the real joke.”
Palin ran a campaign that relied extensively on her celebrity. She rarely granted interviews to Alaska reporters and seldom provided a schedule of campaign events. She was spotted late Tuesday afternoon at one of the traditional sign-waving corners in Anchorage: the Seward Highway and Northern Lights Boulevard. She said she came to understand the strategy of “rank the red,” as a way to put a Republican in the U.S. House.
“As much as so many of us – you know, we love Mary Peltola. She’s adorable. She’s great. She’s a friend of mine,” Palin said. “But what she represents – the planks in the platform that actually harm Alaska – we can’t afford more votes going that direction.”
Begich was waving signs at the other end of the block Tuesday. He said Alaska’s new election system made it a strategic imperative to campaign against Palin.
“They call it rank choice voting, but it’s really instant runoff voting, and you’re kind of running a primary and a general simultaneously,” he said. Attacking Palin’s record, he said, was his primary election objective.
“Now, my opponent on the left side of the aisle, Mary Peltola, has no one to her left. And so she doesn’t have the same challenges that I do on the right side of the aisle,” he said. “So it makes it a little different for her than it does for the rest of us.”
So far, neither Peltola’s lead nor Tshibaka’s appears to be large enough to give either a victory with just first-choice votes counted. According to Alaska’s new ranked choice voting rules, that would require the winner to receive more than half of the first-choice votes. Whether either incumbent retains her seat will depend on second-choice votes, which will be tallied Nov. 23.
For the Senate election, the fourth place candidate Republican Buzz Kelley looks likely to be eliminated first, followed by Chesbro, the Democrat. If enough of the voters who picked Chesbro first selected Murkowski as their second choice, it might be enough for Murkowski to overcome the gap between her and Tshibaka.
At Murkowski’s gathering, political consultant Jim Lottsfeldt, who ran several independent expenditure groups supporting Murkowski, said he expected as many as 80% of Chesbro’s first-choice voters to have ranked Murkowski second.
“In the best of all worlds, she’d be ahead right now, but she’s not,” Lottsfeldt said. “But when you project rank choice voting, she’s going to win. It’s pretty easy math. It would just be more fun for everyone in this room if she had a lead.”
In the House race, Libertarian candidate Chris Bye finished fourth and will be the first candidate eliminated. If enough of his voters pick Peltola as their second choice, she could win.
And if the current order holds, Begich will be the next candidate eliminated. If a large share of his supporters voted Palin second, she could be Alaska’s next congresswoman.
Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s election, Peltola will keep the seat until Jan. 3, when the next congressional term starts.
Find other election coverage and voter resources at alaskapublic.org/elections.
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