Who is Mary Peltola, the Democrat outperforming expectations in Alaska?
Democratic U.S. House candidate Mary Peltola defied expectations on Tuesday by outperforming her Republican rivals in Alaska, a surprise result in a deep-red state that comes as Democrats are bracing for a brutal midterm election season.
Peltola’s performance is more than just a hopeful sign for Democrats; it’s also potentially historic. If she wins, it would mark a first in a couple ways — the former state representative would be the first Indigenous person from Alaska in Congress and the first woman to hold the House seat she’s running for.
“I think about her as being in many ways a different kind of significant first,” said Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “It’s not just a woman in this seat, but it would be the first Native woman in this seat.”
Peltola, a former state lawmaker in Alaska, was technically on the ballot twice: She’s competing in both the special House election to fill the remainder of the late Rep. Don Young’s (R) term, as well as in the race to fill that same seat for a full term starting next year. In the latter race, Peltola easily survived the primary, which sees the top four vote-getters advance to the November general election. She came out ahead of a field of 22 candidates.
Peltola also came out on top in the special election, for which the primary occurred earlier this year, though under Alaska’s new ranked-choice voting system that doesn’t guarantee her the seat. Because nobody earned more than 50 percent of the vote on Tuesday, election officials will redistribute the votes for the candidate who came in last to the voters’ second-choice pick. The process will continue until one candidate has more than 50 percent of the vote; that person will be declared the winner.
As of Wednesday, Peltola led the special election race with nearly 38 percent of the vote, while former Gov. Sarah Palin (R) trailed behind at 32 percent. Republican Nick Begich rounded out the third spot with nearly 29 percent support.
While Tuesday’s results were unofficial, with more ballots set to come in as late as Aug. 31, Peltola sounded cautiously optimistic on election night.
“We’re all hopeful, of course, but you hate to jinx anything,” Peltola said at an election watch party on Tuesday, according to Alaska Public Media. “And so I am definitely going to be waiting for all the districts to come in and all the absentee ballots to come in patience.”
Maddy Mundy, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, echoed Peltola’s optimism in a statement to The Hill on Wednesday.
“At a time when Nick Begich and Sarah Palin are pushing a toxic agenda, Alaska’s adoption of ranked-choice voting could create new opportunities for Democratic leadership. We are watching this race closely and look forward to seeing the finalized results from Tuesday’s election,” Mundy said.
Palin responded to Tuesday’s results by lambasting the new ranked-choice system, calling it “crazy,” “convoluted” and “undesirable.”
“Voters are confused and angry, and feel disenfranchised by this cockamamie system that makes it impossible to trust that your vote will even be counted the way you intended. We’ll keep fighting to equip Alaskans with the information they need to make sure their voices are heard amidst this Leftist-crafted system – no matter how hard the corrupt political establishment works to silence us,” Palin said in a statement.
Prior to election night, Begich told NBC News that he would “absolutely accept” the election results and had confidence in Alaska’s election process, but also said that he believed the ranked-choice system could provide “a lot of confusion to voters.”
“There’s a lot of questions right now circulating — what’s the strategy, how should we go about doing this? And I don’t think those are questions we should be asking going into the polling booths,” Begich told NBC.
As a candidate, Peltola has leaned into her Alaskan roots while painting her Republican opponents as out of touch. Palin, meanwhile, who generated the most national media coverage of the race, has been criticized by her rivals for not focusing enough attention on the state.
“I’ve just been struck by the ways in which she has tried to present a voice of moderation and the significance of being an Alaskan native and really understanding Alaska,” Walsh said.
“They’re very different kinds of candidates, and I think Peltola is really portraying herself in many ways as the real Alaskan,” Walsh said.
Still, Peltola could face headwinds going into November, given Alaska’s Republican lean and a national mood that is likely to favor Republicans. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the at-large district as “likely Republican.”
While Republicans have hammered Democrats over the issue of inflation, Peltola has put the issue front and center on her campaign website, saying the price of a gallon of milk can cost more than $17 per gallon from where she is from in Alaska.
“Mary is the only candidate who actually understands how high gas prices and high prescription drug costs are hurting Alaskan families,” her website reads.
Peltola is no stranger to Alaska politics. Her father, Ward H. Sattler, ran for Alaska’s state House in 2004, 2006, and 2008, but was unsuccessful. Peltola, on the other hand, was first elected in 1998, serving in the chamber until 2009.
After her tenure in the House, Peltola went on to serve as Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and on the Bethel, Alaska, City Council.
Peltola’s identity as an Indigenous Alaskan could impact the race as well, giving voice to a population in the state that has yet to be represented on Capitol Hill. Peltola herself is Yup’ik.
“Native women’s leadership is vital to all communities, but especially to the Native peoples. Peltola’s strong showing in the election demonstrates she has a powerful message which clearly resonated with the voters,” said Claudia Kauffman, the vice president and co-founder of the Native Action Network, a group dedicated to promoting Native women’s representation in leadership roles. “Given Alaska’s large Native population, and with only one US Congress position, Peltola is in a unique position and we are all watching and anticipating her success.“
A record number of Indigenous women were elected to Congress in 2020, including Kansas Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) and Yvette Herrell (R-N.M.). Haaland has since left Congress to serve as the secretary of the Department of the Interior.
Walsh noted that while the number of Indigenous women in Congress remains low, Peltola’s candidacy could impact other Indigenous women seeking public office in the U.S.
“What we’re seeing is an opening up of doors,” Walsh said. “Peltola is someone who is following a path that we have seen.”“She’s served in the state legislature and now she’s running for Congress. She has taken advantage of a seat that was just kind of locked up for decades by one person. It’s a tough state in that way.”
“She’s stepped up and taken advantage of the moment,” she added.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to clarify that Peltola would be the first woman to hold the House seat in Alaska she’s currently running for, not the first woman ever to represent Alaska in Congress.