Alaska upset flashes warning signs for GOP

Mary Peltola’s win in the Alaska special election this week became the latest surprise to spark concern for Republicans as it appears that a once presumptive red wave in November is neither definite nor guaranteed.

Peltola, the first Alaska Native and first Democrat in decades to be elected to fill the state’s lone House seat, edged out two formidable Republican challengers on Wednesday, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), to serve the remainder of the late Rep. Don Young’s (R) term.

The win came about a week after Democrat Pat Ryan prevailed against Republican Marc Molinaro in a New York special election in what was considered a bellwether ahead of the midterms.

While Peltola was likely aided by the state’s newly implemented ranked-choice voting system, her win also fuels further concerns for the GOP about how energized Democratic voters are, as well as the quality of Republican candidates running in critical races.

“First thought was that the Republican Party has some work to do,” said Rick Whitbeck, who previously served as the vice chair for the Alaska Republican Party and now serves as the Alaska State Director for Power the Future, when asked about his reaction following Peltola’s win. 

Whitbeck said he believed Republicans’ underperformance in the special election was in part due to ticket splitting between Palin and fellow Republican contender Nick Begich III competing with Peltola. He said other reasons Peltola might have prevailed could be voters seeing it as a protest vote against the two Republican candidates or the fact that voters might have been uneducated about the candidates.

To be sure, Peltola’s win in Alaska comes with its own caveats that distinguish it from other recent races. For starters, this election cycle marks the first time the state has used ranked-choice to elect its representatives — a system some Republicans have criticized. The Last Frontier is also known for its uniquely independent brand of politics, where ticket splitting is seen as more common than in other states.

But the race also laid bare some of the challenges facing Republicans — including divisions plaguing the party.

One GOP strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, pointed to Palin’s standing in the state as an explanation for this week’s surprise upset.

“I think you got to take into account the fact that Palin is just an extremely controversial brand in her own state, has been for a long time now,” the strategist said. “And so she had a core base of people that were always going to support her, but, you know, even in her own party, there was a lot of dissension and disruption, and you saw that, you know, gravitate towards a Begich, for example.”

Concerns over the quality of the Republican candidates this cycle have become apparent in recent weeks, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) even citing that as a reason why the GOP was more likely to flip the House than the Senate this year. McConnell’s admission provoked a furious response from Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the head of the Senate campaign arm, who called McConnell’s remarks “a shot at our candidates and the voters.”

Meanwhile, Democratic optimism has only grown over the summer amid a string of victories for the party.

In Kansas, voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot measure that would have given the state legislature more authority to regulate abortion in the Sunflower State. 

Further emboldening them were special elections in Nebraska, Minnesota and New York earlier this year that saw Democrats lose by smaller-than-expected margins. In another nod to Democrats’ momentum, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report this week shifted their ratings of five House seats toward Democrats.

“I think what’s happening in the Democratic Party right now is, and particularly among the House Democrats, is that the combination of the win in New York last week and Alaska has given Democrats — has changed the Democrats’ understanding of what’s possible in the election,” said Simon Rosenberg, who has served as a senior adviser to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).

“And we’re now moving from sort of a defensive stance to a much more offensive stance,” he continued. “And I will tell you, I talked to the DCCC the afternoon of the New York special last week, on Tuesday afternoon, and they thought they were going to lose that race by three to four points, and we won by almost two and a half.”

Peltola, who spoke to The Hill in a phone interview on Thursday, was more circumspect in her analysis of what her victory meant.

“I don’t like to make too many predictions. I’m a pretty superstitious person and feel like making declarative statements tends to jinx things. So I do not want to speculate on national trends,” she said. “I won by a decent margin, but it certainly wasn’t a landslide. I’ll be taking a very careful look at where I need to focus more of my time in terms of outreach to Alaskans and connecting with voters.”

Many Republicans remain confident their party is still in a good position heading into November.

Matt Gorman, a former spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP’s campaign arm, said Peltola’s win was an “aberration thanks to ranked-choice voting.” He also pushed back against the idea that Republicans were performing less competitively than expected, citing Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District, which was one of several special elections held this year. He noted the late Rep. Jim Hagedorn (R-Minn.) won the House seat by close margins in 2018 and 2020.

And Democrats clearly still have their work cut out for them. While there are new signs of hope that the party could retain control of the Senate, recent polling shows Republican candidates in states like Ohio and Georgia running closely alongside their Democratic counterparts. 

An Emerson College Polling survey released last month showed 45 percent of somewhat and very likely general election voters backing Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance (R), while 42 percent supported Democratic challenger Tim Ryan, polling that falls just outside the margin of error at plus or minus 3.2 percentage points. 

A separate Emerson survey released earlier this week found 46 percent of very likely general election voters in the state supporting Republican candidate Herschel Walker compared to incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) at 44 percent, falling within the margin of error at plus or minus 3.9 percentage points. 

And while the Cook Report moved some House seat ratings toward Democrats this week, the nonpartisan election handicapper still predicts Republicans will win between 10 and 20 seats in November.

Still, the primary season has at times been a difficult one for the GOP, which has left candidates bruised after some especially brutal primaries.

“I’ve said this for the 30 years I’ve been involved in politics: Republicans don’t always play nice,” said Whitbeck, the former vice chair of the Alaska GOP, when discussing the toll some Republican-on-Republican races have taken on the party.

“Sometimes I wish the Republicans would figure out how to limit the damage, you know, the circular firing squad mentality,” he added.

But with the primary season largely wrapped up and many campaigns shifting into a general election mindset, some say it’s too early to speculate about how both parties will fare in the midterms — after all, there’s still more than two months to go.

“The teams that win are usually the ones that are able to ride out those bumpy rough stretches and regain their footing heading into the fourth quarter,” said the GOP strategist who spoke on condition of anonymity, likening midterm races to NFL games. 

“And in terms of this year, we’re about to, you know, post-Labor Day is the fourth quarter of campaigning, and so even with Republicans having a bit of a bumpy stretch, I actually think Democrats may have hit their peak, you know, during halftime, but in the third quarter, which is just too early.”

Tags Alaska special election Don Young Election 2022 Mary Peltola Mary Peltola midterms Mitch McConnell Rick Scott Rick Whitbeck Sarah Palin Sarah Palin
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