ANCHORAGE — A little-known candidate for the U.S. Senate race in Alaska suspended his campaign Monday, hoping not to divide the GOP vote during the general election by throwing his support to a fellow Republican backed by former President Donald Trump.
Buzz Kelley, who finished fourth in the primary race, said his motivation for suspending the campaign came after Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich lost to Democrat Mary Peltola in the special general election for the state’s U.S. House seat left vacant with the death in March of U.S. Rep. Don Young.
“After the Peltola victory, the divide-and-conquer of Sarah and Nick, I don’t want to be any part of that for the Senate race,” Kelley told The Associated Press in a phone interview. He had earlier announced his decision when calling into an Anchorage radio talk show.
“I feel like Kelly Tshibaka is the best shot, and so (I am) asking anybody who supported me or my ideas if they can now throw their support behind Kelly Tshibaka,” he said.
Others in the race are incumbent U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, also a Republican, and Democrat Pat Chesbro.
Alaska voters in 2020 approved a new voting system in which party primaries have been replaced by an open primary. The top four vote-getters regardless of party affiliation move on to the general election, in which ranked choice voting is used.
Under ranked voting, ballots are counted in rounds. A candidate can win outright with more than 50% of the vote in the first round. If no one hits that threshold, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Voters who chose that candidate as their top pick have their votes count for their next choice. Rounds continue until two candidates remain, and whoever has the most votes wins.
Murkowski received 45% of the vote in the primary, followed by Tshibaka with 39% and Chesbro with 7%.
Kelley finished fourth with 2% of the vote.
The timing of his campaign suspension was on purpose, he said. Had he dropped out by the Sept. 5 deadline, the fifth-place candidate would have replaced him on the general election ballot.
“I didn’t want to muddy the water, so now there’s only three candidates in the race,” he said.
Tshibaka welcomed Kelley’s endorsement.
“I am grateful and honored to have Buzz Kelley’s support and agree with his conclusion that presenting a unified front gives us the best opportunity to beat Lisa Murkowski,” Tshibaka said in a statement.
Murkowski’s campaign declined to comment.
Kelley, a 65-year-old retired mechanic from Wasilla, had earlier told the Anchorage Daily News that part of his success in finishing fourth and making the general election ballot might be for the few yard signs he had, including one he welded to the top of his vehicle.
When Trump held a rally in Anchorage for Tshibaka and Palin, Kelley spent the day driving his vehicle around the large crowd waiting to get inside the Anchorage arena.
He said it seems a “bit of a stretch” that people looking at the ballot confused him for Tshibaka, whose slogan is “Kelly for Alaska.”
“There is probably the possibility that some of those people had intended to vote for Kelly Tshibaka,” he told the newspaper. “But it’s also possible people have looked at my website and say, ‘Hey, I kind of like some of that stuff. I think I’ll color in Buzz’s oval.’ “
Murkowski, in office since 2002, is a frequent target of the former president after she voted for his for his impeachment and has spoken critically of him.