A sample special primary ballot. (Courtesy Alaska Division of Elections)
A sample special primary ballot. (Courtesy Alaska Division of Elections)

A sample special primary ballot. (Courtesy Alaska Division of Elections) A sample special primary ballot. (Courtesy Alaska Division of Elections)

US House candidates await the end of Alaska’s first statewide election by mail

The Alaska Division of Elections expects a first round of results before 9 p.m. on Saturday

By James Brooks

Alaska Beacon

The special primary election to temporarily replace Alaska Congressman Don Young is coming to a quiet end.

As of Thursday, more than 121,000 votes had been received for Alaska’s first-ever statewide election, a turnout on par with the total number of votes in several of recent Alaska’s traditional primary elections.

Though voting will continue in person and by mail through Saturday, many of the 48 candidates in the special election believe that most likely voters have made up their minds.

“You’re not going to see a big crowd of Lowenfels people standing on the corner with street signs,” said Jeff Lowenfels, an independent candidate in the race.

A low-key day

With that in mind, many of the candidates planned a low-key last day for one of the most unusual political campaigns in Alaska history.

Near Fairbanks, Republican candidate John Coghill said he plans to be doing house chores on Saturday, while in Anchorage, Lowenfels will be waiting for results with a few friends.

Democratic candidate Mary Peltola will be celebrating her son’s 16th birthday with family, and fellow Democrat Adam Wool won’t be in the state at all — he’s off to Boston to visit family but will stay up late to see the results.

“I’m not going to be sign-waving or at any kind of convention center. It’s not like the old days,” he said.

Voting officially closes at 8 p.m., and officials at the Alaska Division of Elections have said to expect a first round of results before 9 p.m.

More ballots will be tallied on Wednesday and Friday, with the final unofficial tally on June 21. The division expects to certify the result by June 25, but the process has been challenged by a lawsuit.

The four candidates who receive the most votes will advance to an Aug. 16 special general election, where voters will rank those four in order of preference.

The winner of that election, Alaska’s first ranked choice vote, will serve in Congress until January, when the winner of the November general election is seated.

Focus on fourth place

Polling has been sporadic at best, but most observers expect Republican candidates Nick Begich III and former Gov. Sarah Palin to finish among the top four alongside Democratic candidate Al Gross.

“And then the No. 4 position is the wild card,” Wool said. “I think I have a shot. You know, if it takes like 10% of the vote to get that fourth position, that’s 13,000 votes, or maybe even slightly less.”

Wool is a member of the state House from Fairbanks and received about 4,300 votes in his 2020 election. In his campaign for the U.S. House, he’s concentrated on places in and around his district, hoping to play a local edge into statewide advantage.

Some polls have indicated that Santa Claus, a North Pole city council member born as Thomas Patrick O’Connor, may finish in the top four.

Claus has run his campaign mostly on social media with a shoestring budget of less than $400. In the last week before the election, he said he expected to spend time on social media, Zoom, podcasts and in interviews while also “getting some exercise, walking out and about in our spectacular city of North Pole.”

On Saturday night, he said he intends to tweet his thanks to supporters.

Only a few candidates ran radio and TV ads in the last week of the campaign, according to records filed with the Federal Communications Commission.

KTUU, the state’s most-watched local TV channel, aired ads supporting Palin, Republican candidate Tara Sweeney, Gross and Democratic candidate Mary Peltola.

In most cases, campaign strategy is dictated by how much money a candidate has available to spend. According to the latest available federal reports, Palin had spent more than half a million dollars by May 22, with Gross and Begich each having spent more than $400,000. All other candidates spent less than $100,000 apiece.

“The great thing,” said Kim Jones, Peltola’s campaign manager, “is that the market isn’t really flooded by the other campaigns … it was actually affordable, because not many people were (on TV) and it was a way to stand out.”

Some third-party groups are also active in the race. Alaskans for TARA, backing Sweeney, reported spending more than $322,000.

Palin has campaigned with the support of national Republican figures, including former President Donald Trump, and sent mailers saying she’s “in it for the long haul,” a possible attempt to overcome the reputation she earned when she resigned in the middle of her gubernatorial term.

Begich has won the endorsements of many in-state Republicans, and his campaign manager, Truman Reed, said they campaigned hard in the final week, with events, meetings, interviews and travel around the state.

“It’s very encouraging to see the grassroots support for Nick across the state, and we are feeling very confident about our chances,” he said.

Candidates and campaigns said one of their most reliable tactics during the special election has been to follow the daily reports from the Alaska Division of Elections.

More than 560,000 ballots were mailed to registered Alaska voters in April, and in order to prevent fraud and double-voting, the division keeps count of who has returned a ballot.

Campaigns use the return list to focus their attention on undecided voters, allowing them to save money and avoid waste.

“We’ve been removing — when we do our digital ad and our mail targeting — we’ve been removing folks that have already voted,” Jones said.

The ‘ballot chase’

The “ballot chase,” as it’s known, is a normal procedure. In this special election, it’s assumed greater importance because every registered voter has had a ballot sent to them.

Tyler Newcombe, who has been coordinating the campaign of Republican Josh Revak, said that campaign has used the list to make “tens of thousands of volunteer-driven persuasion and get-out-the-vote calls.”

The campaign featured few public forums and in-person debates.

“This has been the most frustrating experience I have ever had,” said Lowenfels, referring to the lack of debate opportunities.

He said without those opportunities, candidates with experience and knowledge didn’t get a chance to demonstrate that and didn’t get a chance to challenge other candidates.

“I mean, this is an opportunity to show your chops and debate Sarah Palin and say, ‘Really, you think Donald Trump is still president of the United States?’”

Lowenfels, an attorney and longtime garden columnist for the Anchorage Daily News, has dedicated about $100,000 of his own money to his campaign and said his strategy on Saturday is to pray.

“I’m praying for great weather. I’m praying for the best weather we’ve ever had. And I’m praying that all the people are out there, working in their garden and just say, ‘God, I better go finally get that ballot in for the gardener and send it in.’”

Coghill, in Fairbanks, said he thinks he will finish out of the final four, but he isn’t certain.

“We’ll see what the people of Alaska say, and whatever they have to say, that’s what we’ll start working with,” Coghill said. “And you never know what the people of Alaska will say.”

James Brooks is a longtime Alaska reporter, having previously worked at the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Empire, Kodiak Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. This article originally appeared online at alaskabeacon.com. Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.

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