Why losing Sarah Palin could be a sign of midterm trouble for Republicans

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Palin, the former Republican governor and 2008 running mate, was defeated by former Democratic legislator Mary Peltola to fill the remainder of late Rep. Don Young’s seat after the Alaska Division of Elections tabulated the preferential-choice ballots on Wednesday.

Although Alaska’s political environment is unique, the race bore the characteristics of a host of other races that could decide which party controls the House and Senate after the November election. Former President Donald Trump stepped in, ignoring the concerns of local Republicans. His pick, Palin, struggled to appeal to more moderate Republicans and independent voters. Democrats, meanwhile, focused their message largely on abortion rights, energizing parts of the electorate the party feared would be absent from midterms.

Since the Supreme Court’s decision to end nationwide abortion protections, conservatives have racked up a series of staggering losses. In ruby-red Kansas four weeks ago, voters overwhelmingly rejected an amendment that stated there was no constitutional right to abortion in the state. In New York last week, the Democratic nominee won a special House election in what was widely seen as a flagship neighborhood.

Now, Alaska — a state that has voted Republican in every presidential election since Lyndon B. Johnson was a re-election candidate — has elected a Democrat to fill a General House seat that has been in GOP hands for nearly 50 years old. Peltola is set to make history as the first Alaskan Native elected to Congress — though she may only hold the seat for a few months. She will face Palin and others again in November, when the Alaskans choose candidates for the regular two-year term that begins in January.

Peltola, in an interview with CNN on Wednesday hours before the ranked pick results were tabulated, said she sees abortion rights as a key issue in her race. Alaska, despite its Republican leanings, has a “libertarian bent,” she said.

“We are very greedy for our freedoms and our privacy,” she said.

She also pointed to a dark history of Alaskan Native women who were targets of forced sterilizations until the mid-20th century.

“Seeing that the Dobbs decision concerns me, and the other issues that this other radical Supreme Court – radically conservative Supreme Court – has pointed out, the other personal rights that they talk about violating are of great concern to me,” she said.

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Meanwhile, though Palin has proven to be a particularly flawed candidate, she has risen to the front of the Republican field in part thanks to Trump’s endorsement.

His loss is sure to add to growing Republican concerns about a flawed crop of Trump-endorsed 2022 midterm candidates in key races across the country — including the gubernatorial races of Arizona and Pennsylvania, Senate contests in Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, etc.

In a statement after the ranked-choice board showed Peltola had won, Palin attributed her loss to Alaska’s switch to the new system – blaming “someone’s experience with this new ranked-choice voting system. crazy, convoluted and confusing,” that voters approved in 2020 and will now be in place for all future elections in Alaska.

The reality, however, is more complicated.

In Alaska, many voters — including conservative Republicans — remain angry with Palin for her abrupt departure from state politics. She left the governor’s office in 2009, halfway through her only term in Juneau, under a cloud of ethical inquiries and legal battles.

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Trump ignored those sentiments in a state where he beat President Joe Biden in 2020 by 10 percentage points.

In April, he backed Palin – saying in a statement that she had been among his earliest supporters in 2016.

“Now it’s my turn!” said Trump.

Still, the party’s Alaska establishment broke with Trump and tried to steer the race in another direction — a clear sign of GOP concerns that Palin’s candidacy posed a unique eligibility issue.

Later in April, the Alaska Republican Party endorsed Nick Begich III, a businessman and Republican member of the state’s most prominent Democratic political family, over Palin.

But, much like in other open-seat races, Trump’s endorsement proved decisive with Republican voters. And Palin’s celebrity status was too much for Begich to overcome.

Palin, Peltola, Begich and independent Al Gross were the top four in a special 48-candidate primary in June. Gross dropped out of the race soon after, a move that allowed Peltola to shore up Democratic support while Palin and Begich battled for Republican votes.

In the August 16 special election, 40% of voters named Peltola as their first choice, while Palin got 31% support and Begich got 28% support.

This meant that Begich would be eliminated in the ranked vote table and his supporters’ votes would go to their second choices.

Those second-choice votes were telling: 50% of those who voted for the Alaska Republican Party’s preferred candidate voted for a Democrat — or no one at all — over Palin.

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Of those who voted for Begich, half listed Palin, the only other Republican on the ballot in the special election, as their second choice. Another 29% listed Peltola as their second choice. And about 20% did not indicate a second choice.

“Alaskans know I’m the last to retreat. Instead, I’m going to reload,” Palin said in her statement after the unofficial results were announced. “With optimism that Alaskans learn from this error in the electoral system and fix it in the next election, let’s work even harder to send an America First Conservative to Washington in November. This is the only way to clean up the mess that Joe Biden and the radical Democrats have done things.”

In November’s general election, Palin could get a boost from greater turnout in a state that still favors Republicans. She is likely to receive votes from many of the same voters backing Trump-endorsed Kelly Tshibaka against Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski in another ranked choice contest.

Still, the key players haven’t changed: Peltola and Begich will be on the ballot again, and Peltola is sure to see an infusion of cash from Democrats nationwide who, until Wednesday night, won’t hadn’t heard of her.

Peltola has taken progressive positions on some issues, but positions himself as an advocate for Alaska’s interests. She said in a statement late Wednesday that she would seek to continue Young’s “bipartisan legacy.”

“We built a lot of momentum in a short time,” added Peltola. “I plan to continue showing up to Alaskans and working to earn their trust.”

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