In a race this crowded, name recognition matters. Sarah Palin has it. Fans lined up to have their picture taken with her at a campaign rally at a south Anchorage church. The June 2 event was billed as a tele-rally, featuring Donald Trump by telephone.
“She did a phenomenal job and really became a MAGA warrior. And to this day, that’s what she is,” the former president said, to a crowd that didn’t fill the room but was large enough to make some noise.
Palin is a Fox News and reality TV celebrity, but she let it be known she’s a regular Alaskan. She name-checked local supermarkets and — as she blamed the current government for high gas prices — emphasized that she drives a pickup.
“My F-150 — One hundred and fifty bucks, out there in Wasilla, to fuel it up, that F-150. And it’s not even on a souped-up model, either,” she said. “I know you guys, too, you see that every time you fuel up.”
For all her fame, Palin has what pollsters call “high negatives.” Even some conservatives resent all the national attention her campaign has attracted.
But there’s little doubt that she’ll survive the special primary Saturday. The top four vote-getters will advance. In the special general election, on Aug. 16, voters will rank them 1 through 4. It’s unlikely anyone will get a majority after the first round of counting, so the Division of Elections will count second- and maybe third-choice votes.
If that sounds confusing to you, well, you’re not alone. We’ve never voted this way before. Also, the special election, to fill the remainder of the late Congressman Don Young’s term, overlaps with the regular election, for the next congressional term. The ranked choice special general election is on the same day as the regular primary, when voters pick who will advance to the November ballot.
Nick Begich doesn’t have Trump’s endorsement, but he has substantial support from Trump-loving conservatives, particularly in the Mat-Su. He’s running Facebook ads featuring testimonials from local Republican leaders and notable conservatives.
Alaskans know his name, though they may be confused by it. His grandfather, also named Nick Begich, held Alaska’s U.S. House seat until 1972, when his chartered plane disappeared on a flight to Juneau. Nick III is the nephew of former U.S. Senator Mark Begich and of state Sen. Tom Begich. But the other prominent members of the Begich family are Democrats. At a candidate forum, Begich credited his mother’s side of the family for his political affiliation.
“A lot of people ask, ‘How in the hell does a Begich become a Republican?’” he said, answering that he was “raised Republican. By grandparents who were Bible Belt Southern Republicans from Southeast Missouri.”
In liberal circles, there’s worry that uninformed progressives will instinctively vote for Begich. On the right, some conservatives have said that they can’t trust a Begich, no matter how many times they’re told this one is a Republican and has the endorsement of the Alaska Republican Party. It’s not clear whether voter confusion about his name helps him more than it hurt him.
Surgeon and commercial fisherman Al Gross still has a ton of name recognition and fundraising strength from his U.S. Senate campaign two years ago, when he was the Democratic nominee. He’s emphasizing his support for abortion rights and calling for more oil production. In fundraising appeals, he pitches himself as the candidate who can defeat Palin.
This time, though, the Democratic Party has broken with him for suggesting he could caucus with either party in the House.
Others in the running
It’s become an Alaska parlor game to guess who else makes it to the final four. Maybe it will be an Alaska Native candidate. Republican Tara Sweeney and Democrat Mary Peltola have relevant government experience. Or one of the current legislators: Josh Revak or Adam Wool. Former state senator John Coghill has a name many recognize. If familiarity matters, it’d be a mistake to overlook Anchorage attorney Jeff Lowenfels. The Anchorage Daily News published his name and photo almost weekly since 1976, next to his gardening column. And Anchorage Assemblyman Chris Constant has become one of the state’s most prominent progressives as he battles a conservative mayor.
On the left end of the field is Santa Claus, the North Pole city councilman. He’s one of the only candidates who unequivocally opposes both the Ambler road and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Some voters who want to block projects like those say he’s their best option. But Claus, who as of this week hadn’t spent his entire $400 campaign budget, is only running in the special, and that’s a non-starter for many strategic voters.
Claus said Alaska needs a full-time lawmaker in Congress for the rest of the year, not someone still on the campaign trail.
“The other advantage for yours truly is, should the voters put me in (Congress),…. I’d be in there over the holiday season,” he said. “And I think a lot of children will get kind of a kick out of it.”
At least one pollster says he has a decent chance of being in the final four. If Santa Claus and Sarah Palin make it past the primary this weekend, you can count on seeing more national attention on this race.