Alaska’s Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski has been reelected to a fourth term and rookie Democratic Representative Mary Pertola has won a full House term, succeeding the late Republican Representative Don Young, with final vote counts announced Tuesday by Alaska election officials. The results are the first general election yield of the The Last Frontier’s new ranked choice voting system.
The outcomes marked a double defeat for Donald Trump, who has had a November to remember. Trump had endorsed and campaigned in Alaska for Murkowski’s Republican challenger Kelly Tshibaka, and for Sarah Palin’s special and general election bids for the state’s at-large House seat.
It was Palin’s first run for office since quitting as Governor in 2009, to cash in on celebrity status gained as Republicans’ 2008 vice presidential nominee.
Independent minded, willing to work across the aisle, Murkowski earned the loathing of Trump. She voted to impeach the 45th President after the January 6th, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. She has also worked to fashion bipartisan legislation like the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which will invest billions into Alaska projects ranging from broadband access to better ferry service.
Under Alaska’s ranked choice system, adopted by voters in 2020, the state abandoned partisan primaries. All candidates now appear on a jungle style August qualifying ballot. The top four vote getters advance to the November ballot. If no candidate reaches fifty percent, the candidate with the least amount of votes is eliminated and votes transferred to their supporters’ second choice.
The system works for coalition builders, and against polarizing candidates. Murkowski ran barely ahead of Tshibaka as first place choices were tabulated.
But Murkowski was the overwhelming second choice of voters who supported Democratic challenger Pat Chesbro, third place finisher in the Senate race.
“I am honored that Alaskans – of all regions and backgrounds, and party affiliations, have once again granted me their confidence to continue working with them and on their behalf in the U.S. Senate,” Murkowski said in a victory statement.
Unlike some Trump-backed candidates, Tshibaka did concede.
In a long statement, she thanked Trump – and God – while denouncing ranked choice voting as “an incumbent protection system” and “an absolute desecration of democracy.”
Murkowski lost a 2010 Republican primary to Tea Party-backed candidate Joe Miller. She won her way back to the Senate with an unprecedented, history-making write-in campaign, backed by Alaska Native corporations, labor unions (mainly teachers), voters in the Alaska bush, and moderates. She reassembled practically the same coalition this year. Murkowski was censured by the Alaska Republican Party after her impeachment vote. The party backed Tshibaka.
One new force: Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell supported Murkowski and spent millions from his PAC to air anti-Tshibaka TV spots. McConnell drew steamy denunciations from MAGA Republicans: Tshibaka accused him of wanting “a Senate minority that he can control as opposed to a majority he could not.”
Murkowski endorsed Democratic colleague Peltola, who barely missed a majority in the first round and easily outpaced Palin by 55% to 45% (a ten point margin) when voters’ second choices were counted. “It’s a two-year contract: I will be happy to work for Alaskans again, as long as they will have me,” she said.
Talking to the Anchorage Daily News, Peltola added: “I think it says that Alaskans are ready for an Alaskan to represent them who isn’t spouting the canned messages we hear nationwide.” She hails from the rural town of Bethel.
Peltola is a former state legislator who has developed expertise in management of The Last Frontier’s salmon and herring fishery.
The crusty Don Young represented Alaska in the House for forty-nine-plus years, from 1973 to this past spring when he died on a Seattle-bound Alaska Airlines flight. Peltola’s father once worked with Young, and the new House member smartly kept former Young aides on her staff.
Both Murkowski and Peltola support reproductive rights: Murkowski has indicated openness to legislation that would codify abortion rights nationwide.
Murkowski was also the second Republican senator (after Ohio’s Rob Portman) to come out in favor of same-sex marriage.
Murkowski has been both a collaborator and adversary of Washington’s Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell. The two “gentleladies,” as they are called in the Senate, have worked successfully to get construction underway on a new heavy-duty polar icebreaker, and design of a second.
They also worked on legislation that permanently authorized and funded the Land and Water Conservation Fund, in which federal oil and gas revenues are used to acquire wildlife habitats and recreation lands.
Cantwell is a longtime champion of the fund. Murkowski voted to confirm President Biden’s nominee, Deb Haaland, as U.S. Interior Secretary. Haaland is the first Native American to hold the nation’s top land management job.
Murkowski is, however, a defender and advocate for Alaska’s powerful oil and gas industry. Under Trump, she found a backdoor way to open the Arctic Refuge to oil lease sales. (Major companies have declined to bid.) She has championed the Willow Project, an effort by Conoco to develop an oil field west of Prudhoe Bay.
Alaska’s Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy did not need ranked choice to win a second term. He took just over 51 percent of the general election vote. Republicans won a narrow majority in the state House of Representatives.
A coalition of Democrats and reasonable Republicans is expected to run the Alaska State Senate for the next two years.
The losers in Alaska are not about to lie down. Last week, Sarah Palin became the first person to sign an initiative petition to repeal ranked choice voting.