Three fringe candidates dropped out of Alaska’s special U.S. House election by Monday’s deadline, finalizing the number of candidates at 48 but leaving ample uncertainty about how the race will unfold over the next two months.
All 48 candidates will be on the same ballot June 11 in Alaska’s nonpartisan primary — a new system of winnowing candidates that voters approved in a citizens initiative two years ago. The new election system and more candidates than ever seen in an Alaska primary have politicians, pundits and strategists still scratching their heads.
Alaska now faces a frenetic, two-month campaign season before the first primary.
The final list of candidates includes six Democrats, 16 Republicans, 22 nonpartisan or undeclared, two Libertarians, an American Independence Party member and an Alaska Independence Party member. The four-dozen candidates — including former Gov. Sarah Palin, Santa Claus, seasoned politicians and political newcomers — will vie for limited attention and airtime in an unprecedented election.
“There is no model,” Chris Constant, one of the Democrats running, said in a phone interview Monday. “So, the only reality that we all have to face and embrace is that there is no model, and we get to try this out and hopefully it works out for the best.”
Under the new system, the top four finishers in the June race advance to an August 16 general election that uses ranked choice voting, which will decide who holds Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat for the last few months of the term held by late Republican Congressman Don Young.
The regular primary election, for a full two-year term beginning in January, will be held the same August day.
“Fifty people in one race,” said Republican John Coghill, the former state senator from Fairbanks who announced his Congressional campaign last week. “The overload is going to be very difficult to navigate through. It’s not impossible — it’s difficult.”
Before Young’s sudden death last month, Constant, a member of the Anchorage Assembly, was the only Democrat who had filed to run.
Alaska Democratic Party executive director Lindsay Kavanaugh said Monday that the party has already announced its support for Constant. But there’s also still “time and space for other candidates” to draw support from Alaska Democrats, as well.
“Constant has got to be sitting there, cursing (fellow Democratic candidate state Rep.) Adam Wool, because he’s directly sucking away Democrat support,” said political pollster Ivan Moore.
Moore estimated that in order to advance from the primary to the general election, the top-four voter getters will have to win over just over 10% of the vote each. That isn’t much — but candidates appealing to similar constituencies may end up splitting votes amongst each other, lowering their chances of reaching the necessary threshold.
Also among the 48 candidates are four Alaska Natives: Republican Tara Sweeney, Democrats Emil Notti and Mary Peltola and nonpartisan Laurel Foster.
“A lot of us in the Native community are delighted to see such a deep bench in something of this caliber,” said Michelle Sparck, director of Get Out the Native Vote, a nonpartisan voter education initiative organized by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council. “A lot of us will rally toward our folks.”
But in a crowded field, Sparck recognizes that “name recognition is going to be half the battle.”
And with Palin’s being a household name, she “could go to sleep on the couch and wake up on June 11 and she’d be in the final four,” Moore said.
With an unprecedented number of candidates, “people will have to use new and unique ways to reach voters,” Kavanaugh said, and voter education will be crucial.
“It’s going to be a battle royale on the airwaves, in local ads, on social media,” Sparck said.
To that end, Sparck said she expects Native corporations — which bring with them crucial financial backing — will align themselves with candidates early in the two-month campaign season.
The two most critical variables in the upcoming election are name recognition and money, said Marc Hellenthal, a conservative political consultant who has been working in Alaska since 1979.
Based on those criteria, he slots candidates into three groups. At the top are Palin and independent Al Gross, a wealthy surgeon who ran a well-funded U.S. Senate campaign in 2020; Hellenthal described them as “shoe-ins” to finish in the top four in the primary.
In the next tier, Hellenthal puts candidates like Republicans Nick Begich III, Anchorage state Sen. Josh Revak, and Coghill, plus perhaps Santa Claus, whose name recognition will likely be enough to draw a significant number of votes despite his promise not to raise funds or hire a staff for his campaign.
In the third tier, he puts people who don’t have major name recognition but may have a great deal of money, which can buy advertising that generates name recognition. That group includes Sweeney, along with Constant and and attorney and gardening writer Jeff Lowenfels, who’s running as an independent.
Independent wealth may be particularly important in this campaign, said Moore, because it is a special election that comes just before the regular November election season.
“This is earlier than perhaps a lot of people were expecting to get their checkbooks out,” Moore said.
And with so many candidates in the race — at least a dozen of whom have a real shot at the final-four showing in the primary — fundraising is even trickier than usual.
“When someone gives money to one person, he’s risking pissing off the other 11,” Moore said. “So I think so many people are going to be sitting out this effort.”
One early poll released this week shows a tight race between Gross and Palin, but it’s highly speculative.
The poll was conducted by 314 Action Fund, a group that supports “science leaders” and which spent millions on Gross’ U.S. Senate campaign in 2020. The poll assumes that Gross, Palin, Revak and Eagle River GOP state Sen. Lora Reinbold would advance from the open primary into the general — but Reinbold didn’t even file to run.
Making accurate predictions about a 48-person race will be a major challenge for opinion researchers, according to Matt Larkin, a conservative pollster.
“There’s no real easy way to poll a race with that many people in it,” he said. “The reality is, you can’t read 50 names off. And the other reality is the vast majority of those names are not names that are known to Alaskans.”
James Brooks contributed to this story from Juneau.