Sweeney misses the ballot, but Begich could be the real loser of the special election
After a separate effort to get her on the special ballot through legal action, Sweeney says she's set her sights on the general election race.
It’s Monday, Alaska.
In this edition: It was a busy weekend for the special election race for the U.S. House. The long-shot lawsuit to get moderate Republican Tara Sweeney onto the special election ballot came up short with the Alaska Supreme Court ruling that, basically, the rules are the rules (no matter how nonsensical they are). That leaves it a three-way race between Palin, Peltola and Begich with Sweeney outside looking in, but she’ll have plenty to keep her busy after announcing that she’s officially in on the general election. Who’s the winner in the whole thing? Probably not Begich, who could be the real loser in this whole thing. Also, the reading list and a belated weekend watching.
Quote of the day: “That’s the sign of a true Alaskan, I think. I took a moose out of season,” Sarah Palin, during the Anchorage Chamber forum, on recently hitting a moose and not wanting to drive a smaller fuel-efficient vehicle despite high gas prices.
Current mood: 😵💫
After rejection by Alaska Supreme Court, Sweeney sets sights on general election
Moderate Republican candidate Tara Sweeney announced over the weekend that she will run in the general election for U.S. House after a separate effort to get her on the special election ballot came up short with the Alaska Supreme Court.
On Saturday, the Alaska Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that state law forbids Sweeney—who finished fifth in the special election primary—from taking the spot in the special election that was vacated after third-place finisher independent candidate Al Gross suddenly withdrew from the race.
The decision keeps the race a three-way contest between Democratic candidate Mary Peltola and Republican candidates Sarah Palin and Nick Begich. Sweeney, whose campaign did not personally get involved in the litigation, said she’s focused on the general election now.
“While I am disappointed, I respect the decision by the Alaska Supreme Court not to advance me into the final four for the special congressional election. I hoped to offer voters another choice in filling out the remainder of Congressman Young’s term,” Sweeney said in a prepared statement. “Concerning the regular election for the next two-year term, I am staying in the race. Alaska politics has a history of comeback stories, and I look forward to writing the next chapter by fighting to represent Alaska.”
Sweeney, who was the co-chair of the late U.S. Rep. Don Young’s re-election campaign, finished fifth in the June 11 special primary election with 5.92% of the vote. Following her finish, she said she was considering her next steps and had not yet committed to running in the general election race. Several other candidates who filed in both the special election and the general election ended their bids following the special election, including Democrats Christopher Constant, Adam Wool and Mike Milligan, Republicans John Coghill and Josh Revak, and independent Jeff Lowenfels.
In the run-up to the court’s decision, Sweeney took special aim at the Begich campaign for taking legal action against her status on the ballot.
“It is concerning to me that Nick Begich sought immediate legal action to block the advancement of my candidates to limit the choices for Alaskans,” she said in a prior statement. “He is clearly threatened by my candidacy and for good reason – I’m focused on empowerment, bringing people together and doing what is right for Alaska and Nick Begich is only concerned about his political ambitions.”
The election was the state’s first by-mail election and the first conducted under the election reforms approved by voters with 2020’s Ballot Measure 2. Along with introducing ranked-choice voting and open primaries to the state’s regular elections, the initiative overhauled how special elections are operated. Instead of parties nominating their preferred candidates, the system now calls for an open special primary (which attracted 48 candidates) with the top four candidates advancing to a ranked-choice special election (which will be held on the same ballot as the Aug. 16 regular primary election).
The legislation includes language for what happens if a candidate withdraws from a regular election, specifically that the fifth-place finisher would take the open spot, but that’s only if it happened 64 days prior to the regular general election. The law is silent on what happens in a special election, which means the procedures for operating the special elections fall back to the rules for a general election. Gross’ withdrawal—as well as the certification of the election—came after that deadline.
While the supporters of Sweeney argued that it violated the spirit of a law intended to increase choice and options for voters, the Division of Elections and the courts agreed the law was clear that the 64-day window applied to special elections. This was a point also backed by the Begich campaign, which also went to court to block Sweeney’s participation on the special general election ballot.
Even the courts conceded it was unusual but said there was nothing to be done when the law is clear.
“The Plaintiffs argue that the admittedly somewhat arbitrary cutoff deadlines established for general elections may fit awkwardly within the more compressed timelines of a particular special election. The court does not disagree with that observation,” wrote Judge William Morse in a ruling Friday, noting that the window would have required Gross to withdraw just two days after the election in order for Sweeney to have advanced. “That two-day window could hardly be briefer. Nonetheless, that is the period set by statute and the one the Division must apply.
“Despite the extremely narrow window of opportunity for a substitution in this special election, the court finds that AS 12.25.100(c) applies and establishes this window. The Division of Elections need not replace Al Gross with the fifth-place vote getter on the special general election ballot.”
Why it matters
From the get-go, it always seemed like a long shot for Sweeney to make the special general election ballot. The law is pretty clear that anything not specifically lined out for special elections will default to the general election process. Sure, it doesn’t really make sense given the tight deadlines of a special election but, after all, it’s not like the law has always made sense and was free of internal conflicts.
Still, that’s all to say that the intervention of Republican Nick Begich’s campaign seems particularly weird to me, especially when it ended up not being a particularly close call in the eyes of the courts.
Not only is it a bit of ugly, insider politics that hands Sweeney effective messaging moving forward—like “Nick Begich is only concerned about his political ambitions” and “Nick Begich sought immediate legal action to block the advancement of my candidacy to limit the choices for Alaskans” that she’s already been using—but it could very well cost Begich the special general election.
Without anyone on the left or really even in the center (which would be Sweeney) to split votes in the special general election, Democratic candidate Mary Peltola has a pretty clear runway to get somewhere in the 40% to 45% range of the vote on the first round (at least when judging Democratic performance in previous elections). That would leave some 60% to 55% of the vote for the Republican candidates to split, which means there isn’t enough votes for both candidates to outpace Peltola on the first round of the ranked-choice election and hope to improve their chances on the later rounds. Either Begich or Palin will finish in third place, leading to their elimination on the first round with their votes being redistributed.
Given the results of the special primary, Begich would have to seriously improve his performance if he wants to stay out of a third-place finish. As I wrote previously, Republicans did a better job about consolidating around their leading candidates in the primary election with Palin landing at 27% and Begich landing at 19.21%. However, that leaves little remaining conservative votes to pursue. Of the Republicans in the special primary, Sweeney got 5.9% of the vote, Coghill got 2.38% and Revak got 2.34%. There’s just not a lot of obvious places for Begich to be looking for the votes he needs, especially when the candidate of the largest group of voters is calling foul.
Then again, Palin has fantastically bad negatives when it comes to public opinion.
So, what does this all mean in the grand scheme of the race? It’s really hard to say. After all, this entire election is still in uncharted waters. But the result of Sweeney being blocked from the special general election race certainly helps Peltola’s chances far more than it does for Begich.
The regular general election, however, will be an entirely different story.
Following last week’s ruling, Republican candidates are pushing to rewrite Alaska’s constitution while other candidates argue that the state’s protections for abortions and other health care should be maintained. From Alaska Beacon: Right to abortion in Alaska remains protected, but advocates say it’s fragile
Legislative aides are calling out Anchorage Democratic legislator Geran Tarr for being a pretty bad and vindictive boss, right as she’s heading into a race for Senate. From Alaska Beacon: Legislative aides call Anchorage Democratic Rep. Tarr abusive, unfit for state Senate
If you missed the newsletter last week about rejected ballots, you can find it all here on the blog now. From the blog: Witness signature requirement was the leading cause for rejected ballots in Alaska’s first by-mail election
A federal court has delivered a pretty substantial order when it comes to fishery openings, finding that the state cannot issue openings that conflict with federal areas. From KYUK: A federal court temporarily suspends ADF&G from announcing conflicting openers on the Kuskokwim
As is the bumbling style for the Bronson administration, the city of Anchorage abruptly announced it’s closing a campground in East Anchorage to repurpose it for a temporary outdoor homeless camp. While similar efforts of setting up a designated spot for homeless to safely camp, the Bronson administration’s signature opaqueness has left the surrounding community feeling “bamboozled.” From the ADN: City abruptly repurposes East Anchorage campground for use by homeless people
Belated weekend watching
It’s been a while! But I think we could all use a laugh.
Have a nice week, y’all!
Thanks for the clarity on the special election situation!