In Alaska, the race to succeed Don Young is raucous and crowded
By Emily Cochrane
The race began, fittingly, in the spring season known here as breakup.
As sheets of ice cracked into pieces across the rivers, melting snow exposed the gravel and dust on roads, and preparations began for hunting and fishing, dozens of congressional campaigns were springing to life with barely a few days of planning. Candidates held solemn conversations with their families, advisers hastily secured website domains and the endorsements and donations began flooding in.
The unexpected death in March of Rep. Don Young, the Republican who represented Alaska’s sole congressional district for nearly half a century, has given rise to a crowded and raucous race to succeed him. No fewer than four dozen Alaskans — political veterans, gadflies, and even a man legally named Santa Claus — are running to succeed Young as the lone representative in the House for the state’s 734,000 people.
The list of candidates is sprawling. It includes former Gov. Sarah Palin, who is endorsed by former President Donald Trump; Nick Begich III, whose grandfather held the seat before Young; four Alaska Natives, including one, Tara Sweeney, who served in the Trump administration; Jeff Lowenfels, a retired lawyer and a prolific local gardening columnist; and Claus, a portly, bearded North Pole councilman and socialist.
“That’s a lot of people to do research on and figure out,” said Morgan Johnson, 25, as her black cat, Edgar, prowled across the counter of her plant shop in Juneau. “I get stuck on one person’s Instagram for an hour — now I have to do that for 48 people.”
Further complicating the picture, four separate elections in five months will determine Young’s successor. First, the throng of candidates will compete in a primary contest June 11. The top four finishers will advance in August to a special election to complete the remainder of Young’s term. That same August day, the candidates who choose to do so will compete in yet another primary to determine which four advance to the general election. And finally in November, voters will choose a winner to be sworn in in January 2023.
The sheer volume of candidates owes in part to a new electoral system in Alaska, which opens primaries to all comers, regardless of political affiliation. Under the rules, voters can choose one candidate, and the four who draw the most votes then compete in a runoff of sorts, in which voters rank their choices. The preferences are counted until someone secures a majority.
State officials and advocacy groups are rushing to pull off the rapid-fire contests and ensure that voters understand how the new rules work.
“We’re compressing everything that usually is done in about seven months in 90 days,” said Gail Fenumiai, Alaska’s director of elections, who said her team would mail and process more than 586,000 ballots. “There’s a significant amount of work involved.”
State officials decided to hold the special election by mail, in part because there was not enough time for the necessary hiring and training of more than 2,000 new election workers, as well as testing and sending election equipment across the state. A ballot was carefully designed to fit all the names on one side of paper, with the first ones sent out less than six weeks after Young died.
Candidates have also had little time to build a campaign that stands out or crisscross a mountainous state where villages and towns are often accessible only by plane or ferry.
“When you’re vying for a limited set of first-round votes, you have to figure out how to put yourself forward in a way that people will hear it and resonate with it,” said Christopher Constant, an Anchorage assembly member and Democrat who announced his intent to challenge Young in February.
The broad field has roiled the close-knit political circles here, pitting longtime colleagues and friends against one another.
“This seat has been held for 49 years by one guy, and people are just hungry to have a different voice in Congress, and they think that they can add to it,” said John Coghill, a former state senator who is among the candidates.
It has also cracked the door open for a series of history-making bids, including four candidates who would be the first Alaska Native to represent a state where more than 15% of the population identifies as Indigenous.
“It is long past time that an Indigenous person was sent to D.C. to work on behalf of Alaska,” Mary Peltola, a Democrat who spent a decade in the state Legislature and is Yup’ik, said in an interview in Anchorage.
Peltola is among the candidates who have gone to great lengths to highlight a personal connection or appreciation for Young.
The fiercest competition is inside the Republican Party, where younger conservatives who had waited their entire lives in Young’s shadow are contending for the mantle of his successor. The filing deadline was April 1, two weeks after Young died, meaning candidates had to decide whether to run before funeral services for the congressman had concluded.
“It stunned the entire state, and then having to figure out what this new reality was going to look like and what processes were in front of Alaskans with respect to this vacancy — it’s been exhausting,” said Sweeney, a co-chair of Young’s campaign and now a candidate for his seat.
Sweeney, who is Inupiaq and the first Alaska Native woman to serve as assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, has emerged as a leading contender for Republicans, with top Alaska Native-owned corporations banding together to back her campaign.
Begich, a conservative whose grandfather of the same name held the seat as a Democrat until his disappearance in a plane crash in 1972, angered many in Young’s inner circle by jumping into the race in October as a challenger, dangling what they saw as insinuations that the congressman was too old.
The chosen candidate of the state Republican Party, Begich has disavowed the $1 trillion infrastructure bill Young proudly championed and the congressman’s penchant for earmarking federal dollars for Alaska.
Young’s allies have gravitated toward less conservative candidates.
Those include Sweeney and Josh Revak, a state senator and an Iraq War veteran who secured a coveted endorsement from Young’s widow, Anne.