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Alaska Sends Democrat to Congress for First Time 50 Years—and First Native Person Ever

Mary Peltola beat out two Republicans, including Sarah Palin, in ranked choice voting to nab the empty seat.

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Image for article titled Alaska Sends Democrat to Congress for First Time 50 Years—and First Native Person Ever
Photo: Becky Bohrer (AP)

Hell has frozen over in Alaska.

On Wednesday night, election officials announced that Mary Peltola won Alaska’s sole congressional seat in a special election. This makes her the first Democrat to win this seat in 50 years, and the first Alaska Native to be elected to Congress ever.

Peltola, who is Yup’ik, was a member of the state’s House of Representatives from 1999 to 2009. Peltola shared news of her win online with the simple caption, “It is a GOOD DAY.”

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The special election was called after the unexpected death of longtime Rep. Don Young (R) in March. Peltola’s term will run until January.

Peltola beat out two Republicans: former veep candidate and all-around joke Sarah Palin, and Nick Begich, who comes from a state dynastic family full of Democrats. Her win is a massive upset in the state that continually makes news for its Republican ties. (Alaska is also represented by alleged centrist Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski.)

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She also did not shy away from abortion and issues of healthcare. Alaska natives—like all Native Americans, frankly—have notoriously been mistreated by the U.S. government. The Centers for Disease control noted in a 2018 report that they “have a lower life expectancy, a lower quality of life, and a higher prevalence of many chronic conditions” than non-Native Americans.

Political pundits are suggesting that Peltola’s win confirms a nation-wide swing toward Democrats after the Supreme Court ruling against abortion rights:

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This election cycle is the first time Alaska has used ranked-choice voting. On the first-round ballot, none of the three candidates crossed the 50 percent mark, so the lowest candidate (Begich) was eliminated from contention, and in round 2, if they ranked a second choice, Begich voters were distributed to Peltola and Palin. In round 2 of vote counting, 50 percent of Begich voters went to Palin, but nearly 29 percent went to Peltola. It’s unclear how Peltola would have won in a traditional two-candidate face-off without a ranked-choice voting system in such a heavily Republican state. “Ranked choice voting gave Alaskans more choice and competition in this contest,” FairVote CEO Rob Richie said in a statement to reporters. “Turnout was the third-highest in Alaska primary history and voters handled the ballot well, with 85 percent of voters reporting that ranking candidates was simple.”

Giving people the ability to vote with a wider range of candidates, instead of a one candidate or nothing approach most states use every election. It requires candidates to build larger coalitions, either by energizing wide swaths of voters like Peltola or activating new voters.

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Regardless of voting system used, Peltola’s shocking win should come as a warning to Republicans. Alaska, notably, favored Trump by 10 points in his last failed bid for power—but following the overturning of Roe v. Wade, conventional wisdom about midterm elections has been thrown into flux. Kansas voters turned out to stop a referendum that would have allowed further abortion restrictions to go into effect. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell worries that Republicans won’t retake the upper chamber, because the party’s candidates suck. And these Alaska results seem to confirm an unexpected blue wave.

In short: Hell yes, Alaska.