In Alaska this week, voters elected a Democrat to represent them in the U.S. House for the first time in a half-century. Incoming Rep. Mary Peltola defeated former Gov. Sarah Palin with over 50% of the vote. Some will be inclined to attribute Palin’s loss to the state’s experiment with ranked-choice voting to dismiss this race’s significance. After all, Palin finished first in the special House primary in June, in which Democratic and Republican candidates compete on the same ballot, and Peltola finished a dismal fourth.
Despite Alaska’s confusing process, there’s no ambiguity about what Alaska’s moderate Republican voters think about their former governor.
The intricacies associated with ranked-choice voting notwithstanding, that analysis overcomplicates this result. In the end, too few Republican voters backed Palin as even their second choice to represent them in Congress.
Palin, arguably the proto-Trump, and her brand are well-known to Alaska’s voters, and “brand” is the right word for it. The onetime governor is remembered as much for her record in office and as a candidate and a pundit as she is for her pursuit of celebrity: a fame seeker who danced around on television in a cotton candy-colored bear costume. Despite Alaska’s confusing process, there’s no ambiguity about what Alaska’s moderate Republican voters think about their former governor. Palin tethered herself to the former president in the closing days of the race, and the former president devoted most of the time he was supposed to be propping her up by exacerbating divisions within Alaska’s GOP. This threadbare process produced a now predictable outcome: Republican losses.
This isn’t the first of the GOP’s underperformances in what should be a banner year for the party. And it shouldn’t be happening. The opposition party should benefit from the primary features of this political environment, if only because the party in power doesn’t want to touch them.
Democrats don’t want to talk about the economy. Even modestly hopeful economic indicators are invariably conflated in the public imagination with the reduced purchasing power consumers are experiencing as a result of inflation, and happy-talking the economy risks seeming out of touch.
Democrats don’t want to talk about national security — not on the first anniversary of the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, which has restored Afghanistan as a safe haven for al Qaeda operatives. They don’t even want to talk about government services, at least not after having presided over the failure of educational institutions to educate or police departments to police.
What Democrats do want to talk about is Donald Trump. Fortunately for them, Republicans do, too. Since the Aug. 8 FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, some Republican lawmakers and office-seekers have competed with one another to strike the most aggrieved tone on behalf of their party’s persecuted leader. Unsurprisingly, they’ve all but re-anointed him the party’s leader in the process, relegating promising contenders for that title to mere supporting roles. But amid this uncalculated detour, the GOP has abandoned its effort to cast itself an as unobjectionable alternative to Democratic maladministration.
A frothing rage is what moves voters to engage in the political process. Humiliating spectacles like those Biden presided over for the first 18 months of his presidency don’t.
We can’t say the election results in The Last Frontier are sui generis. In August, Democrat Paul Ryan defeated Republican Marc Molinaro in a New York district President Joe Biden barely won in 2020 — precisely the sort of district Republicans have to flip in November. In special elections in Nebraska and Minnesota where Republican candidates won, their Democratic opponents beat Biden’s 2020 performance by 10 and 6 points respectively. In the generic ballot test, which asks voters which party they’d like to see in control of Congress, a stable lead the GOP had maintained since last autumn has evaporated.
Democrats may want to pat themselves on the back for this act of political escape artistry, but there is little evidence to support the narratives preferred by the party’s consultant class. Left-wing partisans have attributed the Democratic comeback to the party’s recent string of successful legislative initiatives, Biden’s reconfiguration of federal student debt obligations by fiat and anxiety over the future of abortion access after the Dobbs decision. These aren’t satisfying explanations for the party’s resurgence.
A party-line vote that produced the Inflation Reduction Act, which a University of Pennsylvania Wharton School study found is more likely to increase inflation than anything else and became a “historic climate bill” only after its passage, is about as relevant today as the first federal gun control legislation to become law in 30 years. Which is to say, not at all.
Biden’s attempt at debt cancellation is popular for now, but it may not survive challenges to its constitutionality in the courts. Republicans paid no political price for opposing Biden’s similarly popular but equally lawless executive actions extending a CDC-mandated eviction moratorium and a vaccination mandate for private businesses.
Polling continued to suggest the GOP benefited from an enthusiasm gap in its favor well over one month after the Supreme Court’s decision overturning the precedents in Roe and Casey. Even in red states where abortion-rights supporters have recently enjoyed surprising victories at the polls, those voters don’t seem inclined to vote blue in November.
If Republicans sense any advantage in their remora-like attachment to the former president, it is insofar as their deference to him excites their base voters and sends their opponents into a frothing rage. But a frothing rage is what moves voters to engage in the political process. Humiliating spectacles like those Biden presided over for the first 18 months of his presidency don’t. Republicans have voluntarily substituted a campaign-year message that discouraged Democratic voters for one that enlivens them like little else.
There is a familiar dynamic at work as the midterm election season begins in earnest. The party out of power tends to get a closer look from voters after the primaries, after which it is no longer a generic vehicle of general opposition. The fundamentals of this election year still favor the GOP, and the party can still recover from its swoon. But Republicans have spent a month reminding voters that theirs is the party of Trump, which forecloses on their ability to argue that the GOP is also the party of boring, competent governance. If there is another effective argument to make against unified Democratic control of all the levers of power in Washington, the GOP hasn’t made it yet.
CLARIFICATION (Sept. 7, 2022, 7:05 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article reported that Mary Peltola finished fourth in “the initial round of voting.” That referred to the special House primary in June, not to the general election last month.