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Why Sarah Palin’s loss in an Alaskan special election matters

Sarah Palin fully expected to win an Alaskan special election. She didn't. It's worth understanding why — and how.


A week ago at this time, the political world was starting to digest the surprising news that a Democrat had defied the odds and the polls, winning a congressional special election in upstate New York. It was a contest in which Republicans had put all the pieces in place, and GOP leaders fully expected to succeed, right up until the party fell short.

This morning, it’s like deja vu all over again. NBC News reported overnight:

Democrat Mary Peltola, a former state representative, will be the first Alaska Native in Congress after she won a special election that included GOP candidates Nick Begich and former Gov. Sarah Palin, NBC News projects. Peltola, who is the executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, served 10 years in the state Legislature and campaigned as “Alaska’s best shot at keeping an extremist from winning.”

Part of the surprise is that Palin even ran for the seat after the late Rep. Don Young died in March. After all, she abruptly resigned as governor 13 years ago after serving only half a term, stepping down to become a far-right political media personality. Palin’s relevance soon faded, especially as Donald Trump borrowed from her schtick and took over Republican politics.

She nevertheless launched a comeback bid, she was supposed to benefit from a Trump rally held a month before the special election, and she ended up losing anyway.

Part of what makes the developments interesting, of course, is how Palin lost.

This was, after all, Alaska’s first congressional election using the state’s new ranked-choice system. For those unfamiliar with ranked-choice balloting — also known as instant-runoff balloting — NBC News recently explained that the process allows voters to rank the candidates in order of preference. If one candidate wins a majority in the first round, he or she wins.

But if no one gets a majority, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and his or her supporters’ second-choice votes are allocated accordingly. If that still doesn’t produce a winner with a majority, then the next lowest vote-getter is eliminated, and so on.

In this case, Peltola prevailed and is headed to Congress because a significant chunk of the voters who backed a different Republican candidate — Nick Begich III — preferred the Democrat to Palin.

There was some grumbling in GOP circles about the legitimacy of the process, with Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton calling it a “scam.” It’s not: This is the legal system of elections Alaskans created and approved, and every candidate and party agreed to play by the same rules.

And in this race, those rules resulted in a Democratic victory.

To be sure, the outcome was unexpected. Alaska is a “red” state that twice backed Trump by double-digit margins, and has a Republican governor and two Republican U.S. senators. In the last four decades, it’s only sent one Democrat to Congress, and he lost after one term.

And yet, here we are, watching Democrats celebrate another welcome surprise.

Indeed, “another” is key given the circumstances: There have been five congressional special elections since Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices overturned Roe v. Wade. Democratic candidates easily surpassed expectations — overperforming relative to their 2020 performance — in each of the five contests.

If that doesn’t make GOP leaders a little nervous ahead of the midterm elections, they’re probably not paying close enough attention.

As for the former half-term governor, Palin’s written statement said last night, “Though we’re disappointed in this outcome, Alaskans know I’m the last one who’ll ever retreat. Instead, I’m going to reload.”

As it happens, that wasn’t idle rhetoric: Palin, Peltola, and Begich are expected to compete again in the fall for the same U.S. House seat. Watch this space.