Alaska’s lengthy and convoluted election process is set to come to an end on Wednesday when Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) and Rep. Mary Peltola (D) are likely to finally emerge as the winners — largely thanks to the state’s new ranked-choice system.
The Alaska Division of Elections will reveal the final unofficial results on Wednesday night.
Murkowski leads Republican challenger Kelly Tshibaka by less than 1,700 votes — 43.3 percent to 42.7 percent.
In the House contest, Peltola holds a commanding lead, with 48.7 percent support over Republicans Sarah Palin at 25.8 percent and Nick Begich at 23.4 percent.
According to the new election system, contests where neither candidate reaches the 50 percent mark will see the candidate who finished with the lowest numbers eliminated.
The voters who backed that individual then have their votes reallocated to their second choices.
Ultimately, only two candidates are left at the end until a winner is determined.
That is why Murkowski is the favorite, as the votes of Democrat Pat Chesbro, who won 10.4 percent of the vote, will likely shift overwhelmingly to the moderate senator.
According to a memo sent to interested parties on Monday, the Murkowski campaign expects that at least 70 percent of the 26,874 votes cast for Chesbro will end up in her column, which would put her over the top.
“Any remaining outstanding votes (absentee and early) will break favorably for Lisa Murkowski. When the ranked-choice process plays out on November 23rd and 2nd place votes are tallied, Lisa Murkowski will once again secure re-election,” Nate Adams, Murkowski’s campaign manager, wrote in the memo.
On the House side, all signs point to Peltola winning for the second time in four months, even though more voters in total cast ballots for one of the two Republicans, Palin and Begich.
The reason is that a large number of voters who picked Palin or Begich as their top candidate picked Peltola as their second choice.
In the August primary, 15,000 voters who voted for Begich chose Peltola as their backup pick instead of Palin, who remains a polarizing figure years after her time as the state’s governor ended. In addition, 11,000 Begich voters decided against listing a second candidate at all in the primary.
All told, the system in place remains difficult to comprehend, especially as voters wait more than two weeks after Election Day for final results.
“People are starting to look nationally and say ‘this could be the answer.’ I think they need to be cautious about that. … It’s very confusing,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska).
Sullivan, who won reelection under the old system in 2020, said many voters failed to comprehend the system as he took questions at a booth during the Alaska State Fair in Anchorage shortly after the August primary.
“Ninety-five percent of the people talking to me about our new ranked-choice voting system were saying how utterly confusing it was,” Sullivan said. “That was in the primary, so there’s some learning that goes on before in the general. But this idea that this is going to bolster confidence in the system I think remains to be seen.”
The new system affected both the general election and the primaries.
In the old system, Republican candidates competed in one primary while Democrats competed in another.
In the new system, all of the candidates took part in a nonpartisan primary election, with the top four candidates advancing to the general election.
This effectively helped moderate candidates while hurting more partisan candidates.
One national Republican involved in the race noted that former President Trump, who had battled with Murkowski, did not feature prominently in the race. The last ads featuring him rolled out near the July rally he held in Alaska for Palin and Tshibaka.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also played a big role in the race.
The Senate Leadership Fund (SLF) run by his allies spent $6.4 million to boost Murkowski — a sum some Republicans believe could have been more useful in other races, including in Georgia, where Republican Herschel Walker finds himself in a runoff against Sen. Raphael Warnock (D).
“Pick your poison,” said the national Republican involved in the race when asked where it could have helped, adding that Tshibaka was outspent roughly 7 to 1 in part because of SLF’s involvement. “I find it hard to justify. Maybe they don’t.”
“This was a system put in place to save Lisa Murkowski’s ass. … You can blame Palin and Begich all you want, but it’s the system that elects Mary Peltola,” the national Republican continued. “That’s one less vote for Kevin McCarthy for Lisa Murkowski’s sake. He could use another vote, couldn’t he?”
McCarthy is the California Republican picked by his conference to serve as Speaker. He faces a floor vote in January where some Republicans are threatening to withhold their support.
Adams noted to The Hill that Murkowski, who is seeking a fourth term in the upper chamber, never advocated for the ranked-choice system. He added that the campaign was “playing the game on the field” under the rules that were at play.
As for SLF, the McConnell-allied group backed Murkowski because of its policy of supporting incumbents.
“Lisa Murkowski has been a tireless advocate for Alaskan industries and jobs, and SLF was proud to support her re-election to the Senate,” said Jack Pandol, an SLF spokesperson, in a statement.
Assuming she loses, a future campaign could be in the cards for Tshibaka, 42, though the next round of statewide contests for Senate and governor are not until 2026. Peltola’s House seat will be up for election again in 2024.
Sullivan noted that because of the system, he isn’t quite sure how he will operate his campaign in 2026.
“I don’t know. I truly don’t know,” Sullivan said. “I don’t have any idea right now. I don’t know if anybody does.”