Meet the ‘pro-fish’ Democrat who is leading against Sarah Palin in deep red Alaska

Mary Peltola pulled ahead in the first round of Alaska’s ranked choice special election, Richard Hall reports. Can she hold the lead?

Thursday 25 August 2022 06:49 BST
US House candidate Mary Peltola reacts at her campaign party at 49th State Brewing in Anchorage, Alaska, U.S. August 16, 2022
US House candidate Mary Peltola reacts at her campaign party at 49th State Brewing in Anchorage, Alaska, U.S. August 16, 2022 (REUTERS/Kerry Tasker)

The race for Alaska’s only House seat is seldom a close-run affair. It was held by Republican Don Young for nearly 50 years until his death earlier this year sparked a special election.

But when the first round results of that election were announced last week, they showed a Democrat out in front. Mary Peltola, 48, is currently ahead of her closest rival, former vice presidential candidate and reality TV star Sarah Palin.

Ms Peltola, a Native Yup’ik, has given Democrats hope of a stunning upset in a deep red state. In a year that promises a challenging national outlook for her party, can she buck the trend?

There are a couple of things that immediately stand out about Ms Peltola’s campaign. Firstly, she refuses to attack her opponent in the manner that Americans have grown used to in recent years — in fact, she has made bipartisanship a centrepiece of her strategy. Second, she is perhaps the most outwardly pro-fish candidate currently running for office anywhere in the country (more on that later).

“I feel that Alaskans, like most Americans, are tired of the negativity and the partisan divide in Washington DC. I think one of the reasons my message is hitting home with voters is because they know I have a long history of bipartisanship,” she tells The Independent by phone.

The push for an amicable race is notable given her rival’s potted political history. Sarah Palin’s return to politics has, predictably, brought an unusual amount of attention to this race. Ms Palin resigned as governor of the state in 2009 under the shadow of several ethics investigations into her time in office. Her time under the national spotlight as John McCain’s running mate for the White House in 2008 gave the media, and her opponents, plenty of fodder. But Ms Peltola has refused to go on the attack.

“Her two years in office coincided with my last two years as a state representative, and we both happened to be pregnant with our last child at the same time. She and I worked very well together, and I do have a sense of camaraderie with her,” she says.

“We all care about our families. We want good jobs with livable wages. We all want our kids to go to good schools. We will all want to live in a home that's safe and peaceful and loving. There we all just have so much in common. And that's very true in this race as well. Sarah and I are aligned on many issues that face Alaska,” she adds.

Ms Peltola recounts a text message she received from Ms Palin on election day that illustrates how the race has played out.

“She had been out sign waving and she said: ‘Hey, best of luck today. I just had to duck home. My hoodie is soaking wet. It is so cold out there.’ And so I was just so happy to get that text because I knew I had to wear my long johns and really be prepared for the elements, and that’s such an Alaskan, friendly heads up to give each other.”

That is not to say there aren’t clear differences between her and Ms Palin. Ms Peltola has pointed out that she is the only candidate to support a woman’s right to choose — an issue that has energized Democratic voters across the country since the fall of Roe v Wade.

But Ms Peltola pointedly doesn’t want to talk about Ms Palin, and has gone so far as to joke about her reluctance to do so repeatedly on social media. One thing she does want to talk about is fish.

In a state like Alaska, being pro-fish is a vote-winner. It is one of the most bountiful fishing regions in the world. The industry directly employs some 58,000 people and produces more than $5 billion in economic activity every year, according to Alaska’s Resource Development Council. Salmon represents the vast majority of that industry.

Ms Peltola was on her way to becoming a teacher, like her father, when she changed course and entered politics. She grew up along the Kuskokwim River, where fishing was vital to the local economy and the Native people who live there, of which she is one. The rural southwestern town of Bethel, where she moved to when she was 13, has seen its fishing stocks decline dramatically over the years.

“Our fishing is a shadow of its former self. It’s really gone downhill and we now don’t even have enough to meet our needs for food security,” she says.

“And statewide our fishing numbers are down also. In Bristol Bay, our red salmon are at record highs, but they really were the outlier species. The other species — king salmon, they’ve been in decline for at least 13 years. Chum salmon has really fallen off the map,” she says.

Ms Peltola spent ten years in Alaska’s House of Representatives and chaired the Bush Caucus, which represents majority-Alaska Native districts in Western Alaska. She says she prioritised education, university funding and renewable energy during her time in office.

Should she win this race, Ms Peltola would be the first Native to represent Alaska in Congress, a history-making victory for a state that has an Indigenous population of around 15 per cent. She has drawn on her upbringing in rural Alaska and her experience in managing natural resources to appeal to voters that might have otherwise been overlooked by Democrats. For the past five years has led the Kuskokwim River Inter Tribal Fish Commission, which advocates for salmon conservation and fishery management for tribes and rural residents.

“One of the reasons I decided to run for Congress is the state of our fishing situation and how much more really needs to be done in terms of precautionary management and adapting to this new ecological paradigm we’re seeing in the Bering Sea,” she says.

Despite being ahead in the first round, Ms Peltola faces an uphill battle to secure the seat. Alaska’s ranked-choice voting system — where second preference votes are counted if a candidate fails to secure 50 per cent of the vote share in the first round — can give a warped impression of where the vote stands at that first stage. Initial results showed Ms Peltola leading Ms Palin on first-choice votes, 38 per cent to 32 per cent, but another Republican, Nick Begich, placed with 28.6 per cent. Most observers expect the majority of Mr Begich’s second-choice votes to go to his fellow Republican, but the race may be too close to call.

That same system, though, which cuts down an open field to the top four in a nonpartisan primary, also filters out more extreme candidates by allowing voters to rank their preferences. As candidates are eliminated over several rounds, their votes are redistributed among the remaining candidates. That is something that might harm a controversial figure like Ms Palin, to Ms Peltola’s advantage.

Beyond this special election, which decides who completes the remainder of Mr Young’s term, another vote will quickly follow to decide who takes the seat past 2023.

For now, though, Ms Peltola is enjoying her lead.

“​​I’m pleased, of course,” she says. “I did not have the same kind of advantages in terms of PAC money funding my campaign. I’m not a millionaire, so I wasn’t able to self-finance. I didn’t come into the race with broad name recognition. So I’m very pleased that my message has resonated with people and I’m very optimistic.”

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