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Can Alaska Go Blue?

Mary Peltola’s surprise victory in this year’s Midterms has left many wondering whether her performance is part of a larger leftwards political trend in Alaska, and leaves the door open for a potentially unexpected political future in Juneau.

 

Alaska has never been a place for competitive politics, at least compared to the national stage. Since statehood in 1959, it has stood as a bastion of conservatism in the frigid north, only ever voting for a Democratic candidate on the presidential level for Lyndon B. Johnson against the uber conservative Barry Goldwater in 1964. Since then, it has voted strongly to the right, the margin staying in single digits in the 1968 election before turbo-charging to the right from then on. This is not to mention the fact that it last had a Democratic governor in 2002, and until recently Republican Don Young had held Alaska’s sole congressional seat in the House of Representatives for 49 years. Key word: “recently.” However, the Congressman’s unfortunate passing earlier this year opened up the seat for a potentially competitive race in the 2022 midterms. The results have exceeded the wildest expectations of many pundits and pollsters. First, Democratic candidate Mary Peltola upset former Republican governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in a narrow special election victory before winning by nearly double digits in November’s midterm elections. This, combined with Democrats managing to force a split in Alaska’s State House and denying the Alaska GOP an outright majority has prompted whispers that the state is on a subtle — but still evident — leftward trend. With the national political map ever-evolving, any pickup for the Democrats could upend the equilibrium of power and create new battlegrounds for both sides to divert attention on.


Alaska’s demographics are in many ways favorable to Democrats. The state’s Native American population, nearly 16% of all Alaskans, has increasingly been voting in larger numbers in the last several election cycles, as efforts to increase turnout in the rural and more isolated communities have grown. Native American voters tend to support Democrats over Republicans, and in Alaska it is no different. Many Native Americans supported Mary Peltola (AK-D) over Sarah Palin (AK-R) in her House race victory, as well as moderate Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski in her victory over Trump-backed challenger Kelly Tshibaka. While it is true that much of Peltola’s support may have indeed come from the fact that she is Native American herself, if current voting trends hold, increased Native American voting may very well help the state lurch blue. This is not to mention the political moderation of the Anchorage Metro Area, where the area’s white educated population has shifted blue, reflecting national trends amongst college-educated white voters. While the fact that much of the state is not college-educated, is rural, and still majority white — all of which tend to favor Republicans — the latest midterms results have at the very least proven that Alaska’s demographic trends are significant factors in which direction voters will lean.


This is not to mention the independent streak of Alaskan politics, something the state has often prided itself on and been touted for. While conservative, the state has never been one that has stuck to “establishment politics” — third-party or independent candidates from Ross Perot, to Gary Johnson, to the infamous George Wallace, to the “Alaskan Independence Party” have all found platforms in the state. Alaskans are not afraid to elect independents or political outsiders, as reflected in the fact that the state has now twice elected Lisa Murkwoski, even after she defied the national GOP. The point is, winning in Alaska has a very different playbook than the rest of the country, and that means Democrats can win in the state even if the optics are bad. Peltola did it, and the state has continued to reject more far-right politics as seen in the last several election cycles. This is further bolstered by the implementation of ranked-choice voting in the state. Many blamed this system for aiding Peltola’s victory, and while the system definitely helped Peltola across the finish line by dividing the Republican vote substantially, it also reflects a system that benefits moderates by forcing candidates to the center if they wish to earn second-place votes. This provides a clear playbook of moderate policies combined with unorthodox independent politics as a viable path for Democrats long-term in Alaska, and unless Republicans can catch up, it is likely this system will continue to turn Alaskan politics more and more competitive.


While all this may be true on the state-wide level, the argument presented has not exactly addressed how Democrats can pick up the state on a national scale – namely, a presidential election. Many of the aforementioned advantages for Democrats in Alaska politics, such as the state’s support for independent politics, is not really viable for a presidential race. However, trends still present a favorable light in the last several cycles for Democrats in the state. Beyond the shift of the national popular vote, the state has shifted leftward nearly 4% when looking at the state’s presidential election results between 2012, 2016, and 2020. This translated into Trump barely winning the state by 10% in 2020, as compared to previous candidates such as George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney, who all won the state by significantly more. In this regard, Alaska is moving bluer, it's just really a question of whether it can do so significantly enough to actually close the national gap. After all, cases such as North Carolina have given Democrats examples of fool’s gold, in which the state has always seemed in reach – barring wave years such as 2008 – but have almost never actually voted for Democrats on the national level. However, this precedent may not be the same in Alaska. The presidential shift has now been coupled with real Democratic victories in the state in Congress, and if a candidate such as Donald Trump – a man Alaskans have clearly not held in as high esteem as much as other Republicans judging by his and his endorsed candidates’ (Sarah Palin, Kelly Tshibaka, etc) performances – is on the ballot in 2024, then Joe Biden or another potential Democratic nominee for president could narrow the margin. Would Alaska be likely to flip the election? Probably not in 2024. However, with the right strategy, spending, and investment, it could open the door to a historic electoral re-shaping for 2028 or 2032. Even a single visit by the Democratic candidate in 2024 – something that they almost never have done in the past – could make a difference long-term, as would even a slight increase in investments in canvassing and advertisements in the state.


Alaska is not a prioritized state when it comes to serious electoral prizes. It does not have the population of Georgia, Pennsylvania, or even Nevada, and its isolated location prevents serious campaigning obstacles for a national candidate. However, politics is just as much about optics as it is about results, and the ability of Democrats to even make a state like Alaska partisanly competitive cannot be understated. It could go a long way in further empowering the historically disenfranchised Native American vote, as well as giving candidates more of an incentive to appeal to these voters, as seen by Democrats relying on such voters to win Arizona in both 2020 and 2022. The Democrats should not simply ignore the state because of historical precedent, and if Georgia or Arizona tells Democrats anything, it is that historically red states are just that, only “historically” red. Alaska is not a typical red state, and by taking advantage of that, Democrats could expand the playing field to new frontiers in the very near future.


Kyle Johnson is a second-year International Studies major in the School of International Service. He is a Staff Writer for the Agora.


Image Courtesy Frank Kovalchek, Creative Commons