Sarah Palin’s political fate hung in the balance Tuesday as the right-wing firebrand, who rose to fame more than a decade ago as a running mate, asked Alaskans to elect her to Congress.
Polls closed Tuesday night in a special election to fill a U.S. House seat vacated by the late Republican Representative Don Young. Palin is seeking to return to elective office, but the results could take days to be finalized as Alaska voters use a preferential voting system for the first time.
Palin’s challengers are Nick Begich III, a tech millionaire backed by the Alaska Republican Party, and Mary Peltola, a former state legislator and Democrat. The winner will serve the remainder of Young’s term before facing another election in November.
Young was first elected to office in 1973 and was the longest serving Republican member of the House, holding the state’s only seat in the House for nearly 50 years.
Palin, 58, first rose to prominence as John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 election, when she called herself a ‘grizzly mom’ and forged a loose-lipped cannon personality cowards. Palin’s attacks on the media, her racist agitation and her rejection of politics or mainstream politics in favor of grandstanding in many ways paved the way for Trump, of whom she was an early supporter.
Following that failed 2008 campaign, Palin quit as governor of Alaska and took a long hiatus from politics amid ethics scandals. This year, she staged a comeback — appearing with Trump at rallies and fundraisers but often skipping traditional campaign events and candidate debates in her home state.
Elsewhere in Alaska, Senator Lisa Murkowski faced off against 18 challengers — including Trump-backed Senate candidate Kelly Tshibaka — in a nonpartisan primary in which the four candidates with the most votes will advance to November’s general election.
The Congressional and Senate races will offer a glimpse of the power Trump still wields over voters, even in Alaska’s “last frontier,” where the majority of voters have declared no party affiliation.
As the most famous candidate in the race, and perhaps one of Alaska’s most famous, Palin has remained the most familiar among the candidates, despite the perception among many voters that she abandoned her state after resigned from the governorship. After leaving politics, she launched a career in reality TV, showcasing her life and condition on shows like Sarah’s Alaska and singing Sir Mix-A-Lot’s Baby’s Got Back while dressed in a pink and blue bear outfit in an episode of The Masked. Singer.
“I knew who Sarah was before I became an Alaskan,” said Kari Jones, 47, who moved to the state five years ago after her husband, who is in the military, was posted there. But Jones said her husband backed Begich, largely because the former governor failed to show up at a local dating event and was less approachable than his opponents. “She lost a few voices because of it,” Jones said.
“I’m looking for candidates who show they’re truly dedicated to the state, not just at election time,” Aundra Jackson, 60, who fished coho salmon in Anchorage before the election.
Nearly a decade and a half ago, when Palin first took the governor’s seat, she was a fiery newcomer who unseated a powerful incumbent – Lisa Murkowski’s father, Frank Murkowski. At the time, Palin’s approval rating peaked at just over 90% according to Ivan Moore – an Anchorage-based pollster. She was briefly noted for her bipartisanship, creating a sub-cabinet on climate change and taking on the oil and gas industry, before moving into more right-wing politics.
“Palin is probably the most attractive and charismatic candidate,” Jackson said. “But when asked specific questions, all I hear from her are soundbites. So it just surprises me that she has the popularity.
Begich, who portrayed Palin as absent and meaningless in the days leading up to the election, had won the endorsement of many prominent states Republicans.
Peltola, the Democratic candidate, presented herself as a fiercely friendly moderate who was willing to collaborate with conservatives and progressives. “I’m not interested in speaking ill of Sarah, she has her supporters and I respect her and her supporters,” she said in an interview with The Guardian ahead of the election.
Tuesday’s congressional election was the state’s first-ever ranked pick race, where voters got to choose their first, second and third choices for the role. In the Senate and Congressional “pick one” primaries, voters also choose their preferred candidate from a longer list of choices. The four with the most votes in each race will go to the polls in November.
The Associated Press contributed reporting