Democrat Mary Peltola has made history as the first Indigenous person and first woman to be elected to Alaska’s sole congressional district, according to the special election results released by the state’s Division of Elections on Wednesday. She defeated two Republicans — former governor Sarah Palin and Nick Begich III — who sought to fill the seat left vacant by the late GOP representative Don Young, who represented the state for 49 years.
“Thank you to all Alaskans who have put their faith in me as the first woman in Alaska’s history to represent our state in the House of Representatives,” Peltola tweeted on Wednesday night. “Tonight, we’ve shown that we can win as a campaign that is pro-choice, pro-fish, pro-worker, and pro-Alaska.”
Peltola, who turned 49 on Wednesday, is a member of the Yup’ik Indigenous community. Alaska Natives make up about 20 percent of the state’s population, and yet they’ve never been elected to the governor’s seat or Congress. Many Indigenous Alaskans live in the rural areas that experience a unique set of hardships — for example, about 30 of these communities lack running water. Alaska Native corporations, for-profit companies created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, which are unique to the state, have also faced roadblocks when trying to access federal aid, such as the COVID-19 relief fund Congress created for tribal governments.
Having Peltola in Congress is a turning point for Alaska Natives. She has a long history of public service: Peltola is the executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and previously served as a state representative. As a lawmaker, she had a reputation for working across the aisle and chaired the bipartisan Bush Caucus, made up of legislators who represented rural communities. And in the 2010 election, she helped run a successful write-in campaign for Senator Lisa Murkowski, who had been defeated by a Tea Party challenger, Joe Miller, in the Republican primary.
Peltola won the special election by running on a mix of economic and environmental issues, as well as being the only candidate in the race who supports abortion rights. She faced high odds: Palin and Begich both had much higher name recognition, and the former vice-presidential candidate outspent her four-to-one.
But Alaska’s new ranked-choice voting system, which was passed into law in 2020, worked in Peltola’s favor. The new system requires that ballots be re-tabulated if no candidate receives a majority of first-place votes; the candidate in last place is eliminated from the next round, and their votes are redistributed to voters’ second choices. In the August 16 special election, Peltola obtained 40 percent of voters’ support, while Palin and Begich received 31 percent and 28 percent, respectively. After applying the ranked-choice tallies, Peltola obtained 51.5 percent of the vote, while Palin received 48.5 percent.
Peltola will be sworn in on September 13, and will have to face off against both of her opponents once again in the November midterms. The winner will serve in Congress for a full two-year term.