Mar 27, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Alaska special election will gauge Murkowski's re-election chances

Sen. Lisa Murkowski is seen side-by-side with the late Alaska Rep. Don Young.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski and the late Rep. Don Young. Photos: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images (left) and Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The election to replace the late Rep. Don Young will put a new person in Alaska's lone House seat for the first time in nearly half a century. It'll also test a pioneering new voting system — and the re-election prospects of Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

Why it matters: Murkowski is the only Senate Republican up for re-election this cycle who voted to convict former President Trump. She also animated the 50-50 Senate by voting for many of President Biden's nominees and working with Democrats on infrastructure and election reform.

How it works: Candidates from any party will run in a nonpartisan primary, and the top four vote-getters will advance to the general election.

This new system was narrowly approved by Alaska voters in 2020.

  • The general election will be ranked-choice: the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes will be eliminated and their votes reallocated to their voters’ second choices. The process will repeat — with trailing candidates' votes reallocated to the other candidates — until one wins an outright majority.
  • Gov. Mike Dunleavy set the special primary for June 11 and the general election for Aug. 16 — the same date as Alaska's regular primary election.
  • In one more change, the special election primary will be entirely conducted by mail. The state faces a challenge in recruiting poll workers on such short notice, especially in a state with so many isolated communities, officials said this month.
  • The candidate who wins Young's seat, if they want to seek a full congressional term, will have to immediately turn around and run again in the regular election in November.

The special election is viewed as a bellwether for Murkowski because the ranked-choice system is specifically designed to elect consensus candidates rather than party extremists.

  • Jeff Landfield, the editor-in-chief of the Alaska Landmine, said it would bode well for Murkowski "if a moderate upsets a much more conservative person," although he cautioned the makeup of the new voting system creates many unknowns.
  • A spokesperson for Murkowski's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Murkowski, one of the most moderate members of the Republican caucus, is facing a more conservative, Trump-endorsed challenge from Republican Kelly Tshibaka.

  • She's the former commissioner of the Alaska Department of Administration.
  • "In a lot of ways, this will be the best poll we have going into the fall elections," said Jason Grenn, executive director of Alaskans for Better Elections, a group behind the state's new election system.
  • Grenn, a former independent state legislator, said the ranked-choice system encourages politicians to “work across the aisle, to find solutions, to compromise.”

The backstory: Young, the longest-serving member of the House, died March 18.

  • He was first elected to Congress in 1973 and was known for his brash style.
  • Because of his lengthy tenure and Alaska's limited seats in Congress, a backlog has developed that could create a large field in the special election to replace him.
  • Former Gov. Sarah Palin is among those teasing a run.

State of play: Two major candidates are already in the race to succeed Young: Republican Nick Begich III — the scion of a prominent Democratic political family that includes Young's predecessor — and Democrat Chris Constant.

Go deeper