An upset victory for US Democrats in conservative-leaning Alaska has refuelled the party’s hope of retaining its slim majorities in Congress in the upcoming midterm elections against historical trends.
In a special congressional election on Tuesday, Mary Peltola became the latest Democrat to score a surprise win against Republicans, defeating former vice presidential candidate, ex-Alaska governor and Donald Trump ally Sarah Palin.
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Peltola, a former state legislator, is now the first Alaska Native to represent the remote northwestern state in Congress. The special election was to replace Republican Congressman Don Young, who held Alaska’s sole seat in the US House of Representatives for nearly half a century until his death earlier this year.
Pelota will serve in Congress until the end of the year and face reelection in November. Alaska employed its ranked voting system for the first time on Tuesday.
Palota bested Palin and Republican candidate Nick Begich, coming on top in the first round of voting with nearly 40 percent of the vote. After third-placed Begich votes were distributed between her and Palin based on ranked choice, she beat the former governor 51.5 to 48.5 percent.
Pelota’s victory came as Democrats moblised their supporters to protect abortion rights after the conservative majority on the US Supreme overturned the constitutional right to the procedure late in June.
Tuesday’s result in Alaska added to Democrats emerging optimism about the November election, when all House seats and about a third of the Senate will be up for grabs.
Earlier this year, the party appeared destined to lose control of Congress in the midterms with President Joe Biden enduring low approval ratings amid soaring inflation. Moreover, the party that controls the White House historically underperforms in the midterms.
But the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling has energised the Democratic base, with liberal politicians pledging to codify abortion rights into law.
In conservative Kansas, where Trump beat Biden by 15 percentage points, residents overwhelmingly voted to preserve abortion rights in a referendum early in August. And last week, a Democratic candidate who centred abortion rights in his campaign won a contested special House election in New York.
Democratic candidates also narrowed the gap in deeply conservative House districts in Nebraska and Minnesota.
Pelota had promised to protect abortion rights in her campaign in Alaska. “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,” she wrote on Twitter late on Tuesday.
“Tonight, we’ve shown that we can win as a campaign that is pro-choice, pro-fish, pro-worker, and pro-Alaska.”
Pelota had tweeted out a message in support of abortion rights hours earlier, as well. “My position on the right to choose is simple: our government should not be in the business of telling people what they can and can’t do with their own bodies,” she wrote on Twitter.
Many Democrats stressed that the victory in Alaska has implications well beyond the state.
“If a Democrat can win a statewide race in Alaska, Democrats can win everywhere,” actor and civil rights activist George Takei wrote on Twitter.
Still, many Republicans blamed ranked choice voting for the defeat, noting that the two Republican candidates combined received more votes than Pelota in the first round of counting.
“Ranked-choice voting is a scam to rig elections,” Republican Senator Tom Cotton said in a social media post.
But supporters of the system have said it leads to more accurate representation by ensuring that the winner gets a majority of the vote, preventing a minority victory in a crowded field.