Voting ends Saturday in 48-candidate U.S. House primary

JUNEAU (AP) — Alaska voters are facing an election unlike any they have ever seen, with 48 candidates running to succeed the man who held the state’s only U.S. House seat for 49 years.

While some of the candidates in this week’s special primary have name recognition, including former Gov. Sarah Palin and Santa Claus — yes, Santa Claus, and he lives in North Pole, outside Fairbanks — many are relative unknowns or political novices — a fishing guide, a contractor, a gold miner who went to prison for allegedly threatening federal land managers.

The huge number of candidates and the short timeline for holding the election after Republican U.S. Rep. Don Young’s death on March 18 has some voters overwhelmed and scrambling to learn more about their options. Voting closes Saturday.

This will be the first election under a system approved by voters in 2020 that ends party primaries, meaning all candidates are on the same one-page ballot.

The four candidates who win the most votes will advance to an August special election, in which ranked-choice voting will be used. The winner of that contest will serve the remainder of Young’s term, which ends in January. A separate set of elections later this year will decide who serves a two-year term beginning in January.

In all, there are 16 Republican candidates including Palin; Nick Begich, a businessman from a political family of prominent Democrats; former state lawmaker John Coghill, of Nenana; and Tara Sweeney, who was a co-chair of Young’s reelection campaign and who has been endorsed by a group representing leaders of the state’s influential Alaska Native regional corporations.

Wrangell’s Otto Florschutz is among the candidates running as Republicans.

Nearly half the candidates running, 22, are independents. That includes Al Gross, of Petersburg, an orthopedic surgeon who had support from the state Democratic party when he lost his bid for U.S. Senate in 2020; and a self-described “independent, progressive, democratic socialist” whose legal name is Santa Claus and who serves on the North Pole city council.

Claus’ candidacy and particularly his support of abortion rights caught the attention of voter Sandi Hicks, a Juneau independent. She last month sought advice on a community Facebook page about where to find candidate information. Commenters shared links to news sites, including one that posted candidate surveys.

Others on her short list include Gross; Democrat Mary Peltola, a former Bethel state House member; and independent Jeff Lowenfels, a gardening expert with a legal background, including as a former assistant attorney general.

Around 100,000 ballots already have been returned in what is primarily a vote-by-mail election. Though that is short of the almost 134,000 ballots cast in the 2020 primary election, mail-in ballots and in-person voting could push this year’s count much higher.

There are opportunities for in-person or early voting in about 165 communities statewide, including Wrangell, where voters can cast ballots between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. weekdays and election day Saturday at City Hall.

Coghill, whose late father was heavily involved in Alaska politics, said he’s “sorry” there are so many candidates “because it makes it more confusing (in) a very confusing election.”

Name recognition in this race is important, he said.

“My name is at least recognized, sometimes well respected, sometimes not so well — but at least known,” Coghill said.

Adam Wool, a state lawmaker running as a Democrat in the race, said the election reminds him of the online poll in Britain years ago in which people were asked what the country’s new polar research vessel should be called. The runaway winning suggestion: Boaty McBoatface.

“This election has a little bit of that going for it, with a bunch of people that we don’t know and people with funny names and celebrity-type candidates, like Sarah Palin,” he said, adding that he doesn’t want the election to turn into one where people make choices for “shock value.”

“I don’t want (voters) to Boaty McBoatface the Alaskan election,” he said.


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