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Peltola’s Win in Alaska

Last week Mary Peltola won the special election to fill Alaska’s sole US House seat, previously held for 49 years by the late Congressman Don Young. Peltola, who is Yup’ik, will be the first Alaska Native in Congress and the first woman to hold the seat — uniting rural and urban voters with her “Pro-Jobs, Pro-Fish, Pro-Family and Pro-Choice” platform.

While this historic win took national political observers by surprise, Rural Democracy Initiative (RDI) is proud to be one of the very first national funding networks to invest deeply in Alaska civic engagement. We’ve been watching this race closely.

Alaska is one of the smallest population states – less than 600,000 registered voters – and also the largest geographically, 2.5 times as big as Texas. Most of the state is only accessible by plane or boat. This state, and this race specifically, demonstrates many of the RDI’s core strategic pillars:

Rural does not equal “white”
According to the latest census, around 40% of Alaska residents are Indigenous, Black, AAPI, and Hispanic/Latino. It’s also the third youngest state. Given these demographic trends, it’s no surprise that Alaska has been trending steadily more Democratic, about 1% per year.

High quality local candidates and authentic local messengers
Peltola’s win demonstrates how a great candidate – who is authentic, hardworking, positive, and truly reflects her community – can transcend partisanship. Peltola is Yup’ik from Bethel, the largest city in Western Alaska with a population of only 6,325. Growing up in a commercial fishing family, she served as executive director of the Kuskowim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

Progressive issues and messaging that connects with rural voters
Peltola proclaims on her website. “As a lifelong Alaskan, I am adamantly Pro-Jobs, Pro-Fish, Pro-Family and Pro-Choice.” She actively works with people across party affiliations, and is widely known for working across the aisle, re-establishing the bipartisan “Bush Caucus” in the state legislature to fight for rural issues. Even her opponent, Palin, calls her “a real Alaska chick.” As a mom of 4 and a hunter, she speaks plainly and persuasively about abortion rights, gun violence, and other highly politicized issues.

Investment in grassroots infrastructure
RDI has made significant multi-year investments in building key civic engagement groups serving rural Alaska, including the new Alaska Voter Hub (501c3 civic engagement table), 907 Initiative (communications hub), and grassroots groups including the Mobilization Center, Get Out the Native Vote, Native People’s Action, and AKPIRG. These groups turn out many new Indigenous voters, voters of color, and young voters, recruit and train local leaders, fight disinformation, win major policy victories, and shape the narrative and communications landscape.

This statewide win is notable as the first test of Alaska’s new ranked-choice voting system, which was envisioned by a disciplined, creative, collaborative political and civic engagement community as a way to maintain their recent unique governing coalition that unites elected leaders fighting for progress across the ideological spectrum.

The Special Election gives Peltola only a few months in Congress. She’ll be facing reelection in November, when the electorate will look very different. The August special election was during peak hunting and fishing season, which many rural Alaskans rely on for subsistence.

I hope we can all take a moment to celebrate this exciting outcome, which underscores the impact that RDI can have. Please be in touch if you’d like to learn more about how to engage in Alaska.

By Sarah Jaynes, Rural Democracy Initiative’s Executive Director