Alaska has elected its first Indigenous person to federal office after Democrat Mary Peltola won a runoff election to fill the remainder of the late Republican Rep. Don Young’s term.
Peltola is a former state legislator and a Yup’ik Eskimo. She beat two well-known Republicans — former Gov. Sarah Palin and Nick Begich, whose family has deep roots in Alaska politics — in the Aug. 16 runoff, the results of which were certified Wednesday.
The election was ranked choice, a system in which voters list candidates in order of preference. If no one wins a majority of first-place rankings, the last-place finisher is eliminated and their votes are redistributed to voters’ second choices. The process can repeat until one candidate attains a majority.
In an interview with HuffPost in July, Peltola said she felt a connection with Young, who was the most senior member of the House when he died in March, having served as the state’s sole congressman since 1973.
“[My parents] campaigned for Don when my mom was pregnant with me. So I’ve always really felt close to Don Young, of course, but also the seat,” Peltola said, describing the connection as a “really funny, quirky, very Alaskan coincidence.”
“I always knew how long Don had been in office, because it was my age plus 1,” she said.
Whether Peltola can continue to hold the seat past the end of the 117th Congress in January remains to be seen. The runoff to determine who would finish Young’s term also set the November ballot for a full two-year term in the House. In that election, Peltola is again set to face Palin and Begich, but her incumbency may provide a slight advantage by then.
Peltola told HuffPost in July that her big issues included declining salmon runs and their impact on rural Alaskans.
“We’d have so many fish you couldn’t process them. And now, we worry that we won’t have enough,” she said.
“That’s a huge problem for Alaska statewide. That’s every river in the state.”
The decrease is linked to the climate crisis, she argued, and Congress not updating laws governing commercial fishing to reflect new environmental realities.
Peltola also supports efforts to codify Roe v. Wade — the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide — into federal law. She said her position on abortion rights aligns with how most Alaskans view the issue, especially after the landmark ruling was overturned in June.
“Alaskans, we have a libertarian streak,” Peltola said, citing polling that suggests a majority of the state’s voters support abortion rights. “We have a none-of-your-business streak in us all, no matter what party affiliation you have,” she continued.
“Alaska Natives have a history, as many minority cultures do, of being sterilized against our knowledge and without consent,” she added. “So reproductive rights … means a lot to me. It’s a human right.”
Peltola said she knew her background as an Alaskan Native would make her stand out in the race.
“I’m very clear and upfront when I’m talking with voters: I am a Native woman from rural Alaska, but I intend to represent all Alaskans regardless of ethnicity, or where they’re from geographically, or their partisan background or religion,” she said.
Peltola said her background may help provide a new, longer-term perspective on some issues.
“Most salmon stocks in the world have been decimated within 100 years, which feels like an eternity to most Americans,” she said.
“But I think if you look at other demographics, 100 years is nothing.”