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Sarah Palin’s loss shows crossover appeal matters more than star power in Alaska’s voting system

First Read is your briefing from “Meet the Press” and the NBC Political Unit on the day’s most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: Sarah Palin
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin leaves a courthouse in New York, on Feb. 14, 2022.Seth Wenig / AP

WASHINGTON — If it’s Thursday ... President Biden delivers a speech in Philadelphia on the “continued battle for the soul of the nation.” ... Donald Trump’s lawyers respond to Justice Dept. filing, arguing a special master is necessary to review seized documents. ... Democrat Mary Peltola defeats Republican Sarah Palin in the Alaska At-Large special congressional election. ... GOP Sen. Rick Scott takes a dig at Mitch McConnell. ... Abortion ballot initiative stalls in Michigan. ... And Serena Williams shines at US Open. 

But first: Alaska’s election reforms — a Top 4 primary system, ranked-choice voting in the general — were designed to penalize far-right/far-left candidates and reward those with crossover appeal.  

That’s exactly what played out in the state’s special congressional election to replace the late Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, when Democrat Mary Peltola beat Republican Sarah Palin, 51.5% to 48.5%, after third-place finisher Nick Begich’s voters were reallocated under ranked choice. 

Per the Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman, Begich voters’ second choice broke down this way: 

  • 50% for Palin
  • 29% for Peltola
  • 21% who didn’t make a second choice

(As Wasserman points out, that half of Republican Begich’s voters went for Peltola or none of the above shows how flawed Palin’s candidacy was under Alaska’s new system.)

And after Peltola got 40% in the initial round to voting (to Palin’s 31% and Begich’s 28%), that wasn’t enough for Palin. 

Palin’s loss — in a state Trump won by 10 points in 2020 — has produced backlash from Republicans. 

“Ranked-choice voting is a scam to rig elections,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., per NBC’s Frank Thorp. “60% of Alaska voters voted for a Republican, but thanks to a convoluted process and ballot exhaustion—which disenfranchises voters—a Democrat ‘won.’”

(While that kind of GOP criticism will be a challenge for other states considering Top 2/Top 4/ranked-choice reforms, Democrats will gladly point out that other “convoluted” processes like the Electoral College currently benefit Republicans. Also, Peltola did get the most votes before ranked choice was used.)

At the end of the day, was it the system that hurt Republicans? Or was it Palin and her lack of crossover appeal — in a state with its own kind of independent streak? 

With these same candidates competing again in November (this time to fill the seat for the next Congress), Begich is arguing that Palin is too flawed to win under Alaska’s new election system.

“The biggest lesson as we move into the 2022 general election, is that ranked-choice voting showed that a vote for Sarah Palin is in reality a vote for Mary Peltola. Palin simply doesn’t have enough support from Alaskans to win an election,” Begich said, according to NBC’s Ali Vitali and Haley Talbot. 

One other important reminder after last night: Every House race, including this one in November, could matter for control of Congress as the overall political environment improves for Democrats. 

And don’t lose sight that Democrats have now won the last two competitive House special elections. 

Data Download: The number of the day is … 16 points

That’s the percentage-point increase in Democrats expressing high interest in the midterm elections (a “9” or “10” on a 10-point scale) after the leak of the draft Supreme Court opinion that ultimately contributed to the overturning of Roe vs. Wade, per merged data from this year’s NBC News polls.

Democratic high interest in the election jumped from 48% in the combined January and March numbers, to 64% in the combined May and August numbers. Independents had a 13-point jump (from 38% to 51%), while Republican “high interest” rose just 3 points (from 66% to 69%).

Democrats had much more room to grow, so even with this jump they’re only just getting on par with the Republicans. And while enthusiasm changed significantly over the year, congressional preference effectively stayed the same. 

But those numbers suggest it’s possible the issue of abortion access could help rally Democrats and heighten the stakes of the fall midterm election in their minds. 

Read more on the Meet the Press Blog

Other numbers to know:

7: The number of points 9-year-olds’ math scores fell on the National Assessment of Educational Progress between 2020 and 2022, the first time those math scores fell since the test started in 1971. The 5-point decline in reading scores amounted to the worst drop since 1990, per the Wall Street Journal

4 points: Democrats’ lead on the generic ballot in a new Quinnipiac poll

$10 million: How much money Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., plans to earmark for an abortion clinic near the Texas border as the state prepares for an influx of women seeking abortions from states that have limited access.

$16.9 million: The size of Pennsylvania Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s fall general election ad buy, per NBC News’ Henry Gomez. Shapiro has already massively outspent his GOP gubernatorial rival, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, on the airwaves, spending $20.3 million to $431,000, per AdImpact. 

2: How many months must pass since a person’s last Covid shot before they’re eligible for the new boosters that target the BA.5 omicron subvariant.

3.5%: The two-week decline in the average daily Covid deaths in America, per NBC’s data visualization team. 

9.4%: The two-week decrease in the average daily Covid hospitalizations in America.  

Tweet of the day

Midterm roundup: Abortion ballot initiative stalls in Michigan

Democrats have declared that “abortion is on the ballot” in November, and a handful of states are actually preparing to vote on ballot initiatives related to abortion. But Michigan voters might not have that chance after a state elections board deadlocked Wednesday over a proposed ballot initiative protecting the right to an abortion.

The board spilt along party lines over whether abortion rights advocates circulated valid petitions to voters, according to the Detroit Free Press, after a group challenged the petitions because the proposed amendment had spaces missing between the words. The group pushing for the ballot initiative plans to appeal to the state Supreme Court. 

The fate of whether the proposed constitutional amendment remains off the ballot could impact turnout in the battleground state, which is hosting competitive races for governor, attorney general, secretary of state and multiple competitive House races

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who is also fighting the state’s 1931 abortion ban in court, has focused on abortion in her re-election campaign, recently telling the Detroit Free Press, ​​”It’s a precarious moment. It is a scary moment. It’s also an incredibly important moment.”

Elsewhere on the campaign trail:

New Hampshire Senate: A new GOP super PAC has jumped into the New Hampshire Senate race to boost state Sen. Chuck Morse, with the primary less than two weeks away. The group has reserved nearly $4.1 million in airtime, per AdImpact. 

Pennsylvania Senate: Republican Mehmet Oz said back in May that abortion is “murder” at any stage of pregnancy, NBC News’ Sahil Kapur reports. And Lt. Gov. John Fetterman joined MSNBC’s The 11th Hour with Stephanie Ruhle, where he said that while he’s having “basic auditory processing” issues where he misses or combines words, he’s “expecting to have a full recovery over the next several months.” 

Wisconsin Senate: One of Republican Sen. Ron Johnson’s campaign staffers signed on to be a so-called fake elector for Trump as part of the effort to overturn the 2020 election, NBC News’ Natasha Korecki reports. 

Pennsylvania Governor: Former Democratic Senate hopeful Malcolm Kenyatta will chair a new PAC targeting candidates the group says are anti-LGBTQ, starting with Republican Doug Mastriano. 

Texas Governor: Democrat Beto O’Rourke will return to the campaign trail Friday after recovering from a bacterial infection, the Texas Tribune reports. 

Ad watch: “Biden will never come here”

Rep. Ted Budd, R-N.C., is out with a new ad blasting Cheri Beasley, his Democratic opponent in North Carolina’s Senate race, as well as President Joe Biden.

The ad begins with Budd standing at an empty Beasley and Biden rally, telling viewers, “This rally will never happen. Joe Biden will never come here. He’s too busy making life harder for you.”

Besides the rally sign behind him, Budd doesn’t even mention Beasley in the ad, choosing to target Biden instead. “His bad decisions have led to a recession, and that’s nothing to cheer about,” Budd adds before reciting his own platform.

The spot comes on the heels of Biden’s return to the campaign trail, and Democratic unease about appearing with him

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world 

The Washington Post reports that billionaire Peter Thiel, who bankrolled super PACs to help Ohio Republican J.D. Vance and Arizona Republican Blake Masters win their Senate primaries, has declined Senate campaign chiefs’ asks to put more money into helping their general election battles.