The GOP was handed a tough defeat this week after Democrats successfully flipped Alaska's only House seat blue in a special election. However, Republicans will have a chance to reclaim that seat in the November midterms by backing their third-place candidate Nick Begich III.
Despite there being three Republican candidates on the ballot, Democrat Mary Peltola was ultimately selected by voters to finish out the remaining term of late Congressman Don Young, the longest-serving Republican candidate in congressional history.
The results of the special election were a political upset in a race where Peltola had finished fourth in June's crowded primary of 48 candidates vying for four spots on the August ballot. But as Alaska tested out its new ranked-choice voting system, the Democrat emerged ahead of the pack, receiving more than 51 percent of the vote to former Governor Sarah Palin's 48.5 percent at the time the race was called.
Republicans still have a chance to make a political comeback in November, when Alaskans will head back to the polls to elect a representative for the 118th Congress. Polling indicates that the GOP may need to ditch Palin and embrace Begich, the Republican son of a well-known Democratic family in Alaska seeking the job once held by his grandfather.
"It's not too late at all for the GOP to embrace Begich, or some other candidate, before November," Andrew Ballard, an assistant professor at American University, told Newsweek. "And more support from party officials will probably increase the chances of the party's preferred candidate in November."
Since ranked-choice voting, in theory, favors more moderate candidates, Begich is a rare Republican candidate who benefits from lacking a Trump endorsement. That advantage is especially significant in a state where most voters are independent.
Palin has proven to be a polarizing figure, both nationally and at home in Alaska. Among voters in her home state, she consistently polls under 40 percent. Despite getting a coveted Trump endorsement herself, she struggled to win over Alaskan voters.
The challenge of mounting a national campaign in independent Alaska, combined with the spike in voter enthusiasm spurred by the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, Alexander Hirsch, a political professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, told Newsweek that Palin has a "tough road ahead."
Begich hasn't received a single endorsement from a national GOP figure, and experts say courting endorsements from anti-Trump GOP leaders is a clear strategy for Begich's campaign.
Hirsch said the first endorsement Begich should be going after is that of Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, whose staff were the same people to advocate for ranked-choice voting in Alaska.
"Murkowski is one of the only national level Republican representatives to be successfully carving out an anti-Trump republican lane at a time when the GOP is wringing its hands over who its primary nominee should be for 2024," Hirsch added. But, to date, Hirsch said Begich's campaign has "made no such motions."
Polls suggest that if Begich was to earn enough votes so that Palin is eliminated in the second round, instead of him, he would win comfortably over Peltola in November. However, if Palin is able to secure one of the final two spots, polling shows she'd lose to Peltola again, and this time with an even wider margin of five points than her defeat in the special election, according to a newly released poll from Alaska Survey Research.
Republican strategist Jay Townsend told Newsweek that he agreed that the GOP could increase its chances of flipping the House seat back to red if Republicans are willing to ditch Palin. But the choice officials may face is having to decide between winning the seat and offending the MAGA crowd, who could resent officials beating up on Palin.
"I don't know how many will do that if it means putting their own base at risk," Townsend said, adding that it would make former President Donald Trump look bad if he were to switch his endorsement now, especially given Palin's long-time loyalty to him.
Newsweek reached out to Begich's campaign for comment.