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Democrat Mary Peltola defeats Sarah Palin in special election for Alaska House seat

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Not for the first time this summer, Democrats won a special election for a House seat.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This election came in a red state, Alaska. Democrat Mary Peltola won under the state's complicated new voting system. The Republicans she defeated included Trump's choice for the job, Sarah Palin.

INSKEEP: NPR political correspondent Don Gonyea is covering this story. Don, good morning.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK. Several layers to the story and one of them is how Alaska voted, all the candidates together in an election to replace the late Don Young and voting in a way that people normally don't in America. How did it work out?

GONYEA: So on the first count of the votes, Peltola had 40%. Sarah Palin was in second place with 30%. Nick Begich was a very close third behind. But under the rules of ranked-choice voting, he was eliminated. So they looked at who his supporters' second choice was. Without getting too deep into the weeds, Palin needed roughly 6 in 10 of Begich's voters to move into first place. She didn't make it, so Peltola wins a very narrow victory. And I should add, it's the first time Democrats have won Alaska's U.S. House seat in 50 years.

INSKEEP: Well, if it had been Sarah Palin, we would know who the person was...

GONYEA: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...Big celebrity, political celebrity, long political record. Mary Peltola is less familiar to people, so who is she?

GONYEA: She is the first Alaska Native to win this seat. She spoke about that last night after her win was announced.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARY PELTOLA: I will have that distinction. But I think what's most important is that I'm an Alaskan and being sent to represent all Alaskans. And, yes, being Alaska Native is part of my ethnicity, but I'm much more than my ethnicity.

GONYEA: She's 48 years old. She's a former member of the state House of Representatives. Peltola has a reputation as a person who wants to return niceness and decency to politics. So if the politics of Donald Trump and Sarah Palin is in-your-face bombast, she is the opposite. She is an environmentalist worried about climate change. She's an avid outdoors person. And she can often be found on the river of her hometown in a fishing boat.

INSKEEP: People will try to read larger messages into this election, even though Alaska is a very distinctive state and this was a distinctive kind of election. But what can we read into it?

GONYEA: It's just one seat in the U.S. House and just to fill the remainder of a term. But this is a psychological boost for the Democratic Party. She beats a hardcore Trump supporter in a Trump state. Palin is as big a name as you get in Alaska politics - former governor, former mayor on the national ticket in '08. But don't forget, in 2009, she quit in the middle of her first term as governor to become a reality TV star. So she, throughout this campaign, had a likability problem that you can see, in that she didn't get nearly enough second-choice votes from Begich voters to win.

INSKEEP: Well, Don, Democrats seem now to have won a series of special elections in multiple states this summer. What, if anything, does that imply about the fall election?

GONYEA: Well, it's certainly unexpected good news for Democrats. Their voters have turned out in these places. And there's some hope that that is a sign of things to come. Can we use it to predict anything in November? Well, you know, we'll see. But the party hopes it is. And don't forget, it's a special election. So this win is only good until the end of the year. These exact same candidates will all also be on the ballot again in November for a rematch.

INSKEEP: NPR's Don Gonyea, thanks very much, as always.

GONYEA: A pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.