Palin, who stepped down as governor of Alaska in 2009 after a failed run for vice president, competed against Peltola and Republican businessman Nick Begich III to finish out the term of longtime Rep. Don Young (R) following his death in March.
That bid faltered this week, and election analysts expect a tough fight for Palin in the fall when she will face off again, this time for a full two-year term starting in January.
Peltola’s win is the latest example of Democrats outperforming in special elections this cycle and suggests political headwinds won’t benefit Republicans as much as expected in the midterm elections.
But Palin also suffered from low approval ratings in the state as well as the rollout of a ranked choice voting system that favors centrists.
Despite earning the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, who carried Alaska by 10 points in 2020, Palin lost to Peltola 48.5% to 51.5%.
Shortly after the race, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report shifted its rating for the November contest from “likely Republican” to “toss-up.”
Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist, told the Washington Examiner that the results of the special election show things are “slowly but surely moving in the direction of Democrats” in November and that “there are, in fact, some Republicans too extreme for the Republican Party.”
“I’m not so sure she sees it, but it sure seems to me that she has no future in Alaska politics,” Manley said of Palin.
The Palin campaign did not respond to a request for comment from the Washington Examiner, but in a statement posted to Twitter, Palin blasted ranked choice voting and said voters would “learn from this voting system mistake and correct it in November.”
Palin’s fundraising prowess — she vastly outraised Peltola — and name recognition in the state could not overcome her disadvantages.
Palin did not campaign as actively as she would have needed to win the special election, political consultant Jim Lottsfeldt told the Washington Examiner in an interview, and there is lingering resentment in the state that Palin resigned before finishing her term as governor in what was seen as an attempt to maintain her celebrity.
“It turns out Alaskans have seen this movie, and we know how it ends, and they switch channels — they said, ‘No, we’d rather have someone else,’” Lottsfeldt said.
Palin’s meteoric rise to national prominence started with her tenure as a city councilwoman and then mayor. In 2006, Palin became Alaska’s first female and youngest governor. Shortly after, Sen. John McCain selected her as his running mate during his 2008 presidential campaign in a bid to win over conservative factions of the party who saw him as an establishment Republican and questioned his position on social issues like abortion.
Palin had significant anti-abortion credentials in the eyes of voters, as she gave birth to a son, Trig, earlier that year who received a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome.
The McCain-Palin ticket was unsuccessful but catapulted Palin to a national platform virtually overnight. She has since become a conservative media personality and activist, embracing the tea party movement during the Obama administration.
Jenny Beth Martin, Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund chairwoman, told the Washington Examiner that Palin’s influence “is hard to estimate but it’s enormous,” citing her speech at that year’s Republican National Convention, after which her family joined her onstage.
“Simply by living by example, she showed the value of innocent human life and helped the pro-life movement,” Martin said. “She influenced my own children because we started having pro-life conversations at a very young age as I explained to them why I was so excited by her nomination.”
But when she returned to the state after the losing bid, Lottsfeldt said of Palin, her popularity with local voters took a hit when she appeared “clearly bored” with her role and resigned before the end of her first term.
Palin campaigned with Republican candidates and was the subject of a short-lived reality television show about her life in Alaska. She even appeared on The Masked Singer, where she performed a rendition of “Baby Got Back.”
Although she stayed in the public eye, Palin has not held public office since she resigned as governor in 2009.
The special election was not only Palin’s comeback attempt, but it was also the first test for Alaska’s new voting system, in which four candidates emerge from a primary and then voters rank their candidates in the general election, with one or more rounds eliminating the lowest vote-getter if no candidate clears a 50% threshold.
Martin said Palin’s fate isn’t sealed, despite her special election loss, with the margin on Wednesday being close enough that she could pull out a win in November’s election for a two-year term.
“It is important to note Sarah Palin did not get blown out,” she said. “She lost a close race in a new ranked choice voting system. Ranked choice voting is a huge problem and will be in place in November in Alaska.”
Martin argued Palin’s campaign will need to adjust its tactics moving into the fall, and “with such adjustments, she still can win in the November general election.”
Lottsfeldt called ranked choice voting “successful,” adding that Palin “was the second place finisher, not the first place finisher,” in the first round of voting before ranked choices were tallied.
“So even if rank choice didn’t happen, she wouldn’t have won,” he said.