In California, both Republicans and Democrats have complained about the top-two primary system because it results in general elections that shut out the opposing party in many areas that are deeply conservative or liberal. Expanding to four candidates in Alaska was aimed at limiting that dynamic, but critics of the proposal say that in certain parts of the state, Democrats or Republicans could still be shut out. “That limits people’s choices. That does not expand them,” Nora Morse, a Democrat who served as Begich’s campaign manager, told me. “If I’m looking at four Republicans on the ballot,” she said, “I’m going to be voting for someone who’s the least-worst candidate.”
Supporters of ranked-choice voting argue that it eliminates the spoiler effect, allowing voters to support a long-shot candidate without worrying that it will end up helping the candidate they dislike the most. But Kendall said some Democrats told him that in a conservative state like Alaska, the spoiler effect was their best chance of winning.
Others like Morse said that Alaska’s history of electing independents and the occasional Democrat like Begich negated the need for overhauling its laws. “I don’t think the system is broken,” Morse said. “In fact, we’ve had a lot of opportunity for people who don’t necessarily fall in a Democratic or Republican mindset to get on the ballot and to win.”
Begich, who served a single term in the Senate before the Republican Dan Sullivan defeated him in 2014, also faulted the national group for trying to use Alaska as its guinea pig. “We were their experiment because we’re a cheap market to get into, and a small population base,” Begich said.
That’s not a point Unite America would argue with. Troiano sees the Alaska victory as “a proof of concept” that the group can pitch to donors to stand up campaigns in other states, whether through voter-led ballot initiatives or lobbying state legislatures. Walker, the former governor, told me he hopes the Alaska model will “sweep the country.”
I asked whether the reforms that voters approved last year would have made a difference in his tenure. “Absolutely,” he replied. Walker said that he would not have governed differently—“I didn’t hold back,” he insisted—but that his proposals for closing the state’s budget gap might have drawn more support. Time and again, he recalled, members of both parties—although more Republicans than Democrats—would tell him they couldn’t back bills, because they wouldn’t “survive a primary.” “I was just irate when I heard,” Walker told me. “I said, ‘Don’t use those words in my presence or with anyone.’”
The dynamic is a familiar one in Washington, where Republican senators worried about their right flank will likely be reluctant to lend Biden any support for his agenda. The fear of a primary defeat has tamed even renowned “mavericks” like the late Senator John McCain, who tacked sharply to the right for a time after he lost the presidency to Barack Obama in 2008. Thanks to Alaska’s new election laws, however, Murkowski might not be one of them this year. If her quick and sharp call for Trump’s resignation is a guide, she feels free to break with the Republican base when she wants to. And even though Alaska hasn’t run a single election under its new system, supporters see the political liberation of its senior senator as the earliest sign of its success. “I think we can expect to see more of the same,” Kendall told me. “Now her greatest leadership moments are to be rewarded, rather than punished.”