A year after winning Alaska's lone U.S. House seat, Peltola tries to straddle the political divide

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Sep. 9—A year ago, Mary Peltola shared a debate stage at an Anchorage oil and gas industry conference with three other candidates campaigning to represent Alaska in Congress. Later that day — her 49th birthday — Peltola found out she had won the job.

This year, that same conference served cupcakes to attendees, each with a "Happy Birthday Rep. Peltola" cutout in glittering gold to celebrate her 50th, while she gave a keynote address.

A lot has changed in a year.

A month before the August 2022 special election, one poll found that more than a third of Alaska voters didn't recognize Peltola's name. This summer, the same poll found that Peltola had become Alaska's most-liked politician.

Still, a room full of Alaska resource industry executives would not typically be a place for a Democrat to find a warm welcome. "In a very red place, she's done an amazing job to position herself," Republican national political consultant Matt Rhoades told conference attendees that day.

That positioning includes taking pro-oil stances that have earned her appreciation — amid skepticism — from an industry integral to the state's economy.

"Sometimes you do get the feeling like folks are watching you like they're seeing a dog talking. They kind of can't believe what they're hearing or what they're seeing," Peltola said.

At the Alaska Oil and Gas Association conference in Anchorage, the audience listened to Peltola's keynote in rapt attention.

"It's really hard to argue that I'm not pro-energy," Peltola told them.

'Congressman for all Alaska'

Peltola succeeded Rep. Don Young, who died suddenly in March of last year after representing Alaska in Congress for nearly 50 years. His death set off a wild scramble to replace him. To win, Peltola beat out dozens of special-election candidates, making history by becoming the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress. She won again in the regular election in November.

A year after taking office, she continues to position herself as the natural successor to Young, introducing herself the same way he did, as the "congressman for all Alaska."

Her proponents see a balanced approach, but the strategy has opened her to criticism. Partisan Republicans blame her for everything from a rising cost of living to the erosion of traditional social values. Detractors on the left wonder why her first high-profile action in office was to go to bat for what some called a "carbon bomb" — a major oil development in Alaska's Arctic that is expected to contribute millions of metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere — that will exacerbate a warming climate.

"I've had people come up to me and say, 'you shouldn't give in to Republicans,'" said Peltola. But she said her decisions, including her support for CococoPhillips' giant Willow oil project, are a reflection of her constituents' interests, including labor unions and Alaska Native corporations.

Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwichʹin Steering Committee, campaigned for Peltola in 2022. This month, she said she was disappointed when Peltola came out in support of oil leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which Demientieff's group has fought for decades.

"I really thought that we were going to have someone down there that can really listen to the people that have stayed on these lands for thousands of years," said Demientieff. "It's a little hurtful."

From the other side of the political spectrum, Republicans see a chance to widen their control of the House. The National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund have already begun spending money on ads and emails attacking Peltola. They say she is responsible for high gas prices, illegal immigration, the fentanyl crisis, inflation and an increase in violent crime in Washington, D.C. They call out her no-votes on partisan measures including a military spending package and an energy bill. Peltola said the legislation had been stuffed with right-wing social provisions and infrastructure funding rollbacks.

In a statement, National Republican Congressional Committee Ben Peterson said "you could fill a balloon with all the hot air Mary Peltola spews pretending to be moderate."

Despite the detractors, Peltola said the Willow decision has whetted her appetite for more successes. Ultimately, she said "the big win" would be transitioning away from fossil fuels, but that can't happen overnight.

"We all just got addicted to winning, and we're all just looking for that next win, whatever that is," said Peltola.

'A double standard'

Peltola said her identity as a Democrat from a state often represented by Republicans amounts to an opportunity to influence the Biden administration, even if Biden lost in Alaska by double digits.

It's a balancing act: In some moments, Peltola embraces the president, while in others, she is hyper-critical, using the same terms that Republicans use.

The August recess brought a string of Biden Cabinet members to Alaska: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Attorney General Merrick Garland, Housing Secretary Marcia Fudge, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, among several others.

"We are so fortunate to have this administration that really understands the challenges of weather, terrain, distance, and really believes that we can work through these and overcome these things," Peltola said on an Anchorage stage alongside Biden senior adviser Mitch Landrieu and Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau, touting new funding for broadband projects in late August.

Then last week, the Biden administration revoked oil leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that had been unanimously supported by Alaska's congressional delegation. Biden's move, celebrated by environmentalists and some of Peltola's Democratic colleagues, was "deeply frustrating" to Peltola.

Peltola says she understands Republicans like Sullivan and Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who accuse the Biden administration of being "anti-Alaskan."

"I see where they're coming from. And I get just as defensive and upset about that — these preemptive ideas about what we should and shouldn't do in Alaska," said Peltola.

Peltola reiterated the concern at the oil and gas conference. "I think there's just such a double standard in terms of what is acceptable for some members, districts, and then what's acceptable in Alaska, where people really want to see us become a national park," she said.

'One of the best educators'

Jim Lottsfeldt, a political consultant who has supported Peltola's campaign, said Peltola benefits from perceived authenticity and approachability. That was on display when Peltola visited the Alaska State Fair in late August.

As she walked through stalls picking out Xtratuf-shaped earrings and admiring winning pumpkins, she was stopped by passersby. One teared up as she posed for a picture with the congresswoman. She was not a partisan voter, she said — just excited to have had the opportunity to vote for her.

If Peltola's approach differs from the gruff, sometimes bombastic Young, she also maintains a similar presence at exclusive events. This year, Peltola spoke at the Kenai River Classic, a fundraiser that draws business executives and lobbyists who fork over thousands for the opportunity to spend hours with elected officials.

She then appeared at a fundraiser for the Lu Young Children's Fund, which drew participants who paid a minimum $2,500 donation for a spot on a Resurrection Bay fishing boat.

Peltola's guest list illustrates one way she differs from Young. Peltola was joined this year in Seward by the two other co-chairs of the Blue Dog coalition of the U.S. House, which brings together moderate Democrats from competitive districts.

"The truth is, if we really look inside, we have progressive values and conservative values," said Rep. Jared Golden, a Maine Democrat. "A lot of people in politics don't understand that. I think Mary understands that very well."

The Blue Dog co-chairs have said that the coalition could advance bipartisan policy goals. But Rep. Jared Huffman, a California Democrat who joined Peltola in Seward, said that their inability so far to reauthorize the Magnuson Stevens Act, the law governing federal fisheries that Peltola campaigned on updating, is a testament to the challenges inherent to partisan affiliation.

"The way they keep score in Washington, they won't let our bill move in a Republican House," Huffman said.

At a Seward fundraiser, Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, a Washington Democrat, stood by Peltola, who addressed the packed room from atop a dining room chair.

"The reality is that most of our colleagues are lawyers. They are not people that understand what it means to live in a rural community. And Mary is one of the best educators," Gluesenkamp Perez said.

'Hottest House race'

Peltola's track record shows that even if she committed to what Gluesenkamp Perez called the "interests of normal people," she has done little to upset the corporate interests that can sway election results through large campaign contributions.

Her most recent campaign finance filing shows that after the Willow decision, she received more than $20,000 in contributions from political action committees affiliated with several large oil companies.

Kara Moriarity, the executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, said that while the organization does not endorse specific candidates, Peltola is "very practical and pragmatic and understands the issues that are important."

But Moriarty said that the industry views the Biden administration's energy policy as less favorable than past administrations', and that could affect their long-term support for Peltola, especially given her endorsement of the president's reelection campaign.

"The Willow example was a really key example of how she made sure that people in her party, at the very top, heard what was important in her state. We'll have to wait and see if she continues to do that moving forward," Moriarty said.

Lottsfeldt, the consultant, said Peltola was "clearly an essential part of Willow getting approved."

"Certainly ConocoPhillips is very, very thankful, and I think the rest of the oil patch took notice, too," he said. "They sort of have to support her — or be surprised if anyone would ever help them out again, in either party."

That doesn't mean Peltola won't face a formidable challenge from Republicans in 2024, in a state that for years has seen decisive GOP victories in statewide elections. Those Republicans could point to Peltola's positions on social issues, where she is often opposed to the GOP agenda.

Already some of her positions have become fodder for attacks from the right. Peltola called a Republican bill to ban transgender girls from girls' sports "bullying" and voted against a defense bill that had been amended by Republicans to limit abortion access for members of the military.

Ryan Sheldon, a Talkeetna resident, spent hours at the state fair volunteering for the Mat-Su Republicans, while Peltola roamed the stalls not too far away. His concern with her? That she votes like her Democratic colleagues too often.

Peltola's voting record is ranked as one of the most centrist in Congress, according to Voteview, a measure developed by political scientists.

On some high-profile policies, Peltola has been at odds with members of her party, including on an assault rifle ban — which she opposed despite widespread support from Democrats, citing the use of assault rifles for predator control.

All that makes for a 2024 race that both Democrats and Republicans see as winnable.

"I think you guys are going to have the most contested, hottest House race in the entire country up here in Alaska," said Rhoades, the political consultant who has long worked to elect Republicans. "The Dems are counting on Republicans to kind of blow it."

Nick Begich — the only Republican who has so far entered the race — was listening to Rhoades from the audience. He lost to Peltola twice in 2022 — in both the special and regular elections — amid infighting with fellow Republican Sarah Palin.

Begich, a businessman who has never held elected office, promises an embrace of the GOP's agenda.

"People ask what's different this time. She's got a record, and we're going to be talking a lot about it," he said at an Anchorage fundraiser.

If Peltola has a liability, Lottsfeldt said, it's that she may be less eager to embrace the marathon schedule and donor hobnobbing that may be needed to survive long-term in Washington, D.C.

Recently, she chose a family trip to Colorado over the opportunity to chaperone Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, on his visit to the state. Earlier in the summer, she spent several weeks in Bethel, her hometown, where she fished on the Kuskokwim at a time when many of her colleagues were raising funds.

Peltola says she is still adjusting to the national stage and still learning from mistakes while finding opportunities to teach others about a place many in Washington, D.C., have not yet seen.

"You always heard Don and Ted and Frank and Dan and Lisa and Mark talking about how much explaining of Alaska there is but it's one of those things — like coming to Alaska — you can't understand it until you see it yourself," she said.