Win Gruening: A poetic moment in Alaska history, with Don Young and Nick Begich III
“History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” — Mark Twain
This quotation is usually attributed to Mark Twain although its origin is unsettled. It’s a twist on the more common adage “History repeats itself”, saying no two events are exactly the same but that patterns in history may still offer clues to the future.
The quote could not be more applicable as Alaska faces a mind-boggling political race for its lone U.S. House seat, now vacant due to the sudden death of Rep. Don Young. Young held the seat for almost five decades and was the longest serving member of the current Congress.
The story of Don Young’s advancement from state Legislature to Congress and his passing while flying from Washington, D.C., to campaign events in Southeast Alaska plays into an Alaska story that, while unique, is eerily familiar.
In Don Young’s first congressional race in 1972, his opponent was Nick Begich, a first-term incumbent who had won the seat two years prior by defeating Frank Murkowski. Twenty-two days before the election, Begich went missing when his plane was lost flying to a campaign event in Juneau. Neither the airplane nor its four occupants were ever found. Begich was elected posthumously but Don Young won the special election to fill the vacancy the following March – and later won the next 24 consecutive elections.
Don Young’s principal primary opponent in this year’s race was Nick Begich III, the grandson of the man who defeated Young in 1972. Nick Begich III, currently the leading Republican contender, will now compete in a special primary in June and a special general election in August to determine who will occupy the seat for the remainder of the term. Concurrently in August, the regular primary election will be held followed by a November general election to determine Don Young’s permanent successor.
While this set of events may seem extraordinary, there have been two other similar occurrences in recent Alaska political history.
In 1968, Mike Gravel defeated my grandfather, Ernest Gruening, in Alaska’s U.S. Senate Democratic primary race. Twelve years later, my brother, Clark Gruening, defeated Mike Gravel in the primary for the same seat. Newspaper headlines the next day read, “The grandson also rises”. Clark went on to lose the 1980 general election to Frank Murkowski.
Also in 1968, Ted Stevens lost his second bid for statewide office in the U.S. Senate Republican primary race but was subsequently appointed to Alaska’s other Senate seat when Sen. Bob Bartlett died. Stevens then won the special election in 1970, serving for almost 40 years as the longest-serving Republican senator in history at the time. After losing his 2008 senatorial race, Ted Stevens died in a plane crash in southwestern Alaska in 2010. The man who defeated him, Democrat Mark Begich, is the son of Nick Begich and the uncle of Nick Begich III.
While irony abounds in these electoral connections, some significant differences exist in this year’s race.
As of this writing, almost two dozen candidates [editor’s note: Now 50] are considering running in the special election to temporarily fill Alaska’s U.S. House seat. Prior to Young’s death, there were only a handful of candidates who had officially filed for the regular election.
The wrinkle is that newly implemented election procedures require that all races for congressional and statewide offices (including special elections) will have an open primary to determine the top four vote-getters regardless of party affiliation. Those four will advance to the general election where voters will rank them in order of preference under Alaska’s new ranked choice voting system. Therefore, voters will be casting four separate ballots for this race, with the special primary, due to timing and staffing issues, conducted by mail.
How this all plays out is anyone’s guess but it’s shaping up to be one of the most fascinating races in the country.
Right now, Nick Begich III, has a huge head start, more money, more endorsements, and more name recognition than any of his challengers. Furthermore, he has a strong conservative background (he co-chaired Don Young’s campaign in 2020) and, unlike many political players, has a solid record of entrepreneurial accomplishment.
If he prevails, history won’t just rhyme, it will wax poetic.
After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in Alaska, Win Gruening became a regular opinion page columnist for the Juneau Empire. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations.