Crowds gathered in and around the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage on Saturday to get a chance to see former President Donald Trump speak at a rally in support of Republican candidates for office.
Trump is in Alaska to campaign and raise money for U.S. House candidate Sarah Palin and U.S. Senate candidate Kelly Tshibaka, who is running against Republican incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Trump has also given a conditional endorsement to Gov. Mike Dunleavy — who is running for re-election — as long as Dunleavy doesn’t support Murkowski.
Dunleavy, who accepted Trump’s conditional endorsement last year, was nowhere to be seen on Saturday and was not mentioned by other speakers at the rally. A spokesman for Dunleavy’s campaign earlier this week said Dunleavy planned to meet with Trump on Saturday but did not plan to fundraise ahead of the rally.
Rally-goers began lining up in the early hours Saturday. Music, food trucks and vendors selling Trump merchandise lent the event an air of a festival rather than a political rally, and several attendees said they had arrived to see Trump rather than to support the Alaska candidates.
By 3 p.m., an hour before Trump was set to take the stage, almost every seat in the arena was full. The arena’s capacity is about 5,000.
The rally drew prominent Republican state lawmakers — including House Minority Leader Cathy Tilton of Wasilla and Reps. Kevin McCabe of Big Lake and Sarah Vance of Homer — along with local officials, such as Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson and Anchorage Public Library deputy director Judy Norton Eledge.
Doors opened at 11 a.m., but a line of people waiting to enter the arena still wrapped around the building when Anchorage chief equity officer Uluao “Junior” Aumavae led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance just before 2 p.m.
People continued to stream into the building as Palin and Tshibaka took the stage. Both candidates wasted no time in blasting their opponents.
“I know the good old boys club and too many RINOs are part of it,” said Palin, referring to so-called Republicans in name only. She then called out her opponent in the U.S. House race, Nick Begich, another conservative Republican, who has said he voted for the former Democratic Anchorage mayoral candidate Ethan Berkowitz in 2015. Begich has said he voted for a Trump in both 2016 and 2020.
Democrat Mary Peltola is also on the ballot for the special election to fill the House seat, along with several others running in the general election primary in August.
Palin commanded loud cheers from the crowd, who chanted “drill, baby, drill!” — the phrase repeated by Palin on Saturday that dates back to 2008, when Palin was a vice presidential candidate. But among the Alaska GOP, there is no consensus on Palin. Conservative Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson and state House Rep. McCabe declined to say if they would vote for Palin, even as they said they would support Tshibaka.
Palin embraced her identity as an outsider to the party, drawing a connection between her experience and that of Trump and his supporters.
“We have been mocked and ridiculed and falsely accused and told to sit down and shut up,” she said. “The stuff that you’ve hear about me — it’s a lie. I’m way worse than what you’ve heard.”
Tshibaka, the former Dunleavy-appointed commissioner of the Alaska Department of Administration, dedicated her 10 minutes on stage to drawing a comparison between herself and incumbent Murkowski. Trump promised to campaign against Murkowski after she was one of seven Republicans in the U.S. Senate who voted to impeach him following the events of Jan. 6, 2021.
“This Senate seat is often the deciding vote that can affect the rest of the nation,” Tshibaka said. Murkowski is known for her willingness to buck the party line on key issues, including abortion access, judicial nominees and gun control.
“It is time for a change,” Tshibaka repeated over and over again.
Murkowski was scheduled to meet with constituents in Kenai and Soldotna on Saturday. Begich campaign spokesperson Truman Reed said Begich held several campaign events in Anchorage on Saturday, including a visit to the South Anchorage farmers market.
Both Palin and Tshibaka have repeated debunked claims about the results of the 2020 presidential election and have supported Trump despite mounting evidence that Trump knew his supporters were armed during the violent Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and wanted to join them in the Capitol.
In interviews before the rally, many of the attendees dismissed evidence that has emerged in recent weeks indicating that Trump knew his supporters were armed ahead of the Capitol attack. Several also repeated false claims questioning the validity of the 2020 election.
Before Palin and Tshibaka took the stage, Mike Lindell, the executive of a pillow company and a prominent Trump supporter, addressed the crowd. He made the false claim that 20,000 votes “were stolen” from Trump in Alaska in the 2020 election. Trump won Alaska by a 36,000-vote margin, but lost the national general election.
Trump was expected to speak after 4 p.m. Inside the arena, “Trump 2024″ shirts and the recognizable “Make America Great Again” red hats were ubiquitous. A playlist of hits kept the ambience upbeat even as audience members waited hours for Trump to take the stage.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.