Ballot Box

Alaska's senior senator eyes smoother reelection

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) appears positioned to avoid a replay of her painful 2010 reelection fight, as she looks to leverage a pair of key gavels and early fundraising success in a bid to keep her job as Alaska's senior senator in 2016.

Murkowski and her campaign staff would like to think they learned some valuable lessons when she lost the primary to Tea Party favorite Joe Miller, only to mount an improbable write-in campaign in an effort to hold onto the seat.

"That's not the situation that we're going to be in this time," said campaign coordinator Scott Kendall, an Anchorage lawyer who, in 2010, worked to fend off Miller's legal challenges to the write-in effort.

From an early focus on growing her war chest to her chairmanship of two panels with authority over Alaska priorities such as oil, natural gas and federally owned land that covers nearly 70 percent of her state, Murkowski is going all-out to fend off election challenges from both sides of the political spectrum.

An early sign of the moderate Republican's efforts came this month when the campaign announced she had raised $1.1 million in the second quarter and has $2.3 million on hand. The finances are the best on record for any Alaska race.

"We've got plenty of resources, we've got a ton of support," Kendall said. "And if anyone's learned anything from the write-in campaign, it's that the senator's a fighter, she's fighting for Alaska in the Senate, and she's going to fight to keep the Energy Committee chair for Alaska for another six years."

In a brief interview in the Capitol, Murkowski only said her campaign's progress was "fabulous" but declined to speak further, saying she's focused on the broad energy reform bill that she just unveiled with Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the Committee on Energy & Natural Resources.

Murkowski's leadership of the panel, a position her father Frank Murkowski held from 1995 to 2001, had been one of her top goals since coming to the Senate in 2002.

Upon learning in November that Republicans had taken the Senate majority, all but guaranteeing Murkowski's ascension to the top of the panel, she reportedly held a chair above her head at an Anchorage victory party, proclaiming "I am the chairman!"

Her ability to influence policies that are central to Alaska is certain to help her in what could be a tough campaign.

And the Energy Committee chairmanship puts Murkowski in line for donations from well-heeled interests in the oil and natural gas industries, among other energy sectors. She's already received significant donations from the political action committees of the American Petroleum Institute, America's Natural Gas Alliance, ConocoPhillips, Chevron Corp., Marathon Oil Corporation and others.

"The chairmanship of the Energy & Natural Resources Committee has helped her," said Jerry McBeath, a political science professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, adding that she's in a much better place right now than she was six years ago.

"So many of the issues on that panel are relevant to Alaska's oil and gas industry, which is what the state is so highly reliant on," he said.

In the six months since taking the gavel, Murkowski's priorities have included lifting the ban on exporting crude oil, increasing offshore drilling, giving states a bigger share of the revenues from offshore drilling and pushing back against the Obama administration's efforts to block any future oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - all major priorities for her state.

The position also allowed her to write the first major energy bill in eight years, released last week with the promise that it would be a major boon for Alaska and its energy sector.

"There's no committee in the entire Senate that's more important to Alaska," said Kendall.

Murkowski also chairs the Appropriations Committee subpanel with authority over the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department, giving her sway over funding for Alaska native communities, President Obama's Clean Water Act jurisdiction rule and more.

"Her focus is on making sure that Americans have access to Alaska's energy resources, and their own," Kendall said.

Murkowski's chief focus before the Aug. 16 primary election is likely to be on fighting off potential challenges, McBeath said.

Miller, who also ran unsuccessfully against now-Sen. Dan Sullivan (R) last year, has been mentioned as a likely opponent, as has state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R). Neither responded to requests for comment.

During the 2010 campaign, Murkowski shored up support among the conservative rural constituencies, which should help her out greatly next year, McBeath said.

"It was a new element of her support base," he said. "And now she has to pay attention to that support base. It's difficult, because you've got 20 percent of the state voting population that may be described as Tea Party or religious right, but they've got all these litmus-test issues of extreme importance to them."

Murkowski is consistently ranked among the most liberal Republicans in the Senate and has a strong independent streak, said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst with the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

"One recent example of her independent streak: In early July, she joined Democrats, and fellow Republicans Susan Collins and Mark Kirk (also moderates), in supporting an amendment that would have lifted the global gag rule that restricts federal funding for international organizations that provide abortion services," Skelley said.

She's taken liberal positions on same-sex marriage and been criticized by her efforts to steer funding toward Alaska.

Murkowski is also taking on a vocal effort against the proposal by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Republicans to sell off part of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to pay for highway infrastructure. Despite being a moderate, she has repeatedly fought President Obama's energy and environmental policies, such as his landmark climate rule for power plants, his water rule for minor streams and wetlands and his restrictions on offshore drilling and hydraulic fracturing.

All of that plays extraordinarily well to Alaska's conservatives.

Skelley and the Center for Politics rank the Alaska race as "likely Republican," since it judges Alaska as a firmly Republican state.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the committee has not yet recruited a candidate to run in Alaska, but it plans to.

"We would love to have a good candidate in Alaska," he said. "We think Alaska's a winnable state, but we don't have anybody right now."

Ex-Sen. Mark Begich (D), who lost last year to Sen. Dan Sullivan (R), has been mentioned as a candidate, though he has not committed to it, and he was not available to comment. Begich unseated the late and extremely popular Sen. Ted Stevens (R) in 2008, thanks in part to Stevens's felony convictions days before the election.

Murkowski's campaign will not underestimate any threat from the left, Kendall said.

"We're going to be prepared for any of those," he said. "If something happens, we've got a game plan for it."

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