By Darren Goode - 08/06/10 10:00 AM EDT
Sen. Lisa Murkowski has long been considered the quiet GOP politician from Alaska, especially when compared to former Sen. Ted Stevens, Rep. Don Young and her father.
But Murkowski’s voice is being heard now more than ever, and she has emerged from the shadow of former governor and Sen. Frank Murkowski, who appointed her to the upper chamber in 2002.
“I think it’s fair to say that women have a different level of intuitiveness that allows them to perhaps handle situations a little bit different,” Murkowski said in an interview Wednesday in her Capitol Hill office. “There are times when you need to pitch a fit and other times when you need to apply Catholic guilt, and it’s just figuring out which is the most appropriate approach and then implementing it.”
In recent years, Murkowski has ascended the ranks of the Senate Republican hierarchy as another Alaska female politician, Sarah Palin, has become a force in the GOP. In June, Palin, who defeated Frank Murkowski in a GOP primary on her way to becoming governor in 2006, endorsed another Republican running against Sen. Murkowski in her primary.
Murkowski, the fifth-ranking Senate Republican, last year assumed the top GOP spot on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee — a panel that is crucial to her state’s oil- and gas-heavy economy — in addition to securing a spot on the perhaps equally important Appropriations Committee.
“That was a master stroke for her state,” said former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), whom Murkowski replaced as ranking member on the Energy panel when he retired. “She got there by being astute and being patient and also not wasting any opportunities.”
Some political observers say Murkowski has moved to the right over the past couple of years.
“It’s crystal-clear,” said Gerald McBeath, a veteran political scientist at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. “She probably figured it would be a fairly high risk for her to hold on to the moderate image in the Senate.”
Murkowski disputes the notion she has become more conservative.
“I don’t think it is necessarily shifting to the right as it is in how I am forced to respond to an administration that does not have the same perspective on either how we access and develop our resources or how we approach government and government intervention,” she said. “And so it’s not so much that I’ve changed my stripes or I’m more conservative or I’m saying things because I’ve got a primary. It’s really because I’ve had to respond in a manner that I simply haven’t had to in the prior years that I’ve been here in the Senate.”
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) questions Murkowski’s decision to join the Republican leadership.
“It’s definitely in her interest to be a ranking member and chairman of a committee. But Alaska needs so much help that it’s almost better to be as independent as you can be.”
While Murkowski, 53, says she has no intention of stepping down from her leadership role this year, her preference would be to head the Energy panel if Republicans take over the Senate next Congress.
The mother of two doubts whether she could do that and hold a role in leadership. “It’s not that you don’t want to, but the demands are such that you don’t have hours in your day, days in your week,” she said. “Daily, it taxes you. So I’m very cognizant of that.”
“The fact that I was able to help build that package as the ranking member and then take that to the conference and suggest that this might be something that we would want to adopt as Republicans … that was a good fit; that was a good way to combine the two hats that I wear,” she said.
Murkowski was one of only a few Republicans to challenge then-Senate GOP leader Bill Frist’s (Tenn.) “nuclear option” against filibusters of judicial nominees and also supported stem cell research when many in her party did not.
She was once considered “gettable” on Democratic efforts placing mandatory curbs on industrial greenhouse gas emissions and in 2007 co-sponsored a bill to do that.
But as the climate debate has become more polarized during the first 18 months of the Obama administration, she has turned away from supporting Democratic-led climate policies and focused more on fighting the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
One former Senate Democratic aide said, “I think Republican leadership has made it difficult for her to lead legislatively, and ironically, it may be easier for her to do that when they have more seats and control over the agenda.”
Murkowski is facing a challenge in her Republican primary this year from Joe Miller, a once-obscure lawyer and former federal and state judge whose candidacy has been jumpstarted by endorsements from Palin and a California-based Tea Party group.
Their backing, however, has not made much of a dent in her reelection bid. Palin’s approval ratings have dropped in Alaska and the opinions of outsiders are viewed with a skeptical eye.
Political handicappers in and out of Alaska agree Murkowski will be a shoo-in to win another six-year term if, as expected, she defeats Miller.
Murkowski overcame a far more difficult challenge when she beat Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles for her Senate seat in 2004 amid charges of nepotism.
“To a great extent over the last six years, she has succeeded in making that detachment from the controversy of her appointment … and from her father,” said Ivan Moore, an Alaska-based pollster who has done work with both parties in the state.
“I did have some challenges, some obstacles in front of me when I first came,” Murkowski said. “It wasn’t about trying to distance myself from the other Murkowski senator, it was really trying to do the best job that I could for Alaskans. That obviously met with constituents’ approval in 2004 and ... it would appear that Alaskans still feel that I’m doing a good job for them.”