Murkowski leans into record ahead of potentially bruising reelection bid
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) is betting that her independent streak and longtime ties to her state will help win her reelection next year amid fury from the GOP’s right flank over votes bucking the party line and rebukes of former President Trump.
Conservative Republicans’ anger over Murkowski erupted earlier this year over her vote to convict Trump after his second impeachment. She has also drawn conservative anger over her opposition to a plan to repeal ObamaCare, her vote to install Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and more.
But despite the intraparty feuding, Murkowski remains a juggernaut in the Last Frontier, and allies boast that she has a path to reelection.
Murkowski is expected to run on a playbook highlighting her legislative accomplishments and independence in a state where more voters are registered as nonpartisan or “undeclared” than Democrats or Republicans. And while people close to her admit there are voters she will never get back after her clashes with Trump, they say her outsize standing in the state can withstand feuds even with the larger-than-life former president.
“Oh, there are voters that she’ll never get back,” said Eldon Mulder, a lobbyist who served with Murkowski in the state House and first recruited her for that chamber.
But, he added, “many Republicans in Alaska, while they are essentially conservatives, they’re also pragmatists. They understand that three-quarters of a loaf is better than no loaf, and the many things that she’s been able to deliver for the state of Alaska have been good, and we need to keep her there to keep delivering.”
Murkowski has dedicated herself to energy issues during her nearly 19 years in the Senate by spearheading the approval of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, pushing for the end of a ban on crude oil exports and more.
She also has deep ties to Alaska, where her father served as governor and the Murkowski name is known in nearly all corners of the expansive state.
While Murkowski has not officially launched her reelection bid, advisers say that a combination of her involvement on energy policy — a key issue for a state reliant on its land use and fishing — and prominent standing could push her to victory over her opponents, including Alaska official and fellow Republican Kelly Tshibaka.
“Her focus has really been on doing the best job she possibly can, and in doing so believes that her best chance for reelection and gathering support is to continue to do her job and to do it well,” Kevin Sweeney, an adviser to her campaign, told The Hill.
“You’re not always going to make every single person happy,” he added. “But that won’t change the way that she governs.”
Among the people she’s made unhappy are the conservatives who make up the right flank of the GOP.
Murkowski has long rubbed hardcore Republicans the wrong way with moderate stances on social issues like abortion. That disgruntlement grew in recent years with her votes on ObamaCare and Haaland, as well as her opposition to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation amid sexual assault allegations.
But the vote that drew the most ire from the right was her vote to convict Trump, anger that manifested itself in a censure from the state GOP and Tshibaka’s March launch of her Senate campaign for Murkowski’s seat.
Tshibaka has styled herself as a staunch conservative and Trump ally and has won the endorsements of the former president himself and the Alaska Republican Party.
Conservative excitement has helped push her campaign to prominence, with one Democratic poll showing her winning in the first round of Alaska’s ranked-choice voting system. And that enthusiasm is unlikely to wane as Trump makes Murkowski’s ouster a top priority.
A Trump aide told The Hill the former president is “intent” on unseating Murkowski, and grassroots activists have followed suit.
“She is a very strong conservative,” Judy Norton-Eledge, president of the Anchorage Republican Women’s Club, said of Tshibaka. “I encouraged her to run because many of us saw her as someone that could take [Murkowski] on and be a very formidable candidate.”
“I consider her a RINO,” she said of Murkowski, referring to the label “Republican in name only.”
Some of Murkowski’s allies recognize her problem on the right flank and say the tensions could have been avoided.
“If there’s one shortcoming, she probably should have been more open and in greater conversation with the party officials and with the pro-Trump crowd in Alaska,” Mulder said.
Yet despite those headwinds, when asked about her reelection chances, Murkowski allies’ answers ranged from “cautiously optimistic” to “confident.”
Murkowski is no stranger to conservative backlash. She won reelection in 2010 as a write-in candidate after losing the GOP primary to a far-right challenger. She won again in 2016 after that same person opposed her as a third-party contender.
“I’m confident that she’s gonna win this election,” state Sen. Gary Stevens (R) said. “She won the 2010 election in a similar situation, and I think she’ll win this one pretty clearly.”
On top of that, Alaska is experimenting with a new voting system that allies and detractors alike say helps Murkowski.
Alaska’s Senate election features a single, open primary in which all candidates compete. The top four vote-getters will then advance to a ranked-choice general election where voters will rank their choices, and votes for subsequent picks are reallocated until one contender gets a majority of the vote.
Given her broad appeal, Murkowski will likely make the top four. But more importantly, it helps her avoid facing the enraged grassroots in a closed GOP primary.
“The Republican primary for Murkowski looked hopeless to me,” said Alaska-based strategist John-Henry Heckendorn, who has worked for both parties.
“The system didn’t actually do much to help Murkowski in a general,” he added. “It just gave her a way to get to the dance.”
The system could also hold back Tshibaka. A win in a GOP primary could give her an edge in a general election in a state that consistently votes Republican statewide, and it is unclear if her base is broad enough to compete in November against three candidates.
“She’s got her votes, and they’re kind of baked in. It’s the disenchanted, mad-as-hell faction in the Republican Party,” said Joe Geldhof, an attorney involved in Republican causes and a state party donor. “Where do you get your next tranche of votes in the general? They’re not there.”
Tshibaka has also handed Murkowski ammunition to hit back. A number of missteps have surfaced in state media, including a recent report revealing she illegally obtained an Alaska resident sport fishing license in 2019, highlighting the years she spent away from Alaska working in Washington in inspector general offices of several federal agencies.
“I think Tshibaka has challenges in terms of having spent the last 20 years living on the East Coast,” Heckendorn said. “I think her big challenge is going to be compelling people beyond those who are motivated purely by nationalized issues and Trump, because she’s already making these kinds of missteps, and she doesn’t have a lot of community connection beyond the sort of bread-and-butter national issues.”
Still, observers across the spectrum say Tshibaka will be no slouch. A Republican running in a red state with Trump’s support automatically enters any race with a base of support, and conservatives’ frustration with Murkowski is not expected to ebb anytime soon.
“There’ll be a lot of factors being added together as far as the final outcome and who ends up taking the seat. But I think it kind of put Kelly into the big leagues when she got [Trump’s] endorsement,” state Senate Majority Leader Shelley Hughes (R) said.
“I think that they’re both fighters,” she added, “and neither one is to be underestimated.”