Alaska becomes latest battleground in GOP civil war
The Republican civil war is heating up in Alaska ahead of the state’s gubernatorial, Senate and House races.
With Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R), Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) and Rep. Don Young (R) all up for reelection, the party is torn over issues like the coronavirus pandemic, election integrity, federal and state spending, and former President Trump’s role in the party.
The GOP infighting in the state is a departure from a typically staid political scene, where Republicans have historically focused on energy and economic issues while veering away from culture wars.
“This election is supercharged. No question, the tone and tenor are much elevated,” said Eldon Mulder, a lobbyist and former Republican state House member. “I don’t ever recall a situation where all of the statewide incumbents are being challenged. And not just a little bit, very seriously challenged.”
Chief among the major debates dividing Alaska Republicans is the omnipresence of Trump in the state’s top races this year.
The former president has lashed out at Murkowski over her vote last year to convict him after he was impeached for his role in stoking the Jan. 6, 2021, riot on the Capitol. He’s since come out in support of Kelly Tshibaka, a Republican challenging Murkowski, and consultants in his orbit have flocked to her campaign.
Then in late December, Trump issued a conditional endorsement for Dunleavy – throwing his support behind the governor so long as he didn’t endorse Murkowski. Dunleavy ultimately accepted the imprimatur, saying Trump “has nothing to worry about” but later noting that he and Murkowski will continue their working relationship.
Despite earning Trump’s endorsement, Dunleavy too is getting squeezed from his right flank on several hot button issues.
The first-term governor is now facing challenges from state Rep. Christopher Kurka (R) and Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce, who are running to his right, calling him out particularly vociferously on the coronavirus.
Dunleavy has refrained from issuing any mask or vaccine mandates, leaving such decisions to local governments, but conservative critics say he should have banned such mandates from his perch in Juneau. He also continues to face blowback over business closures implemented early in the pandemic — moves other Republican governors made too.
Those criticisms have boiled over into calls for Dunleavy to fire his chief medical officer, Anne Zink, forcing him to publicly defend her at a press conference earlier this month and say she “has my confidence.”
Beyond the pandemic, Dunleavy is also pushing an election bill in the current legislative session that will impose some restrictions — but not enough, according to conservatives.
On top of all that, the governor is barreling toward a fight on the budget. Dunleavy proposed cuts so large in his first year in office that they produced a fierce recall campaign, but conservatives want the 2023 budget to impose more cuts and rely less on federal coronavirus stimulus funds.
Young has avoided most of the conservative outrage, but he too is facing a slew of Republican challengers.
Taken together, Alaska Republicans say they are seeing a cresting wave of conservative angst that was inspired by Trump but is lingering even with him out of office.
“They became motivated with some of these hot-button cultural issues by the presence of Donald Trump, and the elevated anger that Donald Trump infused into our elections up here is still very much present,” said Joe Geldhof, an attorney and state party donor involved in Republican causes. “They’re mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it.”
Rather than typical disagreements over energy policy or Alaska’s unique Permanent Fund Dividend, it is precisely those “hot-button cultural issues” that are the prime reasons behind the challengers’ bids.
In an interview with The Hill, Kurka said the three prime reasons he’s running are complaints over the coronavirus, “election integrity” and “federal overreach,” adding that he’s not vaccinated, citing a COVID-19 infection last fall, and mentioning debunked theories about issues with Dominion Voting Systems voting machines in the 2020 cycle.
Further emboldening the conservative flank of the GOP in Alaska is a novel election system that is being implemented for the first time this year.
Under the new format, every candidate regardless of party will run in a single primary in August. The top four vote-getters from that race will move on to the general, which will be run as a ranked-choice election. Voters will then rank their top four choices in the general election, and subsequent choices beyond the top vote are later reallocated if no candidate wins an outright majority.
Republicans say that system is producing unprecedented confusion – and encouraging challengers to try to find multiple paths to victory.
“I think that ranked-choice voting makes people a lot braver,” said Judy Norton Eledge, president of the Anchorage Republican Women’s Club and a Tshibaka and Dunleavy supporter.
Polling in the two races is scarce, but the combination of policy angst and voter confusion has provided a perfect storm for the far-right flank of the GOP, which could mount its strongest bid to knock off Alaska incumbents in years.
“These are not the perennial fringe candidates that we see run election after election,” John-Henry Heckendorn, an Alaska consultant who has worked for candidates from both parties, said when asked about Kurka and Pierce.
Still, Murkowski and Dunleavy boast their own bases, and unseating them would be no easy feat.
Murkowski hails from a famed Alaska political family and has an expansive network across the sprawling state. She famously won reelection in 2010 by a write-in campaign after losing the GOP primary, a victory her allies frequently tout.
Dunleavy, meanwhile, will be formidable with the Trump endorsement, and it remains to be seen how strong Kurka and Pierce will be as the cycle progresses.
Murkowski’s campaign declined to comment when reached by The Hill, but Andrew Jensen, a volunteer campaign spokesperson for Dunleavy, told The Hill the governor “is proud to run on his record and looks forward to engaging in this race on the issues that are important to Alaska’s voters.”
Still, the path forward for both lawmakers is treacherous as they look to balance their appeals between disgruntled conservatives, their existing base and even some high-profile contenders to their left like former Gov. Bill Walker (I).
“Dunleavy seems kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Heckendorn said. “These aren’t issues where it’s really possible to just tread water and float in the middle, but he doesn’t seem to know how to not do that right now.”
In the meantime, the conservative challengers have shown no signs of letting up.
Tshibaka has released a stream of statements hitting Murkowski and tying her to President Biden, while Dunleavy’s opponents insist they have enough enthusiasm to continue hammering away.
“You saw the rise of the Tea Party movement around Obama’s administration, I’ve never seen anything like this where you’ve had people coming out of the woodwork to fight and to engage in the political process,” Kurka told The Hill, adding of GOP incumbents, “I wish they were more bold.”