Murkowski faces big test with primary challenge looming

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is one of President Biden’s best hopes of attracting bipartisan support for his Supreme Court nominee, but it’s a tough vote as she faces a Republican primary challenger this year who has former President Trump’s backing. 

Given the dynamics of a Senate Republican primary, a “no” vote is the safer choice, as it deprives her Trump-supported challenger, Kelly Tshibaka, of another issue to run on. 

Tshibaka has called Biden’s nominee, Ketanji Brown Jackson, “a clear leftist” who would “undoubtedly follow her ideology in her rulings and write legislation from the bench.” 

The vote may be seen as a gauge for how confident Murkowski feels about her reelection heading into the primary and how far she’s willing to go to restore bipartisanship to the Senate.

Murkowski has established a record as a pragmatic independent. Earlier this year, she helped lead the bipartisan reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and attended the signing ceremony at the White House this month. In 2017, she helped defeat the Republican plan to repeal and replace ObamaCare.

She was also the only Republican senator to oppose Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 2018 after Christine Blasey Ford accused him of committing sexual assault in high school. Murkowski technically voted present as a favor to Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who had to miss the vote to attend his daughter’s wedding.

Murkowski could help make history by seating the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court. 

She voted against former President Obama’s two Supreme Court picks, including Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who made history by becoming the first Hispanic woman to serve on the high court and was generally regarded as more centrist than Jackson. 

Murkowski declined to comment Tuesday on her deliberation over the nomination, telling reporters she was devoting the day to remembering longtime Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who lay in state at the Capitol after serving nearly 24 terms in the House. 

She previously told The Hill that she thought Biden missed an opportunity to foster bipartisanship by picking a judge with a far more liberal record than South Carolina District Judge J. Michelle Childs, who had the support of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.). 

“I think the problem he faced with Brown Jackson is that outside of three Republicans, every Republican had already cast a vote on her. How does anybody explain why on a lower court they were a ‘no’ and now on the highest court in the land they’re a ‘yes’?” she said shortly before Jackson’s confirmation hearing.

Murkowski was among three Senate Republicans who voted to confirm Jackson to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in June, along with Graham and fellow moderate Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).  

“To me, that was a clear issue of being able to predict where the votes are going to go. I think the other names that had been considered would have given him greater flexibility to work that bipartisan effort,” she said. 

Murkowski said she told the president that he could get a strong bipartisan confirmation vote with the right nominee. 

“I talked to him about it. I was very, very clear with him. I felt he could get a more bipartisan vote if he worked it,” she said. 

Graham says he could have helped Biden muster more than 10 votes for Childs and has repeatedly expressed his deep disappointment with the president’s choice of Jackson, whom he calls the favorite choice of “the radical left.” 

Graham has signaled he’s a likely “no” vote but hasn’t officially announced his position.

Murkowski’s primary opponent is already trying to hit her for taking time to weigh Jackson’s record. 

“Once again it’s time for the favorite Washington, D.C. pastime of guessing which way Lisa Murkowski will vote,” Tshibaka said in a Feb. 25 press release. “When I’m the next senator from Alaska, the people will never have to wonder what my views are. I will always side with the Constitution and oppose radical leftists.” 

Murkowski has an advantage heading into this year’s election, as it will be the first Senate race in Alaska where the candidates will run in a nonpartisan primary in August. This format makes it less important for Murkowski to cater to the Republican base, as Democrats and independents will be allowed to vote in her primary.

The four candidates who receive the most votes in the primary will advance to the general election. If none of those candidates win a majority, the winner will then be decided by ranked-choice voting.

Murkowski says she doesn’t view her vote to put Jackson on the D.C. Circuit as obligating her to vote to place her on the Supreme Court.

“I’ve said that it’s a new page for me. Supreme Court is called the Supreme Court for a reason, it’s the highest court out there,” she said. 

She said last month that being confirmed to the court “is an incredibly high bar to achieve.” 

An aide familiar with Murkowski’s views on the Supreme Court confirmation process said she had expressed a desire for Biden to nominate someone who could pick up strong bipartisan support and didn’t consider only two or three Republican votes for someone a sign of strong bipartisanship. 

Murkowski met with Jackson earlier this month, and her staff described it as a good meeting. She asked the nominee about her views on legal issues relevant to Alaska. 

She has since asked the White House to provide more information about the nominee, though her office did not reveal exactly what she solicited. 

Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) told reporters Tuesday that he doesn’t see Jackson getting more than three Republican votes. 

“I don’t think we’ll ultimately, until next week rolls around, figure out where people are,” he said. 

“This is a huge, consequential decision, probably one of the most important you make in this job, and so you want to make sure you’ve done your diligence and land in a place that reflects your place and those of your constituents,” he added. “I think the universe of votes that she could get in the Senate among Republicans is probably similar to what happened in the appeals court process.” 

One factor that may help nudge Murkowski to vote for Jackson is that her fellow centrist, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), with whom she teamed up to negotiate last year’s $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package and more recently a bill to ban Russian energy imports, says he will vote to approve her nomination.

Manchin on Tuesday said the rough treatment of Jackson by some Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee at last week’s hearings was “disgraceful” and “embarrassing.” He predicts “she’ll be an exemplary judge.” 

Collins, who is working with Manchin and Murkowski to restore bipartisanship to the Senate, is also viewed as a likely “yes” vote for Jackson. 

She praised Jackson after meeting with her as someone who “takes a very thorough, careful approach in applying the law to the facts of the case” but hasn’t yet said how she will vote.

Tags Barack Obama Brett Kavanaugh Don Young Donald Trump Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Thune Ketanji Brown Jackson Lindsey Graham Lisa Murkowski Sonia Sotomayor Steve Daines Susan Collins

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