Murkowski defeat costs state seniority

Lisa Demer

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski's defeat in last week's Republican primary ends a 30-year-reign of Murkowskis in Alaska politics and political experts say it will weaken Alaska's political clout in Washington, D.C.

Her fall from political heights came as suddenly as her rise eight years ago, when her father, Frank Murkowski, became governor and named her, then a member of the state House, to take his place in the U.S. Senate. Some voters saw the appointment as arrogant and unforgiveable, and lingering bad feelings may have contributed to her loss, said political consultant Ivan Moore.

On Tuesday, after a count of absentee and questioned ballots, Murkowski, 53, conceded the Republican primary race to upstart challenger Joe Miller, 43. He's a tea party favorite who says the age of big federal spending -- in Alaska and everywhere else -- is passing. Miller faces Democrat Scott McAdams, the mayor of Sitka, in the November general election.

Unless Murkowski tries for and wins a long-shot write-in candidacy, come January Democrat Mark Begich will be Alaska's senior senator. He was elected just two years ago, toppling longtime Sen. Ted Stevens, who died last month in a plane crash.

That's an astounding loss of political status for a state where voters sent the same three men -- Stevens, Frank Murkowski and Don Young -- to Washington, D.C., for decades. The seniority translated into powerful committee chairmanships and hundreds of millions of federal dollars for Alaska. Only Young remains in Congress, and he lost his leadership role under the taint of a corruption investigation that never produced charges.

"On the face of it, it puts Alaska in a desperate economic situation because it will have two junior senators," Steve Haycox, a University of Alaska Anchorage history professor, said of Lisa Murkowski's loss. "That's a big, big problem when one-third of our economic base is federal spending."

It may not be as bad as it looks because much of that spending -- for the military, management of federal lands, and Alaska Native services -- should be relatively secure, Haycox said. But money for infrastructure projects, including roads, airports and ports, likely will be squeezed.

"That's really pork management, if you will," Haycox said.


Murkowski's loss will set off a scramble for her post on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee -- as well as create a void in the Republican leadership ranks. Murkowski was the only woman in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's GOP leadership circle, for example.

And she leaves a hole on the Senate Appropriations Committee, where she snagged a seat after Stevens was defeated in 2008. Now Begich is eyeing an Appropriations seat.

In her eight years in office, Murkowski established herself as a capable and energetic advocate for Alaska's interests, said University of Alaska Fairbanks political science professor Jerry McBeath.

Compared with her class of senators, Murkowski was in the top, taking her work very seriously and responding well to constituents, McBeath said.

"She was not a show horse. She didn't grab the mic to parade her views on issues," he said. "She was there to represent Alaska, and I think she did that quite well."

She was a quietly pro-choice moderate. In the state Legislature, she sponsored a bill to make Alaska's alcohol tax the highest in the nation, an unusual step for a Republican. In Congress, when former GOP Idaho Sen. Larry Craig was largely abandoned by his colleagues over charges of soliciting sex from another man, Murkowski walked across the Senate floor to give Craig a hug, according to a column published Wednesday on the U.S. News & World Report website.

Begich said he and Murkowski worked well on Alaska issues together. "She was a good partner," he said. "As a matter of fact, we co-sponsored quite a few things together, when it dealt with Alaska."

As for Miller, Begich noted during an interview that the Republican is an "Ivy League lawyer. ... We have enough lawyers in the Senate. We don't need any more."


Part of Murkowski's downfall might be attributed to the California-based Tea Party Express, which spent nearly $600,000 on ads in Alaska to paint her as a Washington liberal unwilling to overturn federal health care reform. She also was hurt by Miller's public support of Ballot Measure 2, requiring parental notification for a teen to get an abortion, though she supported it as well.

An incumbent typically gets tossed out because of scandal, Moore said. But Murkowski was popular until the very end. Perhaps in her case people never quite got over the fact her father appointed her, even though she won election to the seat in 2004.

"People weren't loyal to her, and I suspect that has a lot to do with how she got the job in the first place," Moore said. "They might have been reasonably happy with the job she was doing, but they didn't owe her anything. So they took her job away as easily as she got it."

With less seniority, the state will have to compete against others for more of what it gets, said Steve Ellis, vice president of Washington, D.C.-based Taxpayers for Common Sense.

"There's still going to be quite a bit of federal largess that rains down on Alaska but it won't be nearly protected as it was under Sen. Stevens or even Sen. Murkowski," he said.

But Begich said the old Washington ways are changing anyway and that with dozens of new faces in the U.S. Senate since 2006, "seniority is not what it used to be." Getting things done is more about relationships than longevity.

Alaska is still getting plenty of federal funding, even without what became known as "Stevens money," Begich said.

Rural stretches of Alaska from Bethel to Cordova are being wired for fast broadband connections with funding from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Nome is getting a new hospital.

Even without any more upsets, more than 40 Senate seats will have turned over since 2006 by the time the new members are sworn in next year, according to Begich's office.

"There's no better time to have freshmen because everything is moving," Begich said. "The old guard is passing on in the sense of their role and their responsibility and the new folks are coming into office."

Find Lisa Demer online at or call 257-4390. McClatchy Washington Bureau correspondent Erika Bolstad and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Contact Lisa Demer at or on