U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski sets herself apart in the Senate as one of few Republicans openly supporting abortion access — and she is the only one facing reelection this year, making it a key issue in Alaska’s U.S. Senate race.
Two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that guaranteed federal protections for abortion access. The decision sparked protests across Alaska from abortion-rights advocates, while opponents of the procedure cheered.
It has also led to renewed scrutiny of Murkowski’s long record on reproductive rights, including voting to confirm two of the justices who were instrumental in the decision to overturn Roe. Now, she says she took them at their word when they indicated to her that Roe was “settled” law.
Murkowski, who has long positioned herself as a moderate Republican willing to break from her party on key issues, faces challenges this year from both the right and the left. In a field of 22 candidates, the Alaska Republican Party has thrown its support behind Kelly Tshibaka, who is also backed by former President Donald Trump. Democrats are supporting Pat Chesbro, a relatively unknown retired educator. Murkowski is relying on moderate voters, even as some on both sides of the political spectrum question her record.
“I have had many tearful conversations, particularly with women, about the court’s decision and what that means for women around the country,” Murkowski said in a phone interview this week.
She was on a flight on her way back to Alaska when the decision overturning Roe was handed down in the Dobbs v. Jackson case that stemmed from a Mississippi law. Since then, she said, it has come up repeatedly in conversations across the state.
Of the justices in the majority Dobbs opinion, Murkowski voted to confirm Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett — both nominated by Trump. She opposed the nomination of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, also a Trump nominee. Murkowski said that from conversations with Gorsuch and Barrett before their confirmations, she had surmised that abortion protections would remain.
“I really do drill down on the question of precedents,” Murkowski said. “What they confirmed to me was that they believed that Roe was precedent. It was settled law. And I believed them when they told me that.”
“Everybody wants to try to ask you if you regret your vote or if you had the ability to do something over, what would you do differently, and we don’t have the ability to do that,” Murkowski added. “I do feel that the assurance I was given with regards to their views on precedent, and what it meant, particularly something that had been in law for five decades, where it has been a matter that had been generally relied upon — I took them at their word.”
Murkowski said she is working on a bipartisan reproductive rights measure that would ensure access to contraception, which could also be in jeopardy in light of the recent court decision. She says that “if it’s not bipartisan, it’s not going to happen.”
“I may have believed that the court would work to put additional limitations or restrictions on abortion procedures in certain states. Based on what I had been told, I did not believe that they would overturn Roe and I was among the many Americans who was shaken by that decision. What I’m doing now is working to ensure that women’s reproductive rights and a woman’s choice to direct her own health care decisions is not taken back in time 50 years,” she said.
Murkowski — along with Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the other Senate Republican who supports abortion access — also introduced in February legislation that would have codified protections available under Roe. But the two voted against a broader, Democratic-sponsored bill that would also invalidate state laws making it harder to access abortion, like those requiring waiting periods or parental notification for minors.
The vote points to a challenge Murkowski faces in explaining a record that at times has appeared inconsistent, even as she says she has always supported protecting abortion access with some side rails and limitations.
Asked if she would support a carveout on abortion for the Senate filibuster — a rule requiring the support of 60 senators to pass legislation — she said she has been “focusing not so much on process reforms.”
“For some, it’s just so easy to say, ‘Let’s get rid of the filibuster for this issue that is so important,’” Murkowski said. “I have stood by the filibuster as a tool that the minority has in the Senate. It is a tool that is used by both sides.”
“What’s to say if the Republicans take the Senate and the House next year, that there isn’t an initiative that they would want to advance and just need to have a little bit of a carveout from the filibuster in order to advance it,” Murkowski added. “It is one of the few protections that remain in place.”
‘On either side of the issue’
Tshibaka, with the backing of Trump, and Democrat Chesbro are both questioning if Murkowski can be trusted on abortion — and other polarizing issues dividing the nation.
New election laws mean the 19 primary candidates will appear on the same Aug. 16 primary ballot. The top four — likely to include Murkowski, Tshibaka and Chesbro — will advance to a ranked-choice general election in November. Supporters of the new rules have said they would favor moderate candidates who can draw support from a broad swath of voters. But on issues as polarizing as abortion, Tshibaka and Chesbro are betting on voters who have had enough of Murkowski’s middle-of-the-road approach.
“Nobody on either side of the issue trusts Lisa Murkowski because she flip-flopped on it,” Tshibaka said in an interview this month.
Chesbro accused Murkowski of introducing legislation she knows will not pass. “It’ll sound good that she has done it, but she knows her own caucus will not pass it. So I really worry about how it looks,” she said.
“We have a Supreme Court now that is very unbalanced,” Chesbro said. “I feel like (Murkowski) has been — whether intentionally or not — party to this scheme of this Republican Party to stack that court to do the kinds of things they want it to do.”
Chesbro’s candidacy is a long shot. In an interview this month she said her campaign had received “small” donations from 190 people so far. “Nobody’s given me a million dollars at this point,” she added.
A challenge from Tshibaka is more formidable in a state that elected only one Democrat to its congressional delegation in the last 30 years. Tshibaka, a former commissioner of the state Department of Administration, is set to appear at a rally with Trump in Anchorage on Saturday.
As of the last reporting period that ended in March, Murkowski has already raised more than $7.5 million. Tshibaka had raised $2.5 million. Chesbro had not entered the race by the end of that reporting period.
For Chesbro, who says the decision on whether to get an abortion should be only between a woman and her health care provider, it’s a campaign fueled by outrage.
“I believe that we are under assault in this country, and I believe that anyone who has been part of this Republican Party for as long as our current senator has, must know that the strategy has been to create a Supreme Court that will do this very thing, that will emphasize the rights of the minority of people — the wealthy, the business owners — over the rest of us,” she said.
Tshibaka has called herself an “unapologetically pro-life Alaska conservative,” once asking, “Where do the unborn babies go for their health care?”
In an interview this month, she said she supported the Supreme Court’s ruling returning decisions on abortion access to states, but did not directly answer when asked if she would support federal legislation banning abortion across the country.
“Alaskans here get to decide what happens with respect to the question of abortion,” she said. In Alaska, state Supreme Court rulings have cemented protections for abortion access, meaning only changing the state constitution — a long shot and a lengthy process — could limit access to the procedure. Voters will be asked in November if they support a constitutional convention.
Tshibaka backtracks on statements about birth control
A recent campaign ad and social media exchanges have highlighted just how significant reproductive access is in differentiating Murkowski and Tshibaka in a state where polls have shown a majority support abortion access.
In a town hall this year, Tshibaka said in response to a question that she would support legislation banning sending of abortion medications by mail. Such pills are used to induce abortions without surgical interventions and are used increasingly in early-term abortions.
“I would want to make it illegal to send those pills at all,” she said in a video of the town hall that surfaced online in April. When asked if that would also apply to birth control, she answered: “It would.”
But in a later social media post she backtracked on that answer, after an ad launched by a political action committee that supports Murkowski attacked her for failing to understand rural Alaska health care, which relies on by-mail delivery of medications.
In a separate social media post two days before the Supreme Court decision, Tshibaka said she supports “redirecting taxpayer funds from national abortion providers to Alaska local women’s health care providers who are working close to home, but don’t provide abortions.”
Murkowski responded directly to Tshibaka, saying that her proposal meant “cutting off access to critical healthcare services to thousands of Alaskan women in the process.”
“Add to that your push to criminalize receiving contraceptives in the mail. This is not the change Alaskans want or need,” Murkowski told Tshibaka.
Tshibaka later clarified she meant that sending abortion pills should be illegal in states that have banned abortions, such as Texas and Mississippi. She said that prohibition should also apply to pills such as Plan B, sometimes referred to as the morning-after pill, a contraceptive that can prevent a pregnancy from occurring after unprotected sex.
“It seems that if a state makes abortion illegal at this point, then people who live in the state wouldn’t be able to order pills that cause abortions either,” Tshibaka said. “I do not support banning normal birth control pills. These are pills that millions of women have used including myself. I was on birth control for years.”
“I don’t support making myself a felon,” Tshibaka added.