A week before Alaska’s primary election day, Sen. Lisa Murkowski was pumping gas.
The moderate Republican, who is often in the center of national attention as a swing vote in the U.S. Senate, had stopped at an Anchorage gas station where Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group, was sponsoring the sale of gas for $2.38 per gallon. That price reflected the national average price of gas on President Joe Biden’s inauguration day, and half the statewide average gas price Tuesday. At the station, Murkowski offered drivers sodas as they drove by and bemoaned Biden’s unwillingness to advance more oil and gas drilling in Alaska and elsewhere in the U.S.
Under Alaska’s new election laws, which did away with partisan primaries and implemented ranked choice voting in the general election, Murkowski is all but guaranteed to advance to the general election. The top four vote getters in the Aug. 16 pick-one primary will advance to the November election. Murkowski, along with Trump-backed Republican Kelly Tshibaka and Democrat Pat Chesbro, are likely to be the candidates with the top three vote totals, making the primary a foregone conclusion and freeing them to look ahead to the November race.
Tshibaka, the former commissioner of the Alaska Department of Administration under Gov. Mike Dunleavy who shared a stage last month with former President Donald Trump at an Anchorage rally, is running on the promise of change. While Tshibaka has the support of the Alaska Republican Party, Murkowski — one of seven Senate Republicans who voted to impeach Trump — is counting on a broad coalition of voters to carry her past the conservative challenger even in a state that went for Trump by a 10-point margin in 2020.
The voting reform ballot measure narrowly approved by voters in 2020 eliminated a danger Murkowski faced in 2010, when she was beat out in the Republican primary, forcing her to mount a write-in campaign for the general election. She won that general election after running ads reminding voters how to spell her name.
Now, with just days to go before the primary, much of Murkowski’s calendar is taken up by official appearances as senator: at a broadband conference and a housing summit in Anchorage, a renewable energy conference near Fairbanks, a trip to Juneau with the Coast Guard. And, on Tuesday, at the gas station where drivers lined up for cheaper gas.
“She’s got a 20-year record, so she doesn’t need to be out there telling people what she believes because you know already what she believes,” Murkowski’s state director, Steve Wackowski, said Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Tshibaka has been campaigning full-time for more than a year, since she launched her bid in March 2021. At a campaign event in Eagle River on Wednesday, she said she saw the primary as an important “mile marker” in the marathon of the race.
“You don’t just run this mile, you run with that end in sight. You have to pace yourself, but you don’t ever stop. Even when you hit the finish line, you don’t stop,” she said. Still, she emphasized the importance of the August results.
“Placement in the primary is huge for the outcome of the general election because it helps to build momentum, and it helps give confidence to the voters about how the election is going,” she said in an interview. If she outperforms Murkowski in the primary, she said, it would be “significant for the nation.”
Tshibaka was born and raised in Anchorage, left the state at age 15 and spent 16 years working for the federal government and as a pastor in Washington, D.C. She returned to Alaska in 2019 and announced her Senate campaign two years later.
Even under Alaska’s singular election laws — Maine is the only other state to use ranked choice voting in statewide races — the U.S. Senate race is seen as a referendum on Trump’s place in the Republican Party. Murkowski is the only one of the seven Senate Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol to face re-election this year.
As Murkowski fills her schedule with official commitments, Tshibaka must spend more of her time fundraising. Murkowski had $5.3 million in her campaign war chest as of the end of July, according to recent Federal Election Commission reports due earlier this month. A separate super PAC has been raising millions to help Murkowski’s reelection bid. Tshibaka had just $800,000 in the bank at the end of July. No other candidate came close.
Tshibaka’s fundraising efforts have been buoyed by Trump’s visit to Alaska: In the period between July 1 and July 27, Murkowski raised $268,000 while Tshibaka raised $241,000. Tshibaka’s sum includes an $81,000 transfer from a political action committee set up in conjunction with Trump’s visit to Alaska to benefit Tshibaka’s campaign, along with Sarah Palin’s U.S. House bid.
‘People need a choice’
The candidate with the next highest fundraising total is Pat Chesbro, the Democrat, who had $11,000 in the bank in the same period. Even with paltry fundraising, Chesbro is likely to get the support of progressive voters in the primary, thanks to an endorsement from the Alaska Democratic Party.
Chesbro, a retired educator, says she was roped into running for the seat almost accidentally by Alaska Democratic Party officials.
She describes telling former Alaska Democrat Party Chair Casey Steinau that she was thinking about putting her name on the ballot for her state Senate district in Palmer, where a GOP victory is a foregone conclusion. Steinau then relayed to the party’s executive director Lindsay Kavanaugh that Chesbro was “thinking of running for Senate.”
“Lindsay thought it was this Senate race, so we had a meeting,” Chesbro said. That was at the party convention in Seward in early May. “They said, ‘Well, we need you to run. We don’t have anybody to run.’ ” State Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson had announced a run but then withdrew, citing fundraising challenges. Chesbro publicly announced her run a few days after the party convention.
“People need a choice — that’s why I’m running,” she said at a July campaign stop. She had advertised a meet-and-greet at an Anchorage coffee shop, but the only group she spoke with was a gaggle of tourists from the Lower 48.
“Not every day have I thought that this was a smart idea, but we need to have somebody be able to stand up for Democratic values, and I’m willing to do that,” she said. “I’ll do the best I can.”
The fourth candidate
While Murkowski, Tshibaka and Chesbro are expected to take the top three spots, the last candidate who will round out the November ballot remains a mystery, and both Tshibaka and Murkowski say that last candidate will affect their campaigning strategy ahead of the November election.
There are 19 candidates running in the August primary, of whom eight are Republicans, three are Democrats, two are members of the Alaskan Independence Party, one is a Libertarian and five are undeclared or nonpartisan.
Candidates include Libertarian Army veteran Sean Thorne; Dustin Darden, who lists as his campaign website the far-right conspiracy theory site Infowars, owned by Alex Jones; Shoshana Gungurstein, who recently moved to Juneau from out of state after acting in several films; reality TV show participant Jeremy Keller, who was on “Edge of Alaska” and calls the COVID-19 vaccination effort “premeditated murder”; and Huhnkie Lee, who says he’s “a mathematician first, a politician second.”
To win in the general election under Alaska’s new ranked-choice voting system, a candidate must get more than 50% of the vote. If no candidate reaches that threshold outright, the last-place finisher is eliminated, and those who ranked that candidate first would have their second-place votes added to the remaining candidates’ tallies. That process repeats itself until a candidate crosses the 50% threshold.
Around a quarter of Alaska voters are registered Republicans. Less than one-seventh are registered Democrats. More than half are nonpartisan or undeclared. How many of them are tired of Murkowski’s familiar — and dependable — efforts to bring federal money to the state as she walks the middle of the road on abortion access, gun control and judicial nominations?
“We’ll have to see who else makes the top four to see if we can build alliances for the second-place vote,” Tshibaka said. “We’re going to have to wait to really develop that strategy in late August or September, when you see who makes the top four, and to start playing the second-place vote game.”
‘A coalition-style candidate’
At the gas station on Tuesday, Murkowski was nonchalant during a confrontation with a reporter for Project Veritas Action, a right wing conservative activist group that secretly recorded her campaign staffers speaking about the ballot measure and how it would benefit Murkowski. Several of Murkowski’s former and current staff members were involved in drafting and campaigning for the ballot measure.
“Granted, it was a narrow margin, but Alaskans voted on it and now we’re living with it, right? When you want to say who was behind it, it’s the people of Alaska, when it’s an initiative process,” Murkowski said after a Project Veritas Action reporter confronted her about the recordings.
Emma Ashlock, a campaign coordinator, could be heard on the video saying that “while we were working on Ballot Measure 2 and voting for Ballot Measure 2, we had Sen. Murkowski in mind the whole time.”
Critics, including Trump, have accused Murkowski of backing a ballot measure that has helped her get reelected. During a rally in Anchorage last month, Trump said ranked choice voting “can be crooked as hell.”
“We’re stuck with it. You know why? Because of Murkowski. It’s the only way she could win,” Trump said at the rally. He repeated the accusation during a phone call with supporters of former governor and current U.S. House candidate Sarah Palin this week, saying on Monday that “Murkowski got (ranked choice voting) because she was so unpopular, that was the only way she was going to win.”
In an interview Tuesday, Murkowski said the election reform would “allow voters to feel hopefully more engaged in their process and those who are running for election hopefully more inclusive in their outreach to all Alaskans when they are asking for their vote.”
Shea Siegert, Murkowski’s current campaign spokesperson, managed the Alaskans for Better Elections campaign in favor of the ballot measure in 2020. In a Project Veritas recording released Wednesday, he can be heard saying, “I can’t say whether or not this has benefited her.”
“I will say it benefits coalition-style candidates and she’s definitely a coalition-style candidate,” he added in the recording.
In response to the recording, Siegert said Tuesday that it was part of an effort “to keep on spreading misinformation about the electoral integrity of this state.”
“It was my personal decision to work for Sen. Murkowski after Ballot Measure 2. I hadn’t thought about it during Ballot Measure 2. I was focused on passing a ballot measure that provided more choice to Alaska voters,” he said.
As for the impact of the measure on Murkowski’s campaign, Siegert said he now thinks of the primary as “a qualifying round.”
“We’re going to still be focused on the general,” Siegert said, adding that if Tshibaka gets more votes than Murkowski in the primary, that would not be cause for alarm. “Like when you qualify in the Olympics, you really want to come in first in your event. Our aim is to qualify and then win in the November election.”
Siegert said that an emphasis on official duties rather than campaign events in the week leading up to the primary is not part of the campaign strategy. Rather, he said, “it’s the fact that she has a day job.”
‘We need a change’
Mike Speer, who owns the Tesoro gas station where the Americans for Prosperity event was held in Anchorage, said after chatting with the senator that he would not support Murkowski and would instead vote for Tshibaka this year. He said he voted for Murkowski in all three of her previous Senate runs.
“We need a change,” he said. “I don’t know that Lisa has represented Alaska the way she should have. I’ve been disappointed with a lot of her deals.”
Murkowski agreed that change is needed — in the Oval Office.
“Who was there when this happened? Is there some responsibility? Those are fair questions to ask,” she said. She blamed Democratic President Biden for high gas prices, even as she acknowledged that the war in Ukraine “is a factor.” “You don’t reduce your energy costs by ratcheting back on your supply. So when I’m looking for change, I’m saying you’ve got to change it at the administration level,” she said.
A Trump endorsement and a promise to replace Murkowski’s across-the-aisle voting pattern have placed Tshibaka in the company of hard-line Republicans who favor no gun restrictions and applaud the U.S. Supreme Court decision that took away abortion access for millions of Americans. The procedure remains protected under the Alaska state constitution. Her recent campaign ads have focused exclusively on attacking Murkowski for her record and inconsistency, even as Murkowski has emphasized her record in her own ads and mailers.
Under Alaska’s new election system, Tshibaka must attract more than hard-line Republicans. In recent events, she has said repeatedly that she has “a lot of commonsense Democrats on our team,” but the campaign did not provide a list of so-called “commonsense Democrats” on her team despite multiple requests by phone and text.
Tshibaka does count among her campaign volunteers people who once volunteered for Murkowski and now say they won’t even rank her as their second or third choice.
“The reason I’m voting for Kelly is because of the actions and activities of her opponent,” said Ralph Nobrega, an Anchorage real estate agent who volunteered on Murkowski’s 2010 write-in campaign.
“I worked my butt off to help get her elected. It was a big mistake. I had no idea that her policies will be different than her promises,” he said, listing Murkowski’s votes to defend Obamacare and to confirm Interior Secretary Deb Haaland as issues of concern.
Even as the Alaska Republican Party has urged voters to “rank the red” — meaning all GOP candidates on the ballot — Tshibaka has told her supporters not to rank Murkowski in the general election.
“Purple is not red,” she said to around 20 volunteers at her campaign headquarters last month. “In fact, you shouldn’t wear those colors together — ever. Those colors clash.”
Asked about her own strategy, Murkowski said she has not personally decided if and who she would rank second on her ballot, and that her campaign would develop a ranked-choice strategy only once they know who the four candidates on the general election ballot will be.
“We will get down the road talking about how we would suggest that you rank,” she said. “That kind of strategy and approach comes after September.”
Murkowski says the election reform hasn’t changed the way she has campaigned so far, and points to her 2010 write-in campaign as a blueprint for her current run.
“Maybe we got a little bit of a playbook from 2010,” she said.
Daily News journalist Marc Lester contributed to this report.