In a primary race largely seen as a referendum on former President Donald Trump, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski was leading Trump-backed challenger Kelly Tshibaka in early results after voting concluded Tuesday.
Murkowski had 44.2% of the votes counted as of Wednesday afternoon, compared to Tshibaka’s 39.8%, with 395 of 402 precincts reporting.
Both candidates, along with third place finisher Democrat Pat Chesbro with 6.2% of the vote so far, are expected to advance to the November general election under Alaska’s new voting laws that eliminated partisan primaries. The top four vote-getters in the open primary will advance to a ranked-choice general election.
The Division of Elections will continue to receive and count absentee ballots until Aug. 31, as long as they were postmarked by election day. Additional vote tallies are expected next week. The final results are expected to be certified Sept. 2.
“Seniority matters. Honesty matters and understanding the needs of Alaskans and being able to deliver on those needs matters,” Murkowski said in a statement released Wednesday afternoon. She accused Tshibaka of relying on outside backers, including Trump, “to try and deceive Alaskans on who can best deliver for the state.”
“And we still prevailed,” she said.
At a party held at her Anchorage campaign headquarters Tuesday night, Tshibaka said she was “encouraged” by the results.
“We’re this close when I started as a no-name candidate coming up against a 21-year incumbent,” she said.
Tshibaka, a former commissioner of the Alaska Department of Administration, has spent much of her campaign attacking Murkowski, one of few Republicans in the U.S. Senate willing to cross the political aisle on a variety of issues, including abortion access and gun control. Tshibaka announced she would challenge Murkowski in March 2021, two years after moving back to Alaska following a 16-year career working for the federal government in Washington, D.C.
Murkowski, who has served in the seat since her father, Frank Murkowski, appointed her to it in 2002, is one of seven Senate Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. But her animus with Trump began long before that. She has split with Trump in her votes to protect Obamacare and against one of Trump’s picks for the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Trump made good on a promise to campaign against Murkowski when he traveled to Alaska last month for a rally in Anchorage, where he excoriated her as “worse than a RINO,” or a so-called Republican in name only. Tshibaka shared the stage with Trump at that event and held a tele-rally with the former president on Thursday, just days before the election.
Still, Murkowski insisted Tuesday that her campaign “is not about Donald Trump.”
In Tshibaka’s bid to replace Murkowski, she has sought to capitalize on anguish over events on the national stage, including an FBI search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home earlier this month. She mentioned the raid at a town hall at the Knik Bar near Wasilla following the Trump tele-rally.
“I’m afraid that our government in Washington is out for us,” said Jim Cutshall, a small-business owner, who attended the event with his wife, son and daughter-in-law. “It makes a lot of people who are not motivated (to vote), who may not be Republicans, maybe middle of the road and some Democrats, have to say, if they can do that to the president, who am I? I am nobody.”
Murkowski has said she sees her 2010 write-in campaign victory as a blueprint for her Senate run this year. In 2010, she relied on a coalition of voters to win in the general election after she lost the Republican primary to tea party nominee Joe Miller. Murkowski has never received more than 50% of the vote in a general election.
Murkowski and Tshibaka have spoken differently about the importance of the primary under the state’s new election laws that allow more than one Republican to advance to the general election. Tshibaka said last week that overtaking Murkowski in the primary would be “significant for the nation,” but such an outcome hasn’t emerged. Meanwhile, Murkowski said Tuesday afternoon that she is already thinking about the November race.
“There will be four winners because there will be four that will advance,” she told reporters at her campaign headquarters in Anchorage after casting her ballot in Girdwood. “The eye is really on the prize in November.”
With more than 157,000 ballots counted as of Wednesday, Murkowski had 68,800 votes and Tshibaka had 61,994. Chesbro had 9,620.
Chesbro, who entered the race with the support of Alaska Democratic Party, is a retired educator. She has attacked Murkowski from the left, pointing to her mixed record on issues like abortion access, gun control and climate change.
To a crowd at the Anchorage senior center last week, Chesbro pointed out that Murkowski supported several of the Supreme Court justices who made the decision that removed federal protections for abortion access. “I think we need to be afraid of what is next,” she said.
Reached by phone Tuesday night, Chesbro said: “I wouldn’t say it’s euphoria for me.” She added that it had been difficult to achieve name recognition in a field of 18 candidates, but she was more hopeful about running in a field of four.
In fourth place was Republican Buzz Kelley with 2.2% of the vote. Kelley brands himself on his website as “hard right turn.” He has no phone number listed with the Division of Elections and attempts to reach him Tuesday and Wednesday were unsuccessful.
Tshibaka said after early results came in that she suspected many of the votes cast for Kelley were meant for her. Her campaign slogan is “Kelly for Alaska.”
“We can probably assume that a lot of those votes were intended for us as well,” she said Tuesday night.
Kelley called in Wednesday morning to the Dan Fagan show, a right-wing talk radio program. Asked if he thought he received votes intended for Tshibaka, he said he is “sure there’s a possibility of some of that happening.”
“But it’s hard to believe that 3,000 plus people could be that misinformed,” Kelley added. He had received 3,450 of the votes counted by Wednesday.
Kelley, who has not raised any funds for his campaign thus far, said he would begin fundraising now that he expects to be on the November ballot. He told Fagan that he had put out 12 campaign signs and insisted that many voters cast their ballots for him thanks to his signs.
A longtime Wasilla resident and retired union mechanic, Kelley’s website lists priorities that include being pro-Trump, pro-Second Amendment, and pro-union. He told Fagan that part of his goal in running was to unseat Murkowski.
Both Tshibaka and Murkowski have said the fourth-place candidate in the race could impact their campaigning strategy ahead of the ranked-choice general election in November. In order to cross the 50% threshold needed to win, the top candidate will likely have to draw second and third place votes, and Murkowski’s lead in the primary does not guarantee her a victory in the general election.
Marc Lester and Nat Herz contributed reporting.