Politics

Independent groups spend millions on ads attacking Tshibaka as Senate race heats up

Senate Candidates

In Alaska’s U.S. Senate race, supporters of incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski are spending millions on ads attacking her farther-right Republican challenger, Kelly Tshibaka.

Tshibaka, with an endorsement from former President Donald Trump, is running against moderate Republican Murkowski, a 20-year incumbent who has been rebuked by Alaska Republican leadership but has the backing of Republican Senate leadership. Also in the race: Democrat Pat Chesbro.

Murkowski has millions of dollars in her own campaign account and two political action committees are separately spending millions on ads attacking Tshibaka. An Alaska-based group, Alaskans for L.I.S.A, has spent millions on attack ads focused on Tshibaka’s fishing law violations and comments she has made about birth control.

More recently, a long-planned ad-buy from the Senate Leadership Fund has joined the chorus, flooding Alaska television, radio and the internet with attacks on Tshibaka for what they call fraud and wasteful spending during her time working for federal and state government. Tshibaka spent most of her career working for various federal agencies in Washington, D.C., before moving to Alaska for a two-year stint as the commissioner of the Department of Administration.

The Senate Leadership Fund is associated with Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. McConnell is supporting Murkowski’s re-election bid against her Trump-backed challenger. His support comes after McConnell and Murkowski have butted heads. McConnell more recently has said it’s “important” for Murkowski to win against Tshibaka. The relationship between Trump and McConnell disintegrated in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, and exchanges between the two have become increasingly negative.

Alaska’s U.S. Senate race is widely seen as a referendum on Trump, and one between the two Republican candidates. Chesbro garnered less than 7% of the vote the August primary.

In the recent attack ads from the McConnell-backed PAC, which have appeared on radio, on social media and in mailboxes, Tshibaka is criticized for allegedly reporting she worked nearly 600 hours when she was not, in fact, working. One ad shows Tshibaka on an animated “gravy train” holding a sack of cash. Another shows her with dollar signs for eyes.

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The allegations come from a 2011 internal investigation, when Tshibaka worked as an assistant to the Inspector General in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. At the time, the investigation found that Tshibaka recorded nearly 600 “questionable” work hours.

Tshibaka has since said she was exonerated from the investigation, pinning it on false allegations by other federal employees.

“Kelly Tshibaka’s job was to keep federal employees honest, and some of them filed complaints against her in retaliation,” said Tshibaka campaign adviser Mary Ann Pruitt in a statement, calling the ads “full of lies.”

The ads from the Senate Leadership Fund also point to the outsized $81,000 in moving expenses paid for with state funds when Tshibaka and her family moved from Washington, D.C., to Alaska in 2019.

While her campaign surrogates have called the ads “ridiculous,” Tshibaka has been forced to respond to them at campaign events. At a town hall event in Big Lake last month, Tshibaka told the audience she had “been exonerated from every federal investigation they’ve ever done” on her.

Tshibaka said “after digging long and wide, far and deep, this is all Mitch McConnell found.”

“I’m the cleanest politician you’ve ever met,” she said. “I have no skeletons.”

Responding to the cost of her move to Alaska, Tshibaka called it a “nightmare” and claimed the state’s procurement process required her to select the lowest vendor for the move, “no other variables considered.”

“If you use the lowest vendor, you’re likely going to get a fraudulent vendor,” she said, though she declined to say the vendor she had selected committed fraud when addressing the crowd in Big Lake. Instead, she said there were “multiple breaches of the contract” that resulted in her belongings not getting moved “but us losing money as a state.” Tshibaka said she submitted documentation of the abuse to the attorney general.

No such documentation has been made publicly available. Neither has her campaign provided documentation for her exoneration following the federal investigation into her work hours.

Tshibaka has said she would not support McConnell as Senate majority leader if Republicans take control of the chamber after the November election, and her campaign staff has attacked McConnell’s decision to spend advertising money in Alaska — with control of the Senate in the balance.

“McConnell could be spending this money in a state where he can pick up a seat from Democrats,” Pruitt said. “But McConnell has obviously decided he prefers a senator who is a more dependable vote for Joe Biden than anything else. In doing that, he’s ignoring the official position of the Alaska Republican Party.”

Alaska Republican Party leadership officially censured the sitting U.S. senator last year. But some local Republican leaders in the state have continued to support Murkowski.

In ads from Alaskans for L.I.S.A, some of the same fraud and waste allegations are repeated, and others: that she illegally claimed to qualify for a resident fishing license, that she was cited for commercial fishing illegally, and that she is opposed to sending birth control pills by mail — a claim Tshibaka disputes.

Tshibaka made the statement regarding birth control at a campaign event earlier this year. The candidate — who opposes abortion — has since backtracked on her position and said that she herself has taken birth control pills and that her comments were about abortion-inducing pills, but the PAC backing Murkowski has continued to circulate ads citing Tshibaka’s comments at the campaign event.

A recent post on factcheck.org, a nonpartisan site affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania, accuses the PAC of distorting Tshibaka’s position and leaving the “misleading impression” that she would ban all forms of birth control, when in fact her intention was to ban the so-called morning-after pill. Abortion access — no longer protected under federal law but protected under Alaska’s state constitution — has become a key issue for many Alaska voters following a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year.

Jim Lottsfeldt, a political consultant working for the Alaskans for L.I.S.A PAC, stands by the ads.

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“She’s trying to say, ‘well, it’s this kind of birth control, but not that kind of birth control,’” Lottsfeldt said Thursday. “I just say, the video speaks for itself.”

By the end of July, Alaskans for L.I.S.A had raised more than $4 million, with some of the largest donations coming from major financial backers of Alaska’s ranked choice voting system, including media heirs Kathryn and James Murdock, and Texas investor John Arnold.

McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund had initially planned to spend more than $7 million on Alaska ads opposing Tshibaka, but after Murkowski’s strong showing in the primary — Murkowski garnered 45% of the vote to Tshibaka’s 38.5% — the PAC delayed the launch of their ads by two weeks, reducing their spending in the state by $1.7 million, Politico reported.

Lottsfeldt said his PAC’s spending plan “was informed” by the fact that the Senate Leadership Fund had said publicly earlier this year that they were going to spend millions in Alaska. While there hasn’t been official coordination, Lottsfeldt said the two groups’ ads are meant to work in unison.

“We’ve made choices that enhance and support what they’re doing and vice versa,” he said.

The groups’ spending has freed up Murkowski’s official campaign to run on a largely positive message, touting her record on infrastructure funding and bipartisanship. Murkowski campaign spokesperson Shea Siegert said Thursday that they are focusing on a “positive message.”

Tshibaka’s campaign spokesperson Tim Murtaugh said he has calculated that when combining campaign and PAC spending, Tshibaka is outspent by Murkowski 10 to one. More recently, Tshibaka skipped a longstanding debate in Kodiak focused on commercial fishing, in a decision that angered some Alaskans, to fundraise in Texas along with Arizona U.S. Senate candidate Blake Masters.

With a month to go until the election, Alaska pollster Ivan Moore found in a recent survey that Murkowski could beat Tshibaka handily. But a poll conducted earlier last month by a national firm found they were in a dead heat.

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Iris Samuels

Iris Samuels is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News focusing on state politics. She previously covered Montana for The Associated Press and wrote for the Kodiak Daily Mirror. Contact her at isamuels@adn.com.

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