The making of a U.S. Senate candidate: Kelly Tshibaka

Second of three stories: The conservative Republican says she’s been pushing back against attacks for much of her life. “This is why I can run for U.S. Senate.”

Kelly Tshibaka, U.S. Senate, candidate, politics, campaign

Second of three stories on candidates for U.S. Senate in Alaska in the Nov. 8 election. Previously: Pat Chesbro. Next: Lisa Murkowski.

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With six weeks left in her campaign to unseat a U.S. senator, Kelly Tshibaka turned to what may be the most granular and time-consuming way to win over voters.

“I can walk doors like a beast,” she said between houses in an East Anchorage neighborhood.

Wearing running shoes and a drawstring backpack stuffed with campaign flyers, Tshibaka approached houses she identified as occupied by either inconsistent or moderate voters. On other days, she said she had encountered “a fair amount” of hostility, but over the course of a couple late-morning hours, several said they were eager to see her replace Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who has held the job since 2002.

Tshibaka said knocking on doors is the single most important thing she can do before Election Day. It’s a way for her to combat the millions of dollars spent in support of her incumbent opponent.

She’s been at it a long time. Tshibaka announced her U.S. Senate run in March 2021, offering herself as a right-wing alternative to Murkowski, who is widely seen as a moderate willing to buck the Republican party line.

Former President Donald Trump promised to campaign against Murkowski years before she was up for reelection, and made good on the promise in July.

“Murkowski’s opponent, Kelly Tshibaka, is a true America First patriot who will never stab Alaska voters in the back,” Trump told an audience of thousands in Anchorage.

Now, Tshibaka is hoping antagonism for Murkowski from both the right and left will give her the victory in a three-way Senate race that also includes Democratic retired educator Pat Chesbro, whose left-leaning message is all but drowned out by the Republican match-up.

[The making of a U.S. Senate candidate: Pat Chesbro]

Under Alaska’s new ranked choice voting system, voters can indicate their top choice and then a second, third and fourth choice, if they have one. While the Republican Party has told its voters to “rank the red,” Tshibaka has told her supporters that Murkowski is “purple.”

“Kelly Tshibaka one,” Tshibaka said at one house when asked by a supporter about ranked-choice ballots. “You can fill out anything you want or don’t want after that. It’s up to you.”

Kelly Tshibaka, U.S. Senate, candidate, politics, campaign

‘Something totally different’

Some have publicly speculated that when Tshibaka returned to Alaska in 2019, it was with designs to launch a campaign for statewide office. She adamantly denies that.

Tshibaka — an attorney, longtime government bureaucrat and evangelical pastor — says she decided to run after a single Murkowski vote.

Tshibaka, 42, was born in Anchorage and raised in Anchorage and Wasilla. She left at age 15 to attend college and returned in 2019 to take a job in Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration. Ahead of her confirmation hearing for commissioner of the Department of Administration, Tshibaka met with state Sen. Shelley Hughes. Hughes said she soon envisioned Tshibaka in a different role.

“Just listening and watching her, it dawned on me,” Hughes said recently. “For several years on a weekly basis I had people asking me to run against Lisa Murkowski.”

Tshibaka said the conversation with Hughes caught her off-guard. “I remember it vividly because I was like, ‘What? I’m just trying to get through confirmation and you’re talking about something totally different,’” she said.

Kelly Tshibaka, senate candidae
Kelly Tshibaka, Senate, candidate, politics, election

When Hughes and Tshibaka spoke — before Murkowski voted to impeach Trump in 2021 — the senator had already done enough to anger the more conservative state party members, including voting against repealing the Affordable Care Act and not supporting Trump’s U.S. Supreme Court justice pick, Brett Kavanaugh.

[Compare candidates for U.S. Senate in Alaska on the issues]

Murkowski had long earned the ire of conservative Republicans for her willingness to cross party lines on issues like abortion access and gun control. In 2010, Murkowski lost in the Republican primary to tea party conservative Joe Miller. It took an unprecedented write-in campaign for Murkowski to retain the seat.

Hughes insisted that Tshibaka’s experience — including a 16-year career working for the federal government in nonpartisan roles — made her “a fine match to go up against Murkowski.”

Tshibaka said she told Hughes that she wasn’t interested, but it was not the first time she had considered occupying the halls of Congress. In a 2011 post on her personal blog — where she shared daily experiences about motherhood, faith and her federal government jobs — she recounted a trip to Capitol Hill.

“As I watched the staffers buzz between buildings and glimpsed cracked windows with hard-working policy makers tucked behind their computers, I couldn’t help but think of how much influence these people have simply by virtue of where they are,” she wrote. “Just think of how far a little Truth would go when spoken by these people!”

[Resources for voters in Alaska’s 2022 general election, including candidate Q&As, key dates and voter information.]

In February 2021, Murkowski cast a vote that Tshibaka describes as “a punch in the gut” — to confirm Biden’s nominee for secretary of the Interior Department, Deb Haaland. Haaland’s views on curbing oil and gas development in favor of environmental conservation angered Alaskans who see natural resource development as key to Alaska’s economy. Haaland had the support of Alaska’s entire congressional delegation at the time, including Rep. Don Young and Sen. Dan Sullivan, as well as deep support in Alaska’s Indigenous communities.

By then, Trump had already promised he’d campaign against Murkowski, and his eagerness to see Murkowski voted out of office only intensified with time. Murkowski is the only GOP senator facing reelection this year who voted to convict Trump following the January 2021 insurrection.

Tshibaka formally announced her run a month after Murkowski voted to advance Haaland’s nomination. To run her campaign, Tshibaka enlisted the help of Trump’s former campaign communications director, Tim Murtaugh, whose text messages later became evidence in a Jan. 6 insurrection investigation. Tshibaka’s support for Trump has been unequivocal — she held a fundraiser at his Florida estate, defended him in the wake of an FBI raid on his home, and has baselessly cast doubt on the result of the 2020 presidential election.

Her campaign platform is what you’d expect from a Republican running with Trump’s blessing: She wants to curtail abortion access, opposes teaching critical race theory in schools, and favors reducing government regulations and decreasing the federal government’s control and spending in Alaska and elsewhere. The platform listed on her website does not include any references to Alaska Natives, fisheries or the military. At town hall meetings with voters, she spends more time talking about Murkowski’s voting record than the policies she would propose.

“The federal government currently has ownership of the vast majority of our state,” she says in her platform. “I will fight to get our land back, for rights to our resources, for our hunters, and to protect our subsistence lifestyle.”

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‘Questionable hours’

After graduating from Harvard Law School at age 22, Tshibaka recounted that she applied for jobs at 25 law firms and received no offers. Eventually, she landed a position as a special assistant in the U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General, and later as an adviser to the inspector general in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — roles she describes as internal watchdog positions, where she was tasked with finding government waste and abuse. At campaign events, Tshibaka calls herself a “bureaucracy whisperer.”

In one instance, the roles were reversed, and she became the subject of an internal investigation that found she had recorded nearly 600 “questionable” working hours between 2008 and 2011, equating to $36,000 in pay.

That investigation, first reported by Alaska blogger Dermot Cole, has become the epicenter of a multimillion-dollar attack ad campaign by a political action committee affiliated with Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. In direct mail, video and radio ads, the Senate Leadership Fund quotes the report and accuses Tshibaka of “ripping off” taxpayers.

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

The campaign has forced Tshibaka to respond to the allegations, which included that she claimed pay for hours she spent exercising. This month, Tshibaka showed a reporter a document she says exonerates her. The letter, signed by the chief management officer of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, states that “the matter related to allegations of time and attendance abuse” is considered “closed.” When asked for a copy of the full investigation report, Tshibaka said she never received one.

Tshibaka has said the allegations were made against her in retaliation for her own work. She called the investigation “very much a hatchet job type of a deal.” The investigation did not appear to result in any disciplinary action against Tshibaka, who was moved to another position within the agency.

Kelly Tshibaka, U.S. Senate, candidate, politics, campaign

The instance is one of two she sometimes is forced to address when she knocks on doors, she said, prompted by the Senate Leadership Fund ads. The other involves the exorbitant cost of her move to Alaska in 2019.

When she moved from Washington, D.C., to Anchorage to take a state job, the state paid more than $81,000 for her moving expenses, according to state records. She resigned her state post a month after the two-year threshold before which she would have had to reimburse the state for the expense. Tshibaka has pinned the inflated cost on state regulations that required her to select the lowest bidder. Tshibaka has claimed the moving company breached their contract, inflating the costs, and she has said she referred the issue to the Alaska attorney general. The attorney general’s office has not provided information on actions taken in response to the inflated expenses.

Kelly Tshibaka, senate, politics, campaign, Knik Bar

The attack ads have put Tshibaka in the center of an ongoing feud between two of the most powerful Republicans in the country — McConnell and Trump — who have disagreed bitterly on their party’s strategy and direction since the Capitol insurrection.

[ADN Politics podcast: What happened to Trump’s candidates in Alaska?]

Trump has criticized McConnell for spending millions of his leadership PAC money in a state that is virtually guaranteed to be won by a Republican, and Tshibaka has said she won’t back McConnell as leader if Republicans take control of the Senate.

“Anytime Mitch McConnell gets involved in Alaska politics, he calls it wrong,” Tshibaka said in July.

‘Really rough experience’

Tshibaka’s parents, Bill and Michele Hartline, moved to Alaska in the 1970s. Initially, the couple was without a house, living in a tent in Russian Jack Springs Park, Tshibaka said. It’s a story she includes in her introductory narrative at candidate forums and events. Anchorage Daily News attempted to reach Bill Hartline by phone to confirm the detail. The retired journeyman electrician, who now lives on the Kenai Peninsula, said “I don’t talk to reporters” and hung up.

Tshibaka’s parents’ experience living in a tent was markedly different from the homelessness crisis currently plaguing Anchorage. By the time Tshibaka was born, the family owned a house in Wasilla, after her mom got a job working as an auditor for an oil company. They later moved to Bear Valley on the Anchorage Hillside.

U.S. Senate, Kelly Tshibaka, election day

Tshibaka describes a childhood of financial struggles despite growing up in an affluent Hillside neighborhood, saying that she wore hand-me-down clothes, ate Campbell’s soup, and had dinner at a card table.

She also often says that she is the first member of her family to attend college, despite the fact that her grandfather earned a Ph.D. in education from the University of Southern California.

As a student at Steller Secondary School in Anchorage, Tshibaka said fellow students nicknamed her “Barbie,” because she was “blond and wore clothes that weren’t alternative.”

At 19, her conservative views made her unpopular in the liberal Harvard Law School environment. She has claimed repeatedly that she faced death threats as a student, though she has not provided evidence to back up the claim.

As a columnist for the Harvard Law Record, she once wrote about conversion therapy for gay people. That article and others like it were assignments from editors “that ended up being set-ups,” she said.

The article that ran stated that “unlike race or gender, homosexuality is a choice.” Now, she says it’s not her place “to say what is or isn’t anybody’s experience with being gay” but she does not denounce conversion therapy, which is banned in many states and in Anchorage, but not in Alaska.

Tshibaka says her life experiences fostered resilience.

“I was bullied a lot as a kid. The bullying stopped in my 30s,” Tshibaka has said. “This is why I can run for U.S. Senate.”

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‘Kingdom advancement’

Tshibaka maintained a personal blog between 2007 and 2015 in which she recounted extremely personal details, including the triumphs and challenges of parenting her five children. During that time, Tshibaka and her husband, Niki, became pastors and founded a church. Sometimes the lines between her church life and her career in the federal government blurred.

In 2015, she wrote that “being a visible Christian at work has cost me. It’s cost me job offers and friendships. It’s resulted in false accusations and vindictive vendettas.”

The Tshibakas’ congregation, founded in 2006, was associated with the Foursquare Church, an evangelical Pentecostal denomination. In her blog, she told readers that “Twilight” — the young adult book series about vampires — is “evil” and witchcraft is “addictive.”

Tshibaka says some of her detractors have tried to use her faith against her. In particular, a recording of her speaking in tongues — something Foursquare Church members believe is a gift — has been met with scorn.

Kelly Tshibaka, U.S. Senate, candidate, politics, campaign

“It’s only vogue to attack Christians who are conservative or charismatic. You would never think it’s OK to replay that with some of the Jewish practices or some of the Muslim practices, and I don’t think it’s OK either. I don’t think faith discriminations is OK,” Tshibaka said after a July campaign event in her headquarters. “We don’t always understand other people’s religious practices, but we aren’t expected to. That’s something that’s deeply personal.”

‘Next person on my list’

After more than 18 months on the campaign trail, Tshibaka has practiced answers for the criticism she faces.

Asked about the federal investigation into her “questionable” work hours, Tshibaka pins it on vindictive colleagues. Responding to the $81,000 moving costs, Tshibaka blames state regulations. About attack ads that quote a video in which Tshibaka appeared to say she would support banning the mailing of birth control pills, Tshibaka said her words had been taken out of context and that she was really referring to the morning-after pill.

Battling messages amplified by Murkowski supporters to the tune of millions, Tshibaka’s campaign raised almost as much money as Murkowski’s did between the end of July and the end of September, according to campaign finance reports. Both raised around $1 million in the two-month reporting period.

U.S. Senate, Kelly Tshibaka, election day

But Murkowski still has far more money to spend, boosted by months of steady fundraising that translated to a heavy cash advantage going into the final weeks of the campaign. Murkowski spent nearly $1.4 million on media buys in the two-month period. In the same time, Tshibaka spent under $230,000 on media placements. By the end of September, Murkowski had $3.5 million in the bank to Tshibaka’s $1 million.

Tshibaka’s defensive positions haven’t precluded her from going on the offensive herself in the campaign’s final weeks. Tshibaka used her closing statement at an Anchorage Chamber of Commerce forum recently for sharp comments directed at Murkowski.

Kelly Tshibaka, U.S. Senate, candidate, politics, campaign

“Do we want a senator who’s going to stand with Alaska or do we want the senator who’s been standing with Joe Biden, the radical environmentalists and all the dark money that’s being funded into her campaign,” Tshibaka said. “Our senator needs to be willing to take some heat in D.C. to do what’s right for Alaska.”

Tshibaka said she carries no chip on her shoulder. If that’s true, her campaign speeches nonetheless hinge on people she has confronted, and the “government insiders” she wants to take on.

“That’s what I do,” Tshibaka said. “So our senator is simply the next person on my list.”

Next: Republican Lisa Murkowski.

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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.

Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at mlester@adn.com.