The making of a U.S. Senate candidate: Lisa Murkowski

In an age where political divisions seem only to widen to the left and right, the longtime incumbent seeks to remain firmly in the middle. “That’s where I have to be because that’s who I am.”

Lisa Murkowski, U.S. Senate, candidate, politics, campaign

Last of three stories on candidates for U.S. Senate in Alaska in the Nov. 8 election. Previously: Democrat Pat Chesbro and Republican Kelly Tshibaka.

Two months before the November election that will determine whether Lisa Murkowski keeps her U.S. Senate seat for another term, she asked an Anchorage audience of hundreds for a show of hands.

“How many of you flushed a toilet today? Not to get too personal, but how many of you brushed your teeth with running water?”

The question, met with laughter, kicked off her symposium designed to educate community leaders about opportunities created by the federal infrastructure bill that she helped author last year. For Murkowski, it was a workday that dovetailed with her campaign message: In a state where some communities still lack the basic infrastructure that’s taken for granted in the Lower 48, she is running on her record of delivering money and resources for Alaska.

“It’s not as if we are doing makeovers,” she said. “We are building so much of this for the very first time.”

Lisa Murkowski, U.S. Senate, candidate, politics, campaign

Murkowski has called the infrastructure bill “one of the most consequential legislative efforts” of her career, no matter that it may also be called the same for Democratic President Joe Biden.

“When you go over that structurally deficient bridge, they’re not checking to see if you’re a Republican or a Democrat,” she told reporters late last year, describing her effort to hammer out the details of the infrastructure bill over cold pizza with a bipartisan group of 10 lawmakers.

The other candidates in Alaska’s U.S. Senate race, Republican Kelly Tshibaka and Democrat Pat Chesbro, have spent months pointing out the ways Murkowski’s bipartisanship has left voters on both the right and left maligned. But as competition aims to paint her as someone who capitulates to pressure from both directions, Murkowski says it’s not her, but Washington, D.C., that has grown more divisive.

Murkowski became part of Alaska’s three-member congressional delegation thanks to an appointment by her father, Frank Murkowski, when he resigned from his U.S. Senate seat to become governor in 2002. The younger Murkowski joined two Republican figures who loomed large: U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, who at that time was already a 34-year senator, and Rep. Don Young, who had been serving in the House for 29 years at the time, on his way to becoming the longest-serving Republican in the U.S. House.

Lisa Murkowski, U.S. Senate, candidate, politics, campaign

Even back then, Murkowski had experienced challenges from her party’s right wing. In her 2002 state House race, Republican Nancy Dahlstrom ran against Murkowski in the primary after Murkowski signaled her support for abortion access the previous legislative session. Murkowski beat Dahlstrom by 56 votes. (This year, Dahlstrom is again on the ballot as Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s lieutenant governor running mate.)

Now, Murkowski is the most senior member of Alaska’s delegation, watched over in her office by two totem poles that once sat in the offices of her father, Stevens and Young. Her Senate vote can sometimes swing the direction of federal legislation and draw national headlines, including on abortion — the same issue that almost derailed her political path months before her father appointed her to the U.S. Senate.

She has come a long way — and so has the party of which she is a member.

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‘No. 1 bad’

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Tshibaka, who is running with the backing of former President Donald Trump, credits his endorsement with boosting her name recognition. Judging by Trump’s hourlong remarks to a full Anchorage arena in July, it was really Murkowski who motivated his visit to the state.

Murkowski’s rocky relationship with Trump began before he was elected, when she called on him to drop out of the 2016 presidential race after the “Access Hollywood” video in which he boasted in vulgar language about forcing himself sexually on women.

“When I saw the video, I said, ‘I’m done. This is over,’” Murkowski told a reporter at the time. She won re-election that year with 44% of the vote in a six-candidate race, the same year Trump won the presidency, winning Alaska with 51% of the vote.

In the years that followed, Murkowski became known as a Republican willing to openly speak out against the president. According to tracking by the political website FiveThirtyEight, she was one of the Republicans who most often voted against Trump’s position on legislation. They still agreed 72% of the time. Now, Murkowski’s votes are in line with Biden’s position nearly 67% of the time, making her one of the Republicans who has agreed with the Democratic president most often.

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In 2017, Murkowski voted against all three proposals to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, one of just two Republicans to do so. In response, the Trump administration threatened retribution against Alaska, after Trump wrote on Twitter that Murkowski “really let the Republicans, and our country, down.”

In 2018, Murkowski again faced Trump’s ire after she decided not to support his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Trump told a reporter at the time that Murkowski “will never recover” politically from her decision not to support Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

“I think the people from Alaska will never forgive her for what she did,” Trump said.

Still, Murkowski continued to walk a fine line with the president, publicly applauding him in 2019 when he took executive action on resource extraction and permitting reform that she saw as beneficial to the state.

Trump declared he would campaign against Murkowski in June 2020, after she agreed with comments made by former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis criticizing Trump over his response to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police.

In Trump’s first impeachment trial, Murkowski voted to acquit him, pinning her decision on “the rank partisanship” of the impeachment proceedings. Still, she called Trump’s behavior “shameful and wrong.”

Lisa Murkowski, U.S. Senate, candidate, politics, campaign

Their acrimonious relationship came to a head when Murkowski called on Trump to resign the presidency days after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection in the U.S. Capitol, perpetrated by Trump supporters.

“I want him out. He has caused enough damage,” Murkowski said, becoming the first Senate Republican to call on Trump to leave office. She was later one of seven Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in his second trial — despite acknowledging the vote could cost her the election.

If the people of Alaska decide that “because I did not support my party that I can no longer serve them in the United States Senate, then so be it,” Murkowski said at the time.

When Trump came to Alaska in July, his remarks indicated he had a long memory for all the moments when Murkowski had gone against him — becoming a lightning rod for criticism from right-wing Republicans in the process. Trump said Murkowski had “betrayed” Alaska voters.

“She is the worst. I rate her No. 1 bad. We have a couple of real bad ones, but she’s by far the worst,” he said.

While Murkowski uses different words to describe her assessment of Trump, the feeling appears to be shared.

“If the Republican Party has become nothing more than the party of Trump, I sincerely question whether this is the party for me,” Murkowski said after the Capitol insurrection.

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Lisa Murkowski, senate, senator, Big Mike's Tesoro, gas station, Americans for Prosperity

‘Harder to get to the solutions’

Murkowski is still a Republican, and at a recent candidate forum she said she had never considered leaving her party. But in a September interview, she said it has become increasingly difficult to work across party lines.

“We do it now, but it just seems that the partisan nature of the institution has just intensified and I think that makes it more challenging because it makes it harder to get to the solutions and it just takes longer,” Murkowski said. She says “both parties are equally guilty” for the rancor.

“Just depends who’s in the majority, who’s in the minority,” she said. When she worked with 15 colleagues in the Senate on an election reform initiative following the Capitol insurrection, she said Democratic Senate leadership discouraged the effort.

“They’re discouraging you from solving the problem because right now, that was a winning message for the Democrats to say that Republicans don’t want fair elections,” Murkowski said.

Lisa Murkowski, U.S. Senate, candidate, politics, campaign

On the issue of abortion, too, Murkowski said she voted against a Democrat-backed bill to federally protect abortion access because it did not allow for conscientious objection. Murkowski and Sen. Susan Collins, the Maine Republican who has often been a centrist ally, have been the only two members of their party open to discussing a bill to protect the procedure in the wake of a Supreme Court decision removing protections for abortion access at the federal level.

“Do you think that there was one effort to try to advance that with input from either Sen. Collins or myself? No, because the message that they wanted to push across was that only Democrats care about women and Republicans don’t,” Murkowski said. Then, she added that Republicans “do the exact same thing.”

‘The party of her history’

Lisa Murkowski, U.S. Senate, candidate, politics, campaign

Both of Murkowski’s challengers in the 2022 election have hinged their candidacies on questioning Murkowski’s 20-year record. Trump-backed Republican Tshibaka says Murkowski enables Biden’s “extreme” agenda — referring to her votes in favor of key Biden nominees and the federal infrastructure bill that includes many of Biden’s legislative priorities. Chesbro, the Democrat in the race, has criticized the sitting senator’s positions on abortion access, gun control and, more broadly, her continued association with a party that has become synonymous with Trump’s ad hominem attacks.

In her bid to extend her tenure, Murkowski benefits from a new voting system designed and advocated for by her supporters. The new rules — adopted narrowly by voters in 2020 — eliminated the closed party primaries that led her to mount a write-in campaign in 2010, after losing the Republican primary to tea party Republican Joe Miller.

That year, Murkowski was aided by a broad coalition of supporters, including Alaska Natives, teachers and fishermen. It’s similar to the one she is attracting this year.

While political action committees have spent millions on ads attacking Tshibaka, Murkowski’s message has focused on herself. “Bipartisanship” is a word that comes up in her campaign ads. Her endorsements include Alaska’s largest labor organization and the state’s largest Native corporations.

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In 2010, the ANCSA Regional Association, which represents the state’s largest Native corporations, was instrumental to Murkowski’s write-in victory, standing up a political action committee to support her.

“Hopefully, it was a turning point for recognition of what can happen when we unify and come together and advocate as a collective,” said Kim Reitmeier, now the president of the association. This year, the group again endorsed Murkowski.

“We don’t always see eye to eye on everything, but I don’t expect that of anyone,” Reitmeier said. On key issues, Murkowski has delivered for Alaska Native communities and the Native corporations, Reitmeier said, including during the coronavirus pandemic, when several tribes filed lawsuits to prevent coronavirus relief funds from being distributed to Alaska Native corporations.

“She really went to bat for Alaska during that time,” Reitmeier said. “She was consistently an advocate and fought very hard for Alaska and for Alaska Native people.”

Among those supporting Murkowski, many say they don’t agree with her all the time. But they agree with her positions enough of the time to think she is right for the state.

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Joelle Hall, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, the state’s largest labor organization, said the organization’s endorsement of Murkowski stems in large part from her role in the federal infrastructure bill that promises billions to the state in funding for broadband, roads and the marine highway system, among other projects.

“If you think about the magnitude and the timing of what she was able to bring back and how many jobs it’s going to create, it’s breathtaking actually,” Hall said.

The endorsement came even after Murkowski did not publicly support the PRO Act, a bill touted by labor organizations that say it would protect unions and the right to unionize.

“She hasn’t always voted the way I’ve wanted her to 100%. There’s no doubt about that,” Hall said.

The AFL-CIO’s support for Murkowski has not been consistent. In 2010, the organization endorsed her Democratic opponent Scott McAdams. But that year — when Murkowski won a write-in campaign after losing the Republican primary — freed Murkowski to have “a little bit more independent action,” Hall said. Since then, Hall posits, Murkowski has made “less partisan choices, more Alaska choices.”

“She’s taking some of those hard votes now, because she can get elected, even if her party is deciding that she is not toeing the party line every day of the week,” Hall said.

Lisa Murkowski, Pat Chesbro, Kelly Tshibaka, U.S. Senate, candidates, politics, campaign, debate, forum

Duncan Fields, a commercial fisherman from Kodiak and a district chair of the Alaska Republican Party, said his support for Murkowski stems from her work on issues that matter to him like federal fish policies.

“We’ve seen her take tough positions on hard issues, some of which I disagree with (and) I would have done different than our senator did. But the fact that she has stood firm, that she took those positions because she believed in her heart that it was the right thing to do, rather than what the party wanted her to do, or what was politically correct to do — I admire her,” Fields said.

One issue where Fields disagrees with Murkowski is abortion access — he opposes it while Murkowski believes women should have access to the procedure. “I haven’t changed how I feel on that issue,” Fields said. “But I believe you embrace a person, and sometimes you agree to disagree.”

The Kodiak district has voted to endorse Murkowski — going against the state party’s endorsement of Tshibaka. Now, Fields said he sees himself as a spokesperson for the faction of the Alaska Republican Party that still believes Murkowski merits their support. He said the statewide party’s censure of Murkowski was “misguided” and “shows insecurity.”

“I just think that a party should have the elasticity or the grace to allow members of the party to have divergent views on some issues,” Fields said.

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

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

Murkowski’s supporters see her party membership as a reminder of what the Republican Party once was — rather than its current affiliation with Trump.

“I think she hopes that the Republican Party will return to sanity and be the party of her history, the party of her father, the party of Ted Stevens,” Hall said. “Why doesn’t she just change? I’m pretty sure it’s because she doesn’t want the Republican Party to change that much. She wants the Republican Party to be a little bit more true to its more traditional values.”

‘Being in the middle’

Lisa Murkowski, U.S. Senate, candidate, politics, campaign

Murkowski counts among her supporters both Democrats and establishment Republicans.

The cross-party support is borne out by her endorsements. Hall and Reitmeier represent organizations that are endorsing both Murkowski and Rep. Mary Peltola — a Democrat running for the U.S. House against two Republicans.

Murkowski has not shied away from the association with Peltola; she spoke effusively about her at an event following Peltola’s swearing-in ceremony in September that also featured prominent Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

Courting left-leaning voters, Murkowski has also touted her record on abortion access, even as Chesbro has pointed out that Murkowski voted to confirm two of Trump’s picks for the Supreme Court who supported the decision that eliminated abortion protections at the federal level.

In campaign ads mailed to voters, Murkowski says she is “leading the bipartisan effort to put Roe v. Wade into law, to preserve reproductive freedom and protect the right of all women to make choices about their own health.”

With that message, Murkowski is appealing to voters who might otherwise support Chesbro — who calls herself “the pro-choice candidate.” It’s a testament to the way Alaska’s new voting system can work in Murkowski’s favor. Advocates of ranked choice voting say it favors middle-of-the-road candidates with broad appeal. Murkowski, with her ability to attract support from across the political map, is set to test the theory.

Lisa Murkowski, U.S. Senate, candidate, politics, campaign

The latest antidote to Trump’s influence in Murkowski’s corner is Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Senate Leadership Fund, a leadership PAC aligned with him, has launched a barrage of ads attacking Tshibaka.

“It’s important for Lisa to be re-elected. She’s one of the few sort of moderates in the middle of the Senate, is a key player in advancing bipartisan legislation. We’re going to do everything we can to make sure she’s successful,” McConnell said in an Axios interview in April.

It’s a message that goes against the leaders of the Alaska Republican Party, who asked Murkowski in March 2021 to leave the party after her vote to convict Trump at his second impeachment trial. Most recently, some of them have voted to censure McConnell — the most powerful elected member of their party — over the Tshibaka attack ads.

While the party can oppose Murkowski, they can’t force her not to identify as a Republican. Murkowski says she’s keeping the R next to her name, despite the state’s new voting system that could free her to run as an independent.

As Murkowski walked from her office to the Capitol on a warm September day to cast votes, a reporter asked her about members of her own party hurling the word “moderate” at her as an insult.

“That’s other people’s problem,” Murkowski said.

“Sometimes it’s hard, being in the middle,” she said. “That’s where I have to be because that’s who I am.”

Lisa Murkowski, U.S. Senate, candidate, politics, campaign

The ADN’s Marc Lester contributed.

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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.