Alaska’s Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski says she plans on ranking Democratic U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola first in the U.S. House race on the November ballot, where Murkowski’s own name will also appear as she runs for a fourth term.
Murkowski broke the news after delivering remarks to a packed room of delegates at Anchorage’s Dena’ina Center, where she was greeted with a standing ovation and frequently interrupted with rounds of applause. Her remarks focused on what she sees as reasons for optimism for the state, in particular the massive amounts of federal funding set to pour in as a result of pandemic relief and infrastructure spending.
“This is the largest infrastructure investment in our history,” Murkowski said, noting that more than $2.4 billion is slated for Alaska in the coming years, a large portion of it earmarked for rural communities. “It’s a historic investment in your communities.”
Her speech also touched on the U.S. House seat held for almost five decades by the late Don Young, and recently won in a special election by Peltola, who is running in the Nov. 8 general election for the full term that begins in January.
“I can’t help but think of our new partner here in the Congress. I miss Don Young every single day, I think we all do,” Murkowski said. “It’s gonna be impossible to replace him, but I will tell you I’m so happy to welcome Mary Peltola as our representative for all of Alaska.”
After her speech, an Anchorage Daily News reporter asked if she plans on picking Peltola first under the state’s new ranked choice voting system.
“Yeah, I am,” Murkowski said.
A reporter from a national newspaper asked Murkowski about the reason a Republican elected official would so readily offer praise to a Democrat.
“You can tell she’s a D.C. reporter,” Murkowski said, smiling. “Because in Alaska, I think it’s still different. Mary is a friend ... We have been friends for 25 years, and the fact that we’re Republican and Democrat has never interfered with that friendship.”
The 65-year-old senator said that she’s been a Republican since registering to vote at age 18, and that she still believes in party tenets of limited government and strong national defense — but feels no obligation to stick to partisan orthodoxy.
“I know that bothers some people who want me to be that rigid, partisan person, and I’m just not. I’m not, haven’t been, and I won’t be,” Murkowski said. “I do not toe the party line just because party leaders have asked or because it may be expected. My first obligation is to the people of the state of Alaska.”
Murkowski had earlier bumped into Peltola while glad-handing, visiting and shopping at the expansive craft fair that fills up the convention’s first floor. The two posed for pictures, noting that they were wearing kuspuks made by the same woman, Evelyn Day of Bethel. Peltola, it turned out, had given Murkowski the gold garment during a visit to Washington, D.C., last November.
“Mary and I joke, she’s like, ‘I have given Lisa all of her best-looking kuspuks.’ And she gave me this,” Murkowski said.
That openness to bipartisanship, compromise and breaking with party has led Murkowski to face sanction by Alaska Republicans in recent years, including censure from different district chapters and the state party leadership’s endorsement of her challenger to the right in this year’s Senate race, Republican Kelly Tshibaka. But she’s had a vexed relationship with the party’s governing apparatus since 2010, when she mounted a winning write-in campaign after losing the primary to far-right challenger Joe Miller. The effort succeeded without support from the Alaska GOP, and with a huge turnout from voters across Bush Alaska.
That’s the same constituency Murkowski said she was helping secure massive amounts of federal money for by crossing the aisle to draft provisions and ultimately vote in favor of the Biden administration’s infrastructure bill last year, along with fellow Republicans Young and Sen. Dan Sullivan.
“It’s my travels around the state and to your communities that not only inform me but inspire me,” Murkowski told AFN delegates. “I see the lack of infrastructure. I see the lack of connectivity. The high energy costs you face … I hear your asks for housing, for water, for sewer, for broadband, for protection from climate change and the storms. And together, we did this. I partnered with you. That is now bringing unprecedented funding to your communities. It starts with infrastructure.”
For her part, since taking office, Peltola has eschewed conventional partisanship, hiring Republican staffers and meeting any lawmakers with whom she believes she can find common cause.
“I will take any and all opportunities to break bread or share fish with colleagues,” Peltola said. “I don’t see anyone as my enemy.”
In a testament to finding common ground amid polarized politics, purple signs emerged on the convention floor Friday encouraging voters to support both Peltola and Murkowski, regardless of the party split. The placards were from a Bristol Bay super PAC, touting both candidates as being “pro-fish.”