Politics

Alaska GOP leaders end censures of Murkowski, Merrick following their victories

The Alaska Republican Party has ended its censures of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and state Sen.-elect Kelly Merrick, and will not censure any members of the party at least until 2024, Republican Party leaders decided in a meeting earlier this month.

The decision came after Murkowski won reelection to the U.S. Senate decisively against Republican opponent Kelly Tshibaka despite the party backing Tshibaka and party leaders’ decision to censure Murkowski in February 2021, after she voted to impeach former President Donald Trump.

Merrick, who currently serves as a state House member representing Eagle River, in November overwhelmingly won a race for state Senate against a more conservative state House member, Ken McCarty. Merrick’s victory came after she was censured by the Alaska Republican Party after her February 2021 decision to join a bipartisan coalition in the state House.

The Alaska Republican Party Central Committee met Dec. 3 for the first time since the November election, when several prominent candidates endorsed by party leaders lost their respective races. In that meeting, members of the central committee voted to change party rules to allow existing censures of candidates to end if the candidates win their races, effectively ending the censures of Murkowski and Merrick.

They also passed a motion that put a moratorium on new censures and endorsements in races where more than one Republican is in the running, until the party’s 2024 convention, set to take place in April 2024, when they will reconsider the issue.

“It just basically puts a pause until the convention, when all the delegates get to come together and discuss how we want to deal with this,” said Craig Campbell, Republican National Committeeman and former lieutenant governor of Alaska. “April really becomes the decision point.”

Rather than withdrawing past censures, the party voted to “sunset” censures of candidates who won their elections.

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“Sunsetting it doesn’t mean that we’ve withdrawn it. So we still, as a party, have those issues,” Campbell said. “What the party is saying is, ‘It’s sunsetted, we’re starting all over again. We will work with all Republicans, and what actions happen in the future are based on how you perform.’ If they stand for Republican principles and vote properly and organize properly, there probably will be no issues.”

In the months since Murkowski was censured, she has affirmed in several interviews that she continues to consider herself a Republican despite the repudiation from Alaska party leaders.

Spokespeople for Murkowski’s Senate office referred questions on the Alaska GOP’s decision to Murkowski’s campaign staff. A spokesperson for Murkowski’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Mary Peltola, U.S. Captiol, U.S. House, representative-elect

In interviews, party leaders did not cite specific races as a reason not to issue endorsements in partisan races, but in the recent U.S. House race, Republican Party-endorsed candidate Nick Begich came in third behind Democrat Mary Peltola, who won the race, and former Gov. Sarah Palin, who came in second, besting Begich despite the early endorsement Begich received from the party.

Begich said that since the Republican Party did not back its censures and endorsements with heavy funding for candidates, they didn’t make an impact.

“The Alaska Republican Party as a body does not have the funding necessary to back up the number of censures and endorsements that they provide,” Begich said in an interview Thursday. “Given the amount of money that was being spent in the statewide races, it’s very difficult to make an impact without financial resources, and I think we saw that in the Senate race. We certainly saw that in the congressional race as well.”

‘Let the voters decide’

Republican National Committeewoman Cynthia Henry said that the rule change is due in part to Alaska’s new election system, used for the first time this year. That system includes open, nonpartisan primaries in the place of partisan primaries. It also includes ranked choice voting in general elections.

“In the past, we have endorsed our candidate, our Republican candidate, who typically is running against a Democrat,” Henry said. “That has all changed with Ballot Measure 2, so it has complicated that process.”

Ballot Measure 2 is the means by which voters adopted the new election system in 2020. Under the new system, more than one Republican was on the general election ballot in several November races.

“Why is the party picking one of these Republicans to endorse or censure? ‘Let the voters decide,’ was the sentiment as we talked about this,” Henry said.

“The majority of people felt like it was time to not do any more censuring and sort of see how things shake out in the next cycle,” she added.

In recent years, the Republican Party has used censures as a go-to tactic to express unhappiness with candidates and elected officials. Party leadership censured the top elected Republican in the country — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — over his leadership political action committee’s spending on ads attacking Tshibaka, the Republican who ran against Murkowski for Senate. They have also used it as a frequent tool to punish Republicans who join bipartisan caucuses in the Legislature.

Most recently, a Wasilla chapter of the Republican Party passed a motion to censure state Sen. David Wilson, who represents the area, for joining a bipartisan majority coalition that will govern the Senate when it convenes in January. The motion passed three days before the party central committee adopted the motion to suspend future censures, but it never became binding because it only encompassed half of Wilson’s Senate district.

Merrick, who was censured last year for making a similar decision to join a bipartisan caucus in the House, said the censure did not dictate how she governed, and she continued to attend the meetings of the Republican district chapter that had censured her.

“I worked in a bipartisan manner and was able to hold to conservative values before and after the censure,” Merrick said. “I really think that it shows that you can work together and still hold true to your convictions.”

Merrick said the party’s decision to move away from censuring candidates and elected officials “shows that people are tired of traditional partisan rhetoric, and they want lawmakers that will work together to get things done.”

“If the Republicans want to grow the party, they need to stop alienating each other and start coming together to forward the Republican goals,” Merrick said.

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Merrick said those who oppose bipartisan caucuses are “a very vocal minority,” in contrast with the “silent majority” of voters who “just want their government to work.”

‘A whole different kind of strategy’

Campbell said the party is already concerned about the prospect of bipartisan majorities forming in both the state House and Senate. Such majorities have in the past focused on areas of agreement between lawmakers, steering away from contentious issues that are sometimes important to Republicans — like limiting abortion access and participation of transgender athletes in school sports.

A majority of the seats in both the House and Senate were won by Republicans, but Republican caucuses have not formed in either chamber.

Members of the Senate have already formed a bipartisan coalition that numbers nine Democrats and eight Republicans, leaving three right-leaning Republicans in a minority. Members of the newly formed majority reasoned that the right-leaning Republicans left out of the caucus had been too difficult to work with on important legislation, including the state budget.

In the House, where Republicans hold 21 of 40 seats, disagreements between Republicans, along with legal questions about two House districts, have kept members from organizing. There too, some have cited the obstructionist tactics employed by certain Republicans as making it difficult to bring all GOP members into a single caucus.

“What does the party want to do in the future? That will be the heavy debate I think in April of 2024,” Campbell said.

Party leaders say they are also considering ways to change the new election system that allowed candidates like Murkowski and Merrick to bypass a partisan primary to advance to the general election. Members of the newly formed bipartisan Senate majority have indicated that a repeal of the new system — that guaranteed the victory of several of its members — was unlikely to pass the chamber. But Henry and Campbell said the party could advocate for a ballot initiative to repeal ranked choice voting and open primaries.

In the meantime, the new election system is leading the party to rethink how it can help its favored candidates in the future.

“It takes a whole different kind of strategy, and we’re not sure we like having to strategize in that way,” Henry said.

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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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