Sen. Lisa Murkowski is out to prove her centrist brand of politics and willingness to buck the party line still has a place in today’s Republican Party.
Ms. Murkowski has her sights set on winning a fourth full term in the Senate where she has developed a reputation for swimming against the partisan tide — earning praise from advocates of bipartisanship, and spite from former President Donald Trump and party hard-liners, who are backing primary challenger Kelly Tshibaka.
The 65-year-old was in a similar position in 2010 when a Tea Party-backed rival toppled her in the primary — only to have her turn around and launch a successful write-in bid as an independent in the general election.
“The same extreme partisan divide that existed in 2010 exists today,” said Murkowski campaign spokesperson Shea Siegert. “What outsiders from the lower 48 don’t understand is that Alaskans value Lisa’s bipartisanship and commitment to always put Alaska first to get things done.”
Tshibaka adviser Tim Murtaugh challenged that notion, saying “this isn’t 2010 anymore.”
“That was before Murkowski voted to remove President Trump from office after he was already gone, and before Murkowski set about enabling Joe Biden’s radical agenda that is crushing Alaska,” Mr. Murtaugh said.
“Remember that Trump won Alaska twice by double digits and people still love his policies,” he warned.
Those two schools of thought will collide in the Aug. 16 nonpartisan primary where the top four vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, will advance to the general election under the state’s new ranked-choice voting system.
J. Miles Coleman, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said ranked-choice voting could benefit Ms. Murkowski because it encourages candidates to woo voters outside traditional partisan circles.
“Assuming she makes it into the top four, which I think is likely, I can see she probably is going to at least have the support of Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund through the November general, whereas in 2010, when she ran her write-in campaign, she was more or less on her own,” Mr. Coleman said.
Indeed, the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund has vowed to spend millions on her behalf.
Ms. Murkowski, meanwhile, has become the most senior member of Alaska’s congressional delegation following the death of the late Republican Rep. Don Young, giving her another talking point.
“She can say, ‘In terms of Capitol Hill, I am the Alaska powerhouse now,’” Mr. Coleman said.
Ms. Murkowski is leaning into her record of working across party lines, and telling voters she is proud to be one of the “architects” of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law that, among other things, directed billions of federal dollars into Alaska for ferries, ports, roads and bridges.
“From authoring and leading the effort to pass the bipartisan infrastructure package – which secured the largest investment in roads, bridges, ports, and rural broadband expansion in history to meet Alaska’s needs – to protecting our fisheries and fighting for our State’s veterans to ensure they receive the benefits they’ve earned, it’s clear that Lisa puts Alaska first, always,” Mr. Siegert said.
Still. Ms. Murkowski’s road to reelection is filled with potential pitfalls.
She has 19 challengers in the primary race — most notably the Trump-backed Ms. Tshibaka, who also has the support of the Alaska GOP and who has cast the incumbent as a sellout.
“Lisa Murkowski spends all her time in Washington, D.C. appeasing her insider friends and turning her back on the people of Alaska,” Mr. Murtaugh said.
Mr. Murtaugh said voters have a clear choice between Ms. Murkowski — “the senator for D.C. elites” — and Ms. Tshibaka — “the only one who will actually fight for Alaska values as an America First candidate.”
Ms. Murkowski faced similar pushback in the 2010 election when her Tea Party-backed rival Joe Miller tapped into that era’s conservative fury and painted her as a Democratic sympathizer. She won the general election as an independent anyway and then comfortably won in 2016, though she has still never won a majority in any Senate general election.
Ms. Murkowski has continued to frustrate party hard-liners, voting in recent years against repealing the Affordable Care Act and confirming Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
She also joined six other Senate Republicans in voting to convict Mr. Trump in his second impeachment trial for inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
The Alaska Republican Party responded by censuring Ms. Murkowski for the vote. She is the only Senate Republican up for reelection who voted to convict.
Ms. Murkowski also was one of four Republicans that voted to confirm Rep. Deb Haaland, a Democrat, to become the first Native American interior secretary despite concerns about her opposition to oil and gas drilling on federal land. She also was one of the three Republicans who voted to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court.
Now she’s involved in the negotiations on Capitol Hill over gun legislation that lawmakers are hashing out in response to the recent mass killings at a Buffalo supermarket and an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
It all has provided ammunition for Ms. Tshibaka, a former Alaska Department of Administration commissioner who also has worked in the offices of the Inspector General for the U.S. Postal Service, the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice.
“When the president is saying that our constitutional rights are not absolute, it is the Senate’s job to defend and protect us,” she said on Newsmax last week. “Our senator, the senator from Alaska, is the one who is selling us out. It’s very scary.”
Ms. Murkowski has raised $7.5 million for her campaign and had $5.2 million in the bank at the end of March. Ms. Tshibaka had pulled in $2.5 million and had just under $1 million in the bank.