Challenge from the Hard Right: Sen. Murkowski in for another Bruising Election


Lisa Murkowski (Image: Arctic Circle on Flickr)

The 2010 T-shirt boosting reelection of Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski is a fashion statement in the annals of American politics.  It is a spelling lesson for voters, decorated with the drawing of a Cow, and the image of a Ski.

Alaskans got the spelling correct.  The shirts were used in only the second successful write-in election of a U.S. Senator in U.S. history, where spelling matters.  The first, 54 years earlier, was segregationist Strom Thurmond in South Carolina. Murkowski had lost her August Republican primary to a Tea Party insurgent named Joe Miller, who made headlines with such weird views as making Social Security voluntary. Miller also got fame through the burly security force that tried to keep reporters out of campaign events held in taxpayer-owned municipal centers.

The Murkowski comeback was mounted with support from Alaska natives, who constitute 18 percent of the 49th state’s electorate, as well as support from such normally Democratic constituencies as Alaska teachers. 

Murkowski is likely to face off against the far right again, as the lone Republican senator up for reelection in 2022 who voted to impeach President Trump.  The state Republican central committee will meet on March 12 to consider revenge.  Trump said as long ago as last June that he will come to Alaska to campaign against Murkowski, after she talked about “struggling” whether to vote for him.

Former Alaska Gov. and GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who in 2008 served as a John the Baptist heralding Trump’s MAGA movement, is being talked up in Republican circles as a Senate opponent to Murkowski. “Lisa, I can see 2022 from my house,” Palin joked late last year.

The ”Gentle lady from Alaska” has been scathing.  When protesters in Lafayette Park were forcibly dispersed, so Trump could wave a Bible upside down in a photo-op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, just one GOP senator was willing to comment.  “I do not think that what we saw last night was the America I know,” said Murkowski.

Murkowski is an ally of Alaska’s oil and gas industry. She favors more logging in the Tongass National Forest of Southeast Alaska, and she authored the backdoor amendment to Republicans’ 2017 tax bill designed to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling. She is, however, an independent voice on a variety of issues.  Murkowski supports abortion rights and was an early GOP supporter of same-sex marriage.  She cast a key vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act and was the lone Republican senator to vote No on confirming Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court.  She has voiced disgust with Trump dating back to the 2016 election.

“I know that my actions, my vote, may have political consequences and I understand that,” she said after the vote to impeach.  “I absolutely understand that. But I can’t be afraid of that.”

While fury on the right has grown since 2010, Murkowski is arguably better positioned to withstand a Trump backed challenge next year. Among the reasons:

Ranked voting.  Alaskans voted in November to reform how they do elections.  Instead of party primaries, all candidates of all parties will henceforth appear on the August primary ballot.  The top four finishers go on to the November election.  Independents outnumber both Republicans and Democrats in Alaska.

In November, voters will be asked to rank their choices. As explained by Liz Ruskin of Alaska Public Radio, “If no candidate gets more than 50 percent, the votes for the fourth place finisher will be reassigned to the voter’s second favorite.  The reassignment continues until someone wins a majority.”

A known name.  Frank Murkowski, Lisa’s father, served in the Senate for 22 years.  When elected Governor of Alaska in 2002, the elder Murkowski appointed his daughter to succeed him. A  Murkowski has been on the Alaska statewide ballot nine times.  (Sarah Palin upset Gov. Murkowski in the 2006 Republican primary.)

Lisa Murkowski is a downhome politician like Sen. Patty Murrray used to be.  She and husband Vern Martell shop in the Anchorage Costco, where voters feel free to buttonhole their senator.  She has shown up at an Anchorage farmers market to help son Matt Martell sell his pasta.

Productivity.  Murkowski chaired the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee when Republicans ran the Senate.  She is a senior Appropriations Committee member.  She and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., worked to break the ice and get construction underway on a new polar icebreaker along with design of a second.

She has a sense of timing — witness using the tax bill to allow drilling in the Arctic Refuge.  She put a stake in the heart of the mammoth proposed Pebble Mine, located between two of Bristol Bay’s prime salmon spawning streams, after mine executives inconveniently boasted of their political influence. She was principal author (with Cantwell) of the Great American Outdoors Act, a rare piece of environmental legislation signed into law by Trump.

Fish to Fry.  Alaska Republicans may soon find themselves playing defense.  A petition to recall GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy is nearing enough signatures to force an election. It requires signatures from 71,252 Alaska voters, and was at 55,613 late last week. Dunleavy has taken fire for deep budget cuts, particularly targeted at the University of Alaska, and proposals to curtail the state’s ferry system.  He is a blunderbuss, lately threatening to withhold state business from banks that refuse to finance oil development in the Arctic Refuge. Alaska is a Republican-leaning “red” state, but with a reputation for rough-and-tumble politics.  It has a reputation of tossing out governors, in both primary and general elections, the way Seattle boots its mayors. 

The Native Vote.  Murkowski is an unusual Republican in that she has close ties with Alaska natives.  She successfully fought to have the native name “Denali” (the high one) replace Mt. McKinley.  She has worked to spotlight the disappearance and killings of native women. Murkowski has even been adopted into the Deisheetaan (beaver) clan of the Rasen Tribe of the Tlingit people, from the village of Angoon on Admiralty Island.

Hence, the latest narrow ridge that Sen. Murkowski must walk.  President Biden has nominated New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland to become U.S. Secretary of the Interior, the first Native American overseer of America’s vast public lands.  The “historic nomination,” in Sen. Cantwell’s words, is supported by native groups from one end of the country to the other. Haaland is a critic of fracking and tweeted last October, “Republicans don’t believe in science.” She has become a target for Big Oil’s allies in the House and Senate. Murkowski has a big native constituency, but also a state economy beholden to Big Oil.

At Haaland’s confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Murkowski took out after President Biden’s executive order stalling a temporary moratorium on oil and gas leasing in the Arctic Refuge.  “We’re one of only two states in the nation that were specifically targeted by President Biden’s day-one executive order,” she told the nominee.

She wanted to know how Haaland will approach “oil, gas and mineral resource development in a state like Alaska.” Haaland replied, “I want you to know that if I’m confirmed, I will rely heavily on our relationship moving forward:  do want to work with you. I do want to make sure that I understand the unique issues in Alaska, and to make sure we are doing all we can to ensure that your constituents have the opportunities that they need.”

The betting is Murkowski will again go against the hard right in her party, and vote to confirm Haaland, herself a seasoned political operator. One reason for this prediction is that Alaskans, far from home, look out for each other in D.C. The state’s crusty GOP Congressman-for-life, Don Young, showed up at the hearing to introduce Haaland and sing praises of collaborating with her in the House.   “She’ll work for us and she’ll reach across the aisle,” said Young.  “If we have people at the Department of Interior such as Deb, maybe we’d have a balance.”

The power of Alaska natives is being felt a continent away.  The pivotal role of Sen. Murkowski in the Senate will be felt on Congress’ major decisions for the coming two years, and likely beyond.

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.


  1. The T-shirts helped Lisa win her seldom precedented write-in in 2010. But the real boost came from rubber bracelets with her name embossed that voters could use to correctly write in on the ballot. Credit goes to Murkowski of course but a goodly portion to her savvy political consultant, Seattle’s Cathy Allen.

  2. Yep, I remember Cathy vigorously publicizing that she was assisting Murkowski campaign. It was good to see her associated with a victor. Also recall, however, vigorous, effective support for Senator from leaders in Alaska Federation of Natives and Bristol Bay Native Corp.


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