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Shunned by the right, Murkowski bets big on the center in Alaska


“I may not be re-elected,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska. “But there is a different sense of obligation that I am feeling now as a lawmaker,” she added.

By Emily Cochrane


Sitting in a darkened exhibition room at the Anchorage Museum on a recent Tuesday morning, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska conceded that she might lose her campaign for a fourth full term in Congress, where she is one of a tiny and dwindling group of Republicans still willing to buck her party.


“I may be the last man standing. I may not be reelected,” she said in an interview after an event here, just days after breaking with the GOP to support confirming Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Joe Biden’s Supreme Court nominee and the first Black woman to serve there. “It may be that Alaskans say, ‘Nope, we want to go with an absolute, down-the-line, always, always, 100%, never-question, rubber-stamp Republican.’


“And if they say that that’s the way that Alaska has gone — kind of the same direction that so many other parts of the country have gone — I have to accept that,” Murkowski continued. “But I’m going to give them the option.”


In a year when control of Congress is at stake and the Republican Party is dominated by the reactionary right, Murkowski is attempting something almost unheard-of: running for reelection as a proud GOP moderate willing to defy party orthodoxy.


For Murkowski, 64, it amounts to a high-stakes bet that voters in the famously independent state of Alaska will reward a Republican centrist at a time of extreme partisanship.


She has good reasons to hope they will. Although it leans conservative, Alaska is a fiercely individualistic state where the majority of voters do not align with either major political party. And under a new set of election rules engineered by her allies, Murkowski does not have to worry about a head-to-head contest with a more conservative opponent. Instead, she will compete in an Aug. 16 primary open to candidates of any political stripe, followed by a general election in which voters will rank the top four to emerge from the primary to determine a winner.


Despite her penchant for defecting from the party line, Murkowski also has powerful help from the Republican establishment; Sen. Mitch McConnell’s leadership political action committee announced last week that it had reserved $7.4 million worth of advertising in Alaska to support her candidacy.


So she has embarked on a reelection campaign that is also an effort to salvage a version of the Republican Party that hardly exists anymore in Congress, as seasoned pragmatists retire or are chased out by right-wing hard-liners competing to take their places.


“The easy thing would have been to just say, 20 years is good and honorable in the United States Senate. It’s time to, as I always say, it’s time to get my season ski pass at Alyeska and really get my money’s worth,” Murkowski said, referring to a nearby ski resort. “But there is a different sense of obligation that I am feeling now as a lawmaker.”


Still, Murkowski, daughter of a former Alaska senator and governor, faces a tough race. Her vote last year to convict former President Donald Trump at his impeachment trial on a charge of inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol prompted Alaska’s Republican Party to censure her and join Trump in embracing a right-wing primary challenger, Kelly Tshibaka.


And while there is now no Democrat going up against Murkowski in the race, it is not clear whether she can attract enough support from liberal voters to offset the conservatives who have been alienated by her stance against Trump. Many liberals have been angered by Murkowski’s opposition to sweeping climate change policies, as well as her support in 2017 for the $1.5 trillion Republican tax law that also allowed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.


So Murkowski has been reminding voters of her flair for pursuing bipartisan initiatives, such as the $1 trillion infrastructure law that is expected to send more than $1 billion to her state, and promoting her strong relationships with Democrats. At an Arctic policy event in the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center, she appeared with Sen. Joe Manchin, a centrist West Virginia Democrat, who was wearing an “I’m on Team Lisa” button and proclaimed, “I’m endorsing her 1,000%.”


All of it is fodder for her staunchest opponents. Tshibaka, a Trump-endorsed former commissioner in the Alaska Department of Administration, has worked to paint Murkowski as a liberal and to rally the state’s conservative base against her. She is trying to capitalize on long-standing antipathy for the senator on the right, which was incensed when she voted in 2017 to preserve the Affordable Care Act and by her opposition in 2018 to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation.


Joaquita Martin, 55, a paralegal, called Trump’s support “an incredibly powerful endorsement” of Tshibaka, adding that “I identify as a conservative, and Murkowski can call herself Republican all day long, but if that’s the definition of Republican, I’m out. That’s not me.”


Murkowski’s decision to seek another term did not come lightly. Murkowski famously lost her Republican primary election in 2010 to a Tea Party-backed candidate, then ran anyway as an independent and triumphed in a historic write-in campaign with a coalition of centrists and Alaska Natives.


Of the seven Senate Republicans who voted to convict Trump last year, Murkowski is the only one facing voters this year. She has not shied away from that distinction; she speaks openly of her disdain for Trump and his influence on the party. She has also supported Deb Haaland, Biden’s interior secretary and the first Native American to serve in the post, and boasted of her lead role in negotiating the infrastructure law.


It has made for some unpleasant moments, she and her family say.


“On one hand, had she chosen not to run, I would have been completely supportive because it’s just been like, ‘Damn girl, this has been a long haul,’” said Anne Gore, Murkowski’s cousin. “But on the other hand, you’re like, ‘Oh, sweet mother of Jesus, God on a bicycle — thank God you’re running’ because, you know, we can’t lose any more moderates.”


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