Kelly Tshibaka

Kelly Tshibaka is challenging incumbent Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate. The candidate sat down for an interview last week at the News-Miner, where she talked about the energy industry, her Trump endorsement and Alaska's future. 

Kelly Tshibaka wants Alaskans to know that she is a lot like them.

The daughter of working-class parents who “fought their way out of poverty,” Tshibaka fished and four-wheeled with her dad, played ice hockey as a teen but then left Alaska for college and work, only to return to her home state.

Now Tshibaka — who never before held elective office — has emerged as an up-and-coming challenger to incumbent Lisa Murkowski for U.S. Senate.

“This is the race to watch in the next election cycle,” said Cynthia Henry, a Republican National Committee member active in the Alaska Republican party, which has formally backed Tshibaka’s candidacy, energizing the campaign.

“Kelly Tshibaka is an impressive candidate who has strong support from Alaska conservatives,” said Henry, who is not personally endorsing either candidate.

Tshibaka, a Harvard-trained lawyer who worked in Washington, D.C., for 16 years, is emphasizing her federal experience as well as her Alaska childhood and humble beginnings as central to her campaign.

“I know how to make the government work for the people,” Tshibaka told the News-Miner.

Tshibaka most recently led the Alaska Department of Administration for two years, resigning in 2021 to run full time for the U.S. Senate.

Prior to moving back to Alaska in 2019, Tshibaka was the chief data officer for the inspector general of the U.S. Postal Service under Presidents Trump and Obama.

She also served as acting inspector general for the Federal Trade Commission, counsel to the inspector general in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and in the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Justice.

‘I owe everything to this state’

Tshibaka’s primary bid is likely to be determined by how well she connects with voters in a state where the name Murkowski is synonymous with Republican politics.

“I am only sitting here before you today as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, because my mom got an oil job,” Tshibaka said during a campaign stop in Fairbanks last week. “I owe everything to this state.

“Lisa Murkowski owes everything to her dad,” Tshibaka continued, contrasting her own background with the incumbent’s during a 30-minute interview with the News-Miner.

“My dad was not governor or senator,” Tshibaka said. “My dad was a maintenance guy at a telephone company. He is like so many other Alaskan dads.”

Murkowski’s popularity with voters has withstood the test of time. She is the second most senior Republican woman in the U.S. Senate, where she has served since 2002.

Murkowski initially filled her father’s unexpired seat in the U.S. Senate, where he served for two decades. When Frank Murkowski resigned to become Alaska governor, he appointed his daughter, then Alaska House majority leader, as his successor.

Lisa Murkowski has won the U.S. Senate seat ever since.

Early endorsement by Trump

The 2022 Republican primary is shaping up like no other.

Murkowski has yet to formally announce her candidacy, though she has a campaign committee that is raising money and support.

Tshibaka’s campaign bid received an early endorsement from the Alaska Republican Party, followed by a personal endorsement from former President Donald Trump.

Trump, who won Alaska in two presidential elections, backed Tshibaka in June, after meeting with her at Trump Tower in New York City.

“Most of the conversation we had centered on his concern for Alaska and our projects,” Tshibaka said. “He was very concerned about our workers and our economy.”

The Last Frontier has become a battleground for the continuing power and influence of Trump in Republican politics. He has not ruled out another run for president.

Trump already vowed to defeat Murkowski for voting to impeach him after the Jan. 6 riot at the nation’s Capitol. The Alaska GOP censured Murkowski for the vote.

“The party does not want Lisa Murkowski to be a Republican candidate,” Tuckerman Babcock, the former state party chair said, according to media reports.

In Alaska, it’s jobs and the economy

Tshibaka is framing her U.S. Senate bid as a David vs. Goliath battle. She quit her position as Alaska administration commissioner to campaign full time and tell her story as a “daughter of Alaska.”

Her parents’ history included a period of hardship when they made a campsite their home, later moving to a trailer park and then to a starter home in Wasilla, as they secured stable employment.

“The tent situation … that ended up being a homelessness situation for them because they thought it was short-term camping, but it ended up being a long-term problem that they couldn’t get out of,” Tshibaka said. “They had to fight their way into working class Alaska.”

Her mom worked in Prudhoe Bay as the Alaska pipeline was built, and her father, a Vietnam war veteran, landed a maintenance job that he held until retirement.

“My family’s story is an every Alaskan story,” Tshibaka said. “We understand how hard it is to be here, what it’s like to live here, and how critical [natural resource] jobs are to Alaska families.”

Tshibaka is campaigning hard on building jobs and the economy, as Alaska confronts challenges that include a long-term decline in oil production and a net out-migration of working-age adults seeking better opportunities in the Lower 48.

‘Where did these regulations come from?’

Tshibaka says her focus is on expanding the economy and setting limits on government.

“I grew up playing ice hockey,” she said, comparing the referees to government’s role. “The refs are necessary to call the fouls, regulate the play and make sure the games are fair.

"The problem we have now is that there are 200 refs on the rink, not two, and we here in Alaska just want to play the game. But we can’t," she said. 

"They have the sticks. They are all over our puck. And we are trying to find out: Where did these regulations come from? Why are you all up in our business? We remember when we could play the game.”

Tshibaka said she wants to bring Alaska back into the game as a competitor with strengths found nowhere else in the U.S. She envisions an economic future for Alaska focused on information technology and global security.

Her ideas span the potential for developing large-scale cloud computing storage, which requires a cold, secure environment; building a federal intelligence community with a “second Pentagon” in Alaska; and expanding state mining operations for the metals that power smart technologies.

Tshibaka has ideas for Interior Alaska. “I see incredible value in the geopolitical location,” she said referring to her own expertise working in national security.

“We have underutilized that resource location for the intelligence community,” she said, noting the capacity, knowledge and support already in place at Interior military bases and at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

‘Energy-annihilating agenda’

Tshibaka is not giving up either on fossil fuels, saying that the U.S. handles production in a more environmentally safe and responsible way than most other nations.

Tshibaka objected to Murkowski’s vote to confirm Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior, which she said enabled the Biden administration’s “energy-annihilating agenda and just kills oil and gas jobs across the state.”

She criticized Murkowski for voting to impeach Trump, opposing Brett Kavanaugh for the U.S. Supreme Court and supporting the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.

But Murkowski’s support for Haaland as Interior Secretary felt personal to Tshibaka, who said she screamed at the television when she heard the news.

“She was the deciding vote to pass for Deb Haaland, who has a track record of opposing fossil fuel development in America,” Tshibaka said, “and we have seen that play out.”

The decision hit home for Tshibaka. “That was my mom’s job. That was the difference in [my parents] getting out of poverty and making it into the working class,” Tshibaka said.

“Those jobs represent a lot of Alaskans’ jobs and a lot of American dreams for Alaskans.”

Contact Linda F. Hersey at 907-459-7575 or at lhersey@newsminer.com. Follow her at twitter.com/FDNMpolitics.

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