News-Miner opinion: With the 2022 election campaign looming, Sen. Lisa Murkowski — disowned by the Alaska Republican Party and targeted by former President Donald Trump — has her first serious challenger, former Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka.
Murkowski was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 2002 by her father, then-Gov. Frank Murkowski, to complete his unexpired Senate term after he was elected governor. The appointment stirred a furor at the time. She won reelection in 2004, again in 2010 in a historic write-in candidate after losing the GOP primary to Joe Miller, and in 2016.
A moderate Republican, she never received a majority in any of her elections. Her strength sprang from the middle of the political spectrum, with independents, liberal Republicans and middle-of-the-road Democrats.
The Alaska Republican Party censured her for voting to convict former President Donald Trump at the end of his impeachment trial and vowed to find a candidate to oppose her next year.
Murkowski and the party clashed often over the years. She opposed abortion limits, voted against repealing the federal Affordable Care Act, opposed the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and voted “present” at his confirmation. She spoke critically of Trump and was the first Republican to demand his resignation after the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. More recently, her support of U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland as Interior secretary also angered the party.
Conservative Republicans often complain Murkowski is not conservative enough; that she is a Republican in name only; that she too often votes with Democrats. They argue Republicans should vote Republican and not stray on core issues.
But Murkowski is a skilled, moderate politician and is a household name with a veteran staff and wide support across party lines in Alaska. She is a tough campaigner who still has supporters, even Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan. Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell says the national party will support her.
Tshibaka, born and raised in Alaska, is a Trump supporter, Republican Party establishment outsider and relative new-comer to Alaska politics. A Harvard-educated lawyer, she held several federal posts in Washington, D.C., and returned to Alaska in 2017 to join the Dunleavy administration, where she drew fire for contracts signed by her department.
She describes herself as pro-life and pro-Second Amendment and has a team that includes former President Donald Trump’s top campaign professionals from 2020. In Alaska, her in-state campaign team is led by a former Murkowski campaign consultant.
“We know what Washington, D.C. thinks about Alaska: We’re here for their benefit, and we won’t put up much of a fight,’ Tshibaka says in a campaign video. “After nearly 20 years in D.C., Lisa Murkowski thinks the same way.”
“But you know what? Nothing scares the D.C. political insiders more than the thought of a strong, independent Alaskan leader in their ranks. One they can’t bully. One they can’t control. One they can’t silence. I believe in a better future for Alaska. One we can rise up together and rebuild.”
Many believe Murkowski could not survive a Republican primary election in Alaska, but voters last year adopted a ballot measure that could allow her to avoid a closed Republican primary.
Next year’s will be the first U.S. Senate election in Alaska under a new voting process that will have all candidates running in an all-party, open primary. The top four vote-getters will advance to the general election. Voters will pick a winner by ranked-choice voting.
The new voting process aims to dilute party power, labels and control, and could insulate Murkowski from hardcore Republicans.
There is little doubt next year’s Senate race could be a knock-down-drag-out affair, but the question is, after 20 years in office: Will Murkowski even run again?
Alaska will have to wait and see.