Her bruising campaign to keep her seat, conducted via a write-in candidacy after she lost the GOP primary to tea party-backed Joe Miller, appears likely to shift Senator Murkowski more to the center – a Republican perhaps more akin to Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine than to the conservative Sens.-elect Rand Paul of Kentucky or Mario Rubio of Florida.
That's because she owes her apparent reelection to big support from Alaska Natives, who are usually reliable Democratic voters, as well as some Democrats and environmentalists who voted for Murkowski rather than the Democratic candidate in a bid to prevent Mr. Miller from winning.
“I think she saw that’s clearly what would bring her back to office. That has to register with her,” says Bob Poe, a former Democratic candidate for governor and a longtime player in Alaska business and politics.
Mr. Poe and other pro-Murkowski Democrats are relieved at Murkowski's announcement that she no longer wants to be part of the Republican Senate leadership team. Serving in that role over the past two years was “a little bit restrictive,” pushing her to the right of the positions she had taken earlier in her career, Poe says. “I think she wants to be more who she is.”
That would be the Murkowski of her early years in the Senate, when she was considered a swing vote like the two moderate Republican senators from Maine, and of her time as a centrist state legislator who championed a steep increase in alcohol taxes, a bipartisan fiscal strategy to try to wean Alaska off oil money, and liberal positions on social issues.
It would include a temperate stance on global warming and how to grapple with it – an issue of major concern to many Alaska Natives.
Take Shishmaref, an Inupiat Eskimo village perched on thawing, eroding permafrost. Residents there went heavily for Murkowski: 154 votes to Democrat Scott McAdams's 21 and Miller's 15.
Those who live in Shishmaref – considered a poster child for global warming because of the changes to the Arctic sea and land that threaten it – know Murkowski as a “friend for a long time,” trust her, and are grateful to her for taking their climate problems seriously, says resident Albert Ningeulook.
They remember in particular her visit to the village with the late Sen. Ted Stevens in 2008 to check on efforts to beat back the swift advance of the Chukchi Sea, Mr. Ningeulook says. “It gave us hope as residents that climate change could be dealt with, or we could live despite it,” he says.
Siding with Alaska Natives combating changes in a warming Arctic puts Murkowski at odds with conservative forces in her party who oppose curbs on carbon emissions – or who reject the idea that climate change is human-caused. It is only one of several Murkowski stances that conflict with conservative party positions.
Criticism from the right is nothing new for Murkowski. For years, she has been tagged with the RINO (Republican in Name Only) label. In this election, Miller and his supporters linked her to President Obama, whom they loath. “TRU-LOVE: LISA + BARACK” read the signs on one Miller supporter’s truck.
Murkowski has said repeatedly that she plans to remain a Republican and will continue to caucus with her GOP colleagues, despite the bad feelings that may linger after the GOP officialdom resisted her write-in campaign.
“I work with people within my own conference that, you know, maybe they haven’t been too generous or welcoming in my write-in effort. But I still need to work with them,” she told NBC’s "Today" show last week.
Several leading Republicans, however, remain hostile. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a tea party hero, is raising money to help Miller challenge the validity of write-in votes that state officials will begin examining on Wednesday. The National Republican Senatorial Committee also urged supporters to contribute to Miller’s legal team.
“Joe Miller in Alaska is dedicated to the conservative principles we need in Washington DC,” the NRSC fundraising alert said. “We need to get Joe the resources he needs to win the vote count. Because we need Joe to join our fight against Barack Obama.” Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is making similar postelection fundraising appeals on Miller's behalf.
Miller has cited Murkowski’s support from native organizations and Democrats as a reason to continue to fight the incumbent. Miller was especially scornful of the senator for having a friendly postelection telephone chat with Vice President Joe Biden, who called her with his congratulations.
“Now that the election is over, Lisa’s true stripes are coming out, and they are those of a Washington insider who is focused on preserving her power and protecting special interests on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill,” Miller said in a fundraising appeal.
Murkowski is making her own fundraising pitches to help pay for a legal team to monitor the write-in count, and she has established a legal defense fund called the Alaska Voter Protection Fund.
Her support from Alaska Natives and Democrats notwithstanding, Murkowski has already demonstrated that any shift toward bipartisanship will have its limits.
Though she is supportive in principle of cap-and-trade emissions policies to combat climate change, for example, Murkowski continues to fight the Obama administration’s plans for the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon emissions.
“There are a great number of things we can do to responsibly reduce our carbon emissions without burdening our economy with an unworkable cap-and-trade scheme or command-and-control regulation by the EPA," Murkowski said in a news release last week.