Why this Republican senator has been able to forge her own path

Why We Wrote This

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski is that rarest of political breeds today – an unabashed moderate. On a trip to the Last Frontier, we looked at how she manages to survive in a polarized world.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski arrives for the weekly Republican Party caucus luncheon at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Feb. 26, 2019.

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Voters in Bethel, Alaska, speak warmly of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, saying she’s a frequent visitor and praising the work she’s done to keep federal dollars flowing to their state.

The support is a window into Senator Murkowski’s political viability – and vulnerability. That’s because most voters here are Democrats and Senator Murkowski is a Republican. Tellingly, Kathryn Bowerman, a retired landscape architect, describes the senator as “kind of like an independent.”

A genuine swing vote in a polarized chamber, Senator Murkowski voted for President Donald Trump’s tax cuts in 2017 and with Republican leadership on other major bills. But on certain highly contentious issues – such as whether to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court – she has bucked the party line.

To some extent, this has worked like a charm, since a plurality of Alaskans approve of her performance, says Ivan Moore, who runs Alaska Survey Research in Anchorage. “She can defy the conservative right all day long with her coalition of moderates and progressives,” he says.

Yet it infuriates many Alaska Republicans, and could lead to a primary challenge when her seat is up in 2022. “I’m very disappointed in Lisa,” says Mike Tavoliero, a Republican district chairman in Eagle River outside Anchorage. “On key issues nationally, she’s failed.”

This dusty riverside town of 6,000 feels a long way from Washington, D.C. It’s about as far as you can go without leaving the continental United States.

But many voters in Bethel, Alaska, say they feel a strong connection to their U.S. senator, Lisa Murkowski. In their minds, she’s popular and present, an Alaskan politician with a voice at the table in Washington who doesn’t forget them.

“As long as she’s working for the state of Alaska, people support her,” says Kathryn Bowerman, taking a break from crocheting in Bethel’s public library.

The support from Bethel’s voters is a window into Senator Murkowski’s political viability – and her vulnerability. That’s because Ms. Bowerman, like many here, is a Democrat and Senator Murkowski is a Republican. Tellingly, that isn’t exactly how Ms. Bowerman, a retired landscape architect, sees the senator. “She’s kind of like an independent,” she says.

In fact, Senator Murkowski’s record in Washington as a moderate Republican who at times defies her party – and President Donald Trump – infuriates many Alaska Republicans. And even as she remains popular overall, garnering more than 50% approval in recent polls, conservatives have turned sharply against her, particularly over her vote against confirming Judge Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice. That raises the possibility that she will face a Republican primary challenger when her seat is up in 2022.

“I’m very disappointed in Lisa,” says Mike Tavoliero, a Republican district chairman in Eagle River outside Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska. “I think Lisa has tried to do a good job for Alaska, but on key issues nationally she’s failed. That’s my opinion.”

Senator Murkowski declined to back Judge Kavanaugh after he was accused in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing of sexual assault while in high school, igniting a furious partisan battle. President Trump later took a swipe at her, telling The Washington Post, “I think the people from Alaska will never forgive her for what she did.”

In 2017, Senator Murkowski also voted against a Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, another high-profile vote that angered Mr. Tavoliero. “She had an opportunity to abolish ‘Obamacare,’ and she chose not to,” he says.

A genuine swing vote

A former state legislator who became U.S. senator in 2002, Senator Murkowski has become that rare breed: a genuine swing vote in a polarized chamber. She voted for President Trump’s tax cuts in 2017 and with Republican leadership on other major bills. But on issues like Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination, which was opposed by many women and Native leaders in Alaska, she has conspicuously bucked the party line.

To some extent, this middle path has worked like a charm, since a plurality of Alaskans approve of her performance, says Ivan Moore, who runs Alaska Survey Research in Anchorage. “She can defy the conservative right all day long with her coalition of moderates and progressives,” he says.

Mr. Moore polled likely voters in March and found 53% approval for Senator Murkowski. Among conservatives, however, that flipped to 62% disapproval, a negative trend that had been building and was supercharged by the Kavanaugh hearing. Mr. Moore says he expects a Republican will challenge her in 2022, but also believes she could win even if she winds up running as an independent, given her broad appeal to Alaskans and her track record, particularly on women’s causes.

In 2010, Senator Murkowski lost the Republican primary to a tea party firebrand, Joe Miller, whom she had heavily outspent. Undeterred, she mounted a successful write-in campaign. “If she can do it as a write-in, she can do it as an independent,” says Mr. Moore.

Mary Sattler Peltola, a Democratic former state legislator for Bethel, helped to run the 2010 write-in campaign here for Senator Murkowski, whom she befriended in the legislature. Like many here, Ms. Peltola is an Alaskan Native, and she points to Senator Murkowski’s standing in Native communities.

To beat her opponent, Senator Murkowski needed to make sure voters could write her name on the ballot – no small feat. Ms. Peltola handed out bracelets with the senator’s name, including a transliteration in the Yup’ik language spoken by thousands of indigenous residents in Western Alaska.

“We know how to spell Lisa. We know how to spell Murkowski,” she says.

Residents say Senator Murkowski is a frequent visitor to Bethel and to the outlying Native villages for which it is a commercial hub. Showing up for events in villages of fewer than 500 residents matters, as does lobbying to keep federal dollars flowing for public services here.

“People like Senator Murkowski because she goes to the villages and sees how village life really is,” says Brenda Slats, as she pushed out her boat in Bethel for a hunting trip upriver.

Vernon Kylook, a Democratic activist who grew up in a Native village and moved to Washington state, says he respects Senator Murkowski, despite their partisan differences. “She talks to people, face to face. That’s how she gets votes out here,” he says during a bingo evening at Bethel’s VFW.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Vernon Kylook plays bingo with his family at the local VFW on May 19, 2019, in Bethel, Alaska. A Democrat, he says he respects Sen. Lisa Murkowski, despite their partisan differences. 'She talks to people, face to face.'

Alaska’s political map inverts America’s familiar urban-rural divide. Its rural areas are far more rural and home to many Native constituencies that skew Democratic: Only 22% of voters in Bethel went for Donald Trump in 2016, though Alaska overall has not voted for a Democratic president since 1964. Republican strongholds cluster in larger towns and cities, especially exurbs like Eagle River and Wasilla, the home base of former Gov. Sarah Palin.

‘Following her own moral compass’

Senator Murkowski is a product of that Republican establishment: Her father, former GOP Sen. Frank Murkowski, appointed her to fill his seat in the Senate in 2002 after he became Alaska’s governor, an act of nepotism that didn’t seem to hurt her. By 2010, she was vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference when Mr. Miller ran against her in the Republican primary. After she lost, the GOP leadership tried and failed to quash her write-in campaign.

That victory set her on her current course as a moderate who doesn’t always heed the party line. Still, she has also taken flak from progressives over her backing for oil drilling in the Arctic. While she says she recognizes the risks of climate change, an issue that is becoming a litmus test for national Democrats, she generally sides with vested oil-and-gas interests.

Analysts point out that she often defies her own party on votes where Alaska could lose out, such as her opposition to Betsy DeVos as education secretary because of rural Alaska’s reliance on grants for schools.

Ms. Peltola says Senator Murkowski is too diligent a legislator to fall into line with Republicans in Congress who seem beholden to President Trump. “She’s really following her own moral compass. That appeals to Alaskans. We like people who are independent thinkers,” she says.

At a resource-industry breakfast in Anchorage, Jason Davis, a registered Republican who runs a marine services company, praised Senator Murkowski for her independence. “I like that she doesn’t always follow the party line. She listens to her constituents. She’s responsive,” he says.

Still, he said that his was probably a minority view among Republicans in the room. And activists like Mr. Tavoliero take aim at her centrist politics. “Whenever you walk down the middle of the road, sooner or later you’re going to get run over,” he says.

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