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Murkowski Facing a Primary Puzzle

Murkowski may face another competitive primary. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Joe Miller isn’t the only conservative Alaskan with eyes on Sen. Lisa Murkowski — state Sen. Mike Dunleavy is also considering coming after the Republican senator from the right.  

GOP operatives in the state and Democratic former Sen. Mark Begich, ousted last fall, told CQ Roll Call about Dunleavy's interest.  

He represents the conservative Mat-Su Valley and isn’t ruling anything out. “I can confirm the rumors,” he told CQ Roll Call. “But I can neither confirm nor deny my commitment.” In the same conversation, Dunleavy said he’d likely be making a decision soon — possibly within a week.  

Or Murkowski, already defeated once in a primary only to make a surprising comeback in a write-in campaign, could face Miller in a rematch.  

As the host of a daily talk radio show in Alaska, Miller is well-known in the state. Dunleavy isn't nearly as much a household name, but he'd have a base. “He’s known in the area that wins you Republican primaries," Begich told CQ Roll Call.  

Since almost making it to Washington five years ago, Miller’s political viability — along with the tea party’s — has waned. When Miller ran for Senate again last year, he came in second in the GOP primary, with only 32 percent of the vote. The Club for Growth, which had endorsed him in 2010, backed  Dan Sullivan instead. Sullivan went on to win the general election against Begich by 2 points.  

Sources in the state agree whichever candidate declines to take on Murkowski will mount a primary bid against Rep. Don Young instead.  

When CQ Roll Call asked Miller about his preference between challenging the senator or at-large congressman, the tea party-backed two-time Senate candidate  demurred. “We have no interest in commenting on that at this time,” he said.  

Former Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who came in third in 2014's GOP Senate primary, has also been mentioned as a possible challenger — more likely against Young than Murkowski. “I am considering running for office again," he told CQ Roll Call, "but I'm not focused on the 2016 election.”  

It’s not surprising either incumbent would attract a primary challenger. As the Republican House’s longest-serving member, Young’s off-color remarks have earned him a reputation and plenty a primary over his 22 terms — the closest being in 2008.  

Murkowski’s last campaign, when Miller won the GOP nomination and the National Republican Senatorial Campaign endorsement that came with defeating her, is a constant reminder of her vulnerability. She claimed victory with her write-in campaign in the general election — but by only 4 points. And she has the lowest Club for Growth rating of her Senate GOP colleagues. So far this year, Murkowski has voted with President Barack Obama 73 percent of the time, while Sullivan has supported him 50 percent of the time, according to CQ's Vote Watch .  

The difference between now and 2010 is that Murkowski’s campaign knows what it’s up against.  

“[The] first message is that we’re not fooling around this time,” Murkowski Campaign Coordinator Scott Kendall told CQ Roll Call. “[We’re] not any under illusion that we’re not getting an opponent.”  

For her part, the senator declined to answer questions from CQ Roll Call Tuesday, saying she wasn't comfortable discussing campaigns while walking and talking in the Senate basement.  

Alaskan political operatives agree the key to her winning re-election is surviving attacks from the right.  

“If she survives the primary, she’s golden,” said Jim Lottsfeldt, who ran the pro-Begich Put Alaska First super PAC in 2014 and helped with Murkowski's 2010 write-in campaign. “If not," he added, "all bets are off.”  

Since it's a closed primary that only allows Republican voters, it traditionally attracts the state’s most conservative voters — the kind who agree with Miller's complaints about the senator. " She absolutely will be challenged," Miller said. "She doesn’t represent Republican values." Kendall characterized Murkowski's strategy as an “an educational campaign” —  one part informing unaffiliated voters they can vote in the GOP primary, and one part accomplishment-touting. Murkowski’s biggest weapons will likely be her Senate seniority and her Energy and Natural Resources Committee gavel. “What we would like this to be is a very conventional, boring race,” Kendall joked. “Eighteen months of just us having a dialogue with Alaskans.”  

A conversation like that takes money. Through March 31 of this year, Murkowski's campaign raised more money than she did during the first quarters of either 2009 or 2010. She brought in $692,000 and ended the period with nearly $1.5 million in cash on hand. Already this year, without a declared primary challenger, her campaign has spent almost as much as it did during the first quarter of 2010.  

“In the 2010 race, she was sleepwalking,” said GOP strategist Willis Lyford, who has worked with Murkowski in the past. “She’s a smart enough politician that that’s never going to happen to her again.”  

Proving her conservative chops, though, is more difficult now that her junior colleague is a Republican who votes to her right.  

“Sen. Murkowski did a lot to help me,” Sullivan told CQ Roll Call Tuesday when asked if he would support Murkowski in a primary. “She's someone I look forward to serving many years in the Senate with."  

Another difficulty for Murkowski comes from Begich's attempt at a bipartisan 2014 campaign — one of his ads touted that he and Murkowski voted together 80 percent of the time.  

Claims such as that make it hard to see how Begich would challenge Murkowski in the general election. “It’s not a good matchup with him; [Murkowski] has a greater section of the middle than he does,” Lottsfeldt said.  

After telling Politico last week, “You never say never,” in regard to a future political campaign, Begich told CQ Roll Call this week, “I truly am enjoying what I’m doing.” Since leaving the Senate, he’s contracted to work with two law firms, one in Alaska and one on K Street lobbying in Washington.  

The only scenario where Begich might enter the race, operatives from both sides of the aisle agreed, would be if Murkowski lost that August 2016 primary.  

“We have an official sport up here — that’s sled dog racing,” GOP consultant Mike Porcaro said. “Our unofficial sport is politics.”  

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