Democrats Looking to Break a Trend in the Last Frontier

Posted June 18, 2003 at 1:32pm

Faced with a difficult election cycle, Senate Democrats are hoping to limit the damage to their ranks by picking up GOP-held Senate seats in Illinois and Alaska. [IMGCAP(1)]

But while Illinois, an Al Gore state in 2000, is an obvious target, Alaska is much more of a stretch. Democrats hope the combination of unique circumstances and a strong challenger will allow them to swipe an Alaskan Senate seat next year.

That seat is widely seen as at risk because Frank Murkowski (R), who was re-elected to it in 1998, resigned from the Senate after being elected governor in 2002.

The new governor spent weeks considering whom he would appoint to fill his vacancy, even floating a lengthy list of names. Ultimately, he named his daughter, Lisa Murkowski (R), to fill the last two years of his Senate term.

The selection of Lisa Murkowski, a 46-year-old moderate who was serving in the state Legislature — after winning renomination last year against a conservative primary opponent by a mere 57 votes — raised plenty of eyebrows, both in the state and in the nation’s capital. Appointed Senators have historically had trouble winning subsequent elections, and the additional burden of alleged nepotism gives Democrats reason for optimism.

In addition, the state’s fiscal problems have turned Alaskans against the governor, creating the possibility that voters will seek to send a message of dissatisfaction to Frank Murkowski by voting against his daughter in 2004.

While GOP strategists downplay the likelihood of a primary challenge to the appointee, the new Senator is more realistic. She notes that the lack of turnover in the state’s Congressional delegation makes it likely she will ultimately have company on the Republican ballot. The important question, says Murkowski, is how credible that opponent might be.

While the Democratic bench in the state is not deep, the party has two former officeholders who would constitute strong general election candidates, and both are looking at the Senate race.

Former two-term Gov. Tony Knowles, 60, is the most successful Democratic statewide politician in a decade. He was first elected to the state’s top office in 1994. Four years later, he won a second term in a walk. His lieutenant governor, Fran Ulmer, lost to Frank Murkowski in last year’s race for governor but is widely regarded as an appealing candidate.

The combination of an appointed Senator, charges of nepotism, a possible primary, the governor’s problems and a credible Democratic nominee suggest that next year’s Alaska Senate race will be competitive.

But every argument has two sides, and Democrats may be engaged in a bit of wishful thinking when it comes to Alaska’s Senate race.

First, Lisa Murkowski is no slouch. Articulate and personable, she is returning to the state about three times a month, no small task given the distance between Alaska and Capitol Hill. She has started to fatten her campaign account, and has a strong ally in Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

Second, “nepotism” may not be the albatross that many assume it will be.

There is no doubt that Lisa Murkowski’s appointment by her father was regarded by many in the state as ill-advised. But 17 months from now, when the 2004 elections roll around, Lisa Murkowski will be more than Frank’s daughter. She’ll be a U.S. Senator with her own legislative record, and Alaska voters are likely to be more comfortable with her in that role.

Murkowski’s opponents, whether in the GOP primary or the general election, will get some mileage out of the nepotism argument, but that argument isn’t likely to be as effective as it was shortly after her appointment.

Third, let’s not exaggerate the appeal of Knowles and Ulmer. Each is an accomplished politician, but they haven’t quite demonstrated the votegetting ability that you may assume.

Knowles was elected governor in 1994 with just 41 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate race. Four years later, he won re-election with only 51 percent, even though the state GOP withdrew its support for the party’s nominee a couple of weeks before the general election and endorsed a write-in candidate.

Ulmer, 56, drew just 40.7 percent against Frank Murkowski even though Democratic strategists hyped the race for months and suggested she might pull off an upset.

Fourth, Sen. Murkowski has the benefit of running in a presidential year, with George W. Bush at the top of the Republican ticket. The Democratic presidential nominee in 2004 is likely to have little appeal in the state, making it all the tougher for the state’s Democratic Senate standard-bearer.

Even in conservative, GOP-leaning states like Wyoming and Kansas, Democrats have been able to win gubernatorial races. Indeed, Democrats have won seven of the past 12 contests for governor in Alaska. But Senate contests involve a whole different set of issues and implications, and that’s one reason why the last Democrat to win a federal contest in Alaska was Sen. Mike Gravel — in 1974. That doesn’t bode well for Knowles and Ulmer. [IMGCAP(2)]