Six years ago, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski was in a jam.
She’d lost her primary to tea party candidate Joe Miller — and with it, the support of the Republican leadership in Washington.
But she went on to do what only one other senator had done before: win a general election through a write-in campaign. She squeaked through by 4 points.
This year is different. Murkowski is expected to easily win her Tuesday primary, setting her up for a general election with nominal Democratic opposition.
Murkowski learned from that 2010 scare, and national Republicans say her more aggressive campaign this election cycle deterred would-be primary opponents.
The fact that Murkowski had a “full-blown campaign” last year, one national Republican said, is a good indication of just how seriously her team has taken this race. During the 2010 campaign, Murkowski didn’t have a similar operation up and running until mid-April of the on-year.
The biggest challenge
“We’re not taking anything for granted,” Robert Dillon, communications director for the campaign, reiterated Monday. “The biggest challenge this year is get out the vote,” he said.
To that end, the campaign has been spending more money. By the end of July 2016, Murkowski’s campaign — without facing a serious primary threat — had spent $4.6 million. At the same point in 2010, her campaign had spent only $2.2 million.
Fundraising has been part of that ramped-up operation. Murkowski raised more in an off-year than any other incumbent in Alaska history. By the end of the pre-primary reporting period, she’d raised $6.8 million during this campaign.
Better fundraising has also helped her reach the places she needs to get to — often by plane — to be seen and heard. With the help of Alaska’s junior senator, fellow Republican Dan Sullivan, Murkowski has devoted more resources to reach the most conservative pockets of The Last Frontier, like the Mat-Su Valley. Alaska has a closed primary, so it tends to draw the most conservative voters.
State Sen. Mike Dunleavy represents the Mat-Su Valley. In the spring of 2015, he contemplated challenging Murkowski from the right. But he passed this year.
Working across the aisle
Murkowski, the daughter of former Sen. Frank Murkowski, was Senate Republican Conference vice chairwoman when she lost her 2010 primary. But the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the GOP leadership backed Miller once he won the nomination and pushed her aside when she launched her write-in campaign.
“I informed her that by choosing to run a campaign against the Republican nominee, she no longer has my support for serving in any leadership roles,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in 2010.
Since winning back her seat, Murkowski has taken up the gavel of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. She’s also chairwoman of the Appropriations subcommittee on the Interior and Environment. Both are advantageous positions for her state, which is a message her campaign has sent loud and clear in its paid media.
“We need to have Lisa in her position as chair of Senate Energy,” former Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell said in email Monday. Treadwell, who came in third in 2014’s GOP primary, had been mentioned as a possible primary challenger to Murkowski earlier this cycle.
“Her ability to reach across the aisle has proven helpful in recent years, demonstrated by the bipartisan energy bill that has a good chance yet in this Congress.”
But plenty of Republicans in Alaska gripe that she’s sometimes too willing to reach across the aisle. Murkowski’s the third-most moderate Republican on the Club for Growth’s ranking of senators. She’s broken with her party on issues like voting rights, gay rights and whether President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee should get a Senate hearing.
“There’ll be a lot of protest votes,” her 2010 rival Miller predicted about Tuesday’s primary.
And yet, neither Miller nor any of the bigger-name Alaska Republicans who initially made noise about challenging Murkowski followed through with it this year.
“We all felt that we could probably beat her in the primary again,” Miller said. He lost the general election to Murkowski in 2010, then lost the 2014 primary to Sullivan.
He cited family and financial obligations for keeping him out of the race this year. He had to close his law practice to run the previous two times.
But he left the door open to another bid until the June filing deadline this year, ultimately passing when former Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan filed to run.
Sullivan’s shared name with the state’s junior senator meant he might have benefited from some mistaken name recognition, but he withdrew his challenge almost as quickly as he launched it.
“Anyone who has solid conservative credentials and a degree of funding could probably take her out in the primary,” Miller said, disputing the conventional wisdom that Murkowski lost in 2010 because she was “sitting on her hands.” But the three other Republicans on the primary ballot lack the funds to be competitive, Miller said.
Correction: A previous version of this story misattributed one of former Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell’s quotes to state Sen. Mike Dunleavy.