Trump vs. Murkowski: Home team advantage

Alaska has an independent streak that Murkowski knows how to harness

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has become a target of former President Donald Trump. She still has the advantage in her home state if she seeks re-election in 2022.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has become a target of former President Donald Trump. She still has the advantage in her home state if she seeks re-election in 2022. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 10, 2021 at 6:30am

ANALYSISTwice-impeached former President Donald Trump apparently has declared war on Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

According to Politico reporter Alex Isenstadt, Trump promised in a statement Saturday, “I will not be endorsing, under any circumstances, the failed candidate from the great State of Alaska, Lisa Murkowski. She represents her state badly and her country even worse. I do not know where other people will be next year, but I know where I will be — in Alaska campaigning against a disloyal and very bad Senator.”

Before you finish sketching out that image in your mind of Trump and a swarm of advisers traipsing from Anchorage to Fairbanks to Sitka to Ketchikan to Kodiak to Prudhoe Bay for six months to take down Murkowski, who was appointed to her seat in 2002 and has since won three full terms, including once as a write-in candidate, let’s recall that Trump carried Alaska in 2020 by only 10 points, 53 percent to 43 percent.

Four years earlier, he carried the state with 51 percent against Hillary Clinton’s 37 percent, while Libertarian Gary Johnson got 6 percent. That is very different from Alabama, Idaho, Kentucky, North Dakota, Oklahoma, West Virginia or other states that Trump carried by at least 25 points. Ten points is a win, but it is hardly a blowout these days.

Alaska is famous for its political quirkiness. The state has elected a mixture of Republicans, Democrats, and independents as governor and to the Senate since it was admitted to the union in 1959. The most recent Democratic senator was Mark Begich, who was elected in 2008 and lost his bid for reelection by only two points in 2014, during Barack Obama’s second midterm election.

As the 2016 edition of “The Almanac of American Politics” put it, “Alaska has remained a state intertwined with government, an independent society dependent on federal spending, subsidies and special treatment, and at the same time, resentful of what it considers Washington’s meddling and intervention.”

In other words, Alaska certainly favors Republicans, but it is not the knee-jerk GOP bastion that many states in the South (e.g., Alabama), Midwest (e.g., the Dakotas) or Mountain West (e.g., Idaho and Wyoming) are.

When Murkowski lost the GOP nomination to tea party conservative Joe Miller in 2010, she came back to win in the fall as a write-in candidate with just under 40 percent of the vote in a three-way contest. It is difficult to imagine that happening in another state, with the possible exception of another quirky one, Maine.

Murkowski knows her state well. She consistently approaches policy matters by asking how they will impact Alaskans, and she comes across as thoughtful and serious — qualities never associated with Trump.

Murkowski also benefits from the passage of Ballot Measure 2, which Alaska voters very narrowly approved last November.

The measure minimizes the threat of a successful primary challenge to Murkowski by eliminating purely partisan primaries (the type she faced in 2010).

As described by Ballotpedia, Ballot Measure 2 replaces “partisan primaries with open top-four primaries for state executive, state legislative, and congressional offices” and establishes “ranked-choice voting for general elections, including the presidential election, in which voters would rank the candidates.”

None of this means Murkowski will coast to reelection next year — or that she is even fully committed to running for another term in 2022.

She’ll turn 65 in May next year, and a handful of senior Republican senators — including Roy Blunt of Missouri, Rob Portman of Ohio and Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania — have already found the Senate so distasteful that they have chosen to retire.

Those retirements probably mean that the Senate Republican Conference will become more populist, more disinclined to compromise and more like House Republicans.

In some ways, Trump seems like the least likely person to rally Alaska voters against Murkowski. He is a New Yorker-turned-Floridian, a real estate mogul and a narcissist, which limits his appeal in a state where many regard themselves as straight shooters.

Trump may well campaign against Murkowski — indeed, by threatening to do so publicly, he has virtually given himself no alternative. Backing away from his promise to campaign against the “very bad senator” would make the former president look toothless and foolish.

 But if Murkowski runs for another term, she will start out with a clear advantage, even with Trump campaigning against her.

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