The Republican Party and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski have always had a rocky relationship. The daughter of Senate giant Frank Murkowski, she has always seemed an odd fit for a party that has evolved ever right.
She was appointed to her seat in 2002, and cruised easily with a primary victory in 2004 before squeaking out a general election win 49-46. But in 2010, during the apex of the frothy tea party-movement, Murkowski was ousted in the Republican primary against Sarah Palin-backed Joe Wilson (remember her?). She is a senator today because during her write-in campaign, Alaska Democrats rallied around the lesser-of-two-evils. Yet as we saw Thursday, Alaska is shifting leftward while Senate Republicans are headed into the minority. Republicans back home hate her. So why fight it? It’ll soon be time for her to ditch the GOP, become an independent, and caucus with the Democrats.
Yesterday’s Alaska poll by Public Policy Polling (PPP) confirmed what we have been seeing in our own Civiqs data, and what I’ve been hearing from insiders—that Alaska is a battleground state this year—at the presidential, Senate, and House levels.
According to PPP, impeached racist Donald Trump has a narrow 48-45 lead against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the presidential contest. In the Senate race, incumbent Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan leads by a woeful 39-34 against independent (and de facto Democrat) Al Gross, despite the latter having a name ID of almost zero. And in the House race (Alaska only has one), Democrat Alyse Galvin leads long-time Republican incumbent and crank Don Young 43-41.
But here’s something else that is really interesting: only 29% of poll respondents approved of Murkowski when asked about her job approvals, compared to 55% who disapproved. That’s not a base upon which one builds a successful reelection campaign, which she will in 2022.
Amazingly, among Republicans, those job approval numbers are an eye-popping 17-71%! She is loathed inside her own party. Meanwhile, Democrats’ approvals of her are at 41-41%!
Of course, Democrats like her because she’s become a thorn on the GOP’s side. While she voted to acquit Trump during his impeachment trial, she has legislatively bucked the GOP in key moments—the vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the only Republican “no” vote on Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation vote, a rare “no” on George W. Bush’s PATRIOT Act, a vocal critic of Trump’s racist border wall, the list goes on. She has needled her caucus leader, Mitch McConnell, for his unwavering focus on judges. “It’s unfortunate that we’re kind of viewing [judicial nominees] as this is the one thing we can do,” she said. “We’re not focusing on [legislation] as much as I think we should or we could.” Republican Senate whip John Cornyn, in charge of getting his colleagues to vote however leadership wants them to vote, said, “I would say she’s the most independent.”
There is definitely no love lost between her and Trump. After her Kavanaugh vote, he did what Trump does and lashed out on Twitter:
Trump was joined by Alaska’s most famous grifter:
Murkowski hasn’t backed down, by any measure. Where Maine Sen. Susan Collins pretends to be oh-so-concerned before caving to Trump and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Murkowski just doesn’t give a damn. When former Trump defense secretary Gen. James Mattis unloaded on Trump, Murkowski singularly stood out among her cowardly caucus by underscoring the important of that criticism.
“I was really thankful. I thought General Mattis’ words were true and honest and necessary and overdue,” she told reporters. “When I saw General Mattis’ comments yesterday I felt like perhaps we are getting to a point where we can be more honest with the concerns that we might hold internally. And have the courage of our own convictions to speak up.”
She added that she was “struggling” over whether she could support Trump.
So it’s obvious, Republicans hate her and are gunning for her. Murkowski isn’t stupid, and she sees the dangers she faces in a Republican primary. That’s why her crew is pushing a ballot initiative that would replace party primaries with a “jungle primary,” in which all candidates run on the same line. The top four finishers (regardless of party) would advance to a runoff to determine the ultimate winner.
That could certainly save her hide, but why bother? What is keeping her a Republican, at this point, besides fealty to the legacy of her father? She can strike out and build her own legacy.
Alaska has a rich tradition of Democratic-caucusing independents. She doesn’t need to become a Democrat, just caucus with them. Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer, I’m sure, would be happy to let her keep her committee assignments, and in particular, her chairmanship of the Energy and Natural Resources committee—of obvious importance to Alaska.
Obviously, it would be stupid of her to do this before November, while Republicans still control the chamber. But she’ll have to decide, if Democrats take the Senate (which is likely at this point), whether she wants to live in the hapless minority in a new, filibuster-free Senate, or whether she wants to keep her chairmanship, her influence, and—perhaps most importantly—the ability to vote her conscience without having to deal with the likes of McConnell, Cornyn, and the rest of the male-dominant Republican Party.
It would also be the ultimate “fuck you” to Trump and Palin, and you know Murkowski wants to deliver that message. The disdain is visceral.
Ultimately, she won’t win reelection on the strength of Republican voters. Her base is now Alaska Democrats. They are the reason she is in the Senate today, and they will be the reason she keeps her job, even if the jungle-primary ballot initiative is enacted. So why not own it?
Given Alaska’s shift leftward in recent cycles, it’s also the smart political-electoral play.