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Why Lisa Murkowski is endorsing across party lines in Alaska

The Last Frontier’s sometimes rebellious Republican senator is bucking her party in the midterms – and she has more than one good reason

Eric Garcia
Monday 24 October 2022 11:15 BST
Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski
Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski (via REUTERS)

Over the weekend, Senator Lisa Murkowski told reporters at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention that this November, she will vote for newly-minted Democratic Representative Mary Peltola as her first choice in Alaska’s ranked-choice election system.

It was a fascinating moment. For a start, Ms Murkowski’s endorsement of the freshman congresswoman and Democratic phenom seems surprising given that she herself is a Republican. Then there is the palace intrigue aspect: Ms Murkowski has viciously feuded with Ms Peltola’s Republican opponent, Sarah Palin, since the 2006 GOP gubernatorial, when Ms Palin beat Ms Murkowski’s incumbent father, Frank.

But to look at this solely through the lenses of a realigned Washington and personality politics is to ignore a key fact: Ms Murkowski and Ms Peltola enjoy significant crossover in their support.

Last month, Ivan Moore, who runs Alaska Survey Research, explained to your dispatcher last month that the two women share “largely the same set of voters”. This is in part the legacy of the 2010 midterms, in which Ms Palin backed Tea Party candidate Joe Miller when he successfully beat Ms Murkowski in the Republican primary – only for Ms Murowski toi stage a successful write-in campaign with a broad coalition of voters.

“Those people were largely moderate, predominantly female,” Mr Moore said, adding that much of the constituency came from rural Alaska and the Alaska Native community. “She’s always been or has professed to be pro-choice,” Mr Moore said – though like fellow Republican Senator Susan Collins, who also professes to be pro-choice, she voted against Democratic legislation that would have codified the protections in Roe v Wade. “When you think about Peltola’s constituency, it’s much the same.”

But Democratic voters hesitated to pull for her until she voted against Republican attempts to repeal Obamacare.

“Between 2010 to 2017, Murowski’s strongest group was the moderates,” he said. But afterward, her biggest supporters became progressives and Democrats, followed by moderates – this even as she supported former president Donald Trump’s tax cuts in 2017, voted to acquit him during his first impeachment trial, and backed the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

Yet she went on to antagonize conservatives when she voted to convict Mr Trump for his role in the January 6 riot. In response, the former president has turned up the heat on Ms Murkowski, endorsing her right-wing GOP opponent Kelly Tshibaka in this August’s all-party primary.

Under ordinary circumstances, this would have signaled the end of Ms Murkowski’s political career, the same fate that befell Republican Representatives Peter Meijer, Liz Cheney, Jaime Herrera Beutler and Tom Rice. But given that Alaska now uses a non-partisan ranked-choice voting system, the four candidates who received the most votes in the primary automatically made it to the November ballot regardless of party status. (One of the four to make it through, Republican Buzz Kelley, has since withdrawn and endorsed Ms Tshibaka.)

The same primary coincided with the special election to fill the late Don Young’s seat – the vote where Ms Peltola became the first Democrat in almost a half century to win Alaska’s sole House seat.

For her part, last month, Ms Peltola told your dispatcher “I’m doing voter outreach to everyone,” and praised Ms Murkowski for doing a “great job”.

There’s also another factor in Ms Murkowski’s decision to support Ms Peltola: the Alaska Native community. In 2010, they played a big role in her write-in campaign; she frequently wears Native jewelry on the Hill, and they lobbied her aggressively to oppose Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court.

Similarly, in a tweet, Ms Peltola noted that both women wore traditional qaspeqs, overshirts typically worn by the Yup’ik people – of whom Ms Peltola is one.

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