Just how much trouble is Lisa Murkowski in?
Murkowski is up for re-election in 10 months and on paper she looks like she should be toast. She’s been censured by the Alaska Republican Party because she voted for Trump’s (second) impeachment vote. Her primary challenger Kelly Tshibaka already has Trump’s endorsement and her campaign is crawling with people from Trump World, such as Bill Stepien and Tim Murtaugh.
But there’s also a roadmap for Murkowski that’s already been used successfully by Susan Collins in Maine.
There are big differences between their situations: Murkowski is running in a red state where the most significant challenger comes from her right. Collins was the lone Republican in a blue state fighting off a more liberal Democratic challenger. Also, the vote that put Collins in danger was for Brett Kavanaugh—which helped with her base, but caused trouble for her with independent voters. For Murkowski, her danger vote was impeachment, which puts her crosswise with her own base, but might help with independents.
But there are important similarities between Collins and Murkowski, beginning with how their states conduct elections.
Maine used ranked-choice voting beginning in 2018, and this year Alaska will debut its own ranked-choice system.
Under Alaska’s version of ranked-choice, there is only a single, nonpartisan primary election. The top four finishers advance to the general election. And in the general election, votes are cast by ranked choice—meaning that the field will narrow from 4, to 3, to 2, to the winner. Which means that Murkowski doesn’t have to beat the Trumpy Tshibaka heads-up in a primary decided by Republican voters—she can run a middle course where, by the time she ends up in a showdown with Tshibaka, it’s in the final round of the general election and she can be supported by Alaskan Democrats and independents. A sample poll from last November shows how that moderate strength could manifest for Murkowski in a ranked-choice system:
— Ivan Moore (@IvanMoore1) November 1, 2021
But Collins’s re-election has other lessons for Murkowski, too.
In her 2020 race, Collins highlighted her “authentic ‘Maineness’” as a contrast to Democratic nominee Sara Gideon, who focused on national politics. Gideon focused on Collins’s vote to confirm Kavanaugh. But that turned out not to matter very much to Mainers. Collins stressed that she was someone from Maine fighting for Maine. And Maine voters cared more about that than the national political implications of the election.
It may seem like an idea from a bygone era, but voters from small states still tend to care a lot about which candidate they feel will advocate for their state’s interests in Washington. That’s because small states—with little industry and even less economic throw-weight—are especially dependent on the federal government. Texas and Ohio can choose senators based purely on macro-political trends. Voters in Maine and Alaska don’t have that luxury.
Collins believed that Mainers were more interested in keeping the pork coming than in registering disapproval about Brett Kavanaugh. And she was right: She got 51 percent of the vote.
Murkowski has to hope that Alaskans will care more about her ability to deliver for the state than they do impeachment.
And maybe they will. I’ve done focus groups with Alaskan Republican voters and they are definitely not happy with Murkowski’s impeachment vote. But even while they criticized her for it, they were also steeped in the granular details of her committee assignments and accomplishments in the Senate. One man from Anchorage summarized it best: “Alaska is a small state. We have limited representation in D.C., and that’s how we vote. It doesn’t matter if you agree with the majority of things.”
That’s exactly what Murkowski’s campaign wants to hear.
Tshibaka will lean into being a Trump loyalist. She is already claiming that Murkowski “abandoned” Alaskans with her impeachment vote and is promising “‘America First’ leadership in the Senate.” Surely this will make Twitter Republicans very excited. But it also makes her sound like the GOP version of Sara Gideon, banging on about national politics instead of focusing on brick-and-mortar state issues.
The obvious response from Murkowski should be touting her “Alaska First” leadership.
Although it might look like Murkowski is in trouble, it’s actually Tshibaka who’s caught in a trap: She needs to be an explicitly Trumpy candidate in order to be viable against Murkowski. But that Trumpiness will be a liability in the runoff elections.
Alaska is a red state, but it’s not a monolith. In statewide races, Democratic candidates typically get north of 40 percent of the vote. In the ranked-choice system, Murkowski is likely to be the second choice of both Republican and Democratic voters, which means that the most likely outcome would put her in the final round of voting against Tshibaka, where she could start with a base of 40 percent as Democrats and independents rally to her.
From there, Murkowski would only need a small percentage of Republican voters. If she is able to take even one in four Republicans from Tshibaka, she’d win in a walk.
The forces of Trumpism have been remarkably effective at pushing dissenting elected Republicans out of office. But Lisa Murkowski has the ability to be the exception that proves the rule.