One of the most-talked about Senate races of 2022 lies in Alaska, where incumbent Republican Lisa Murkowski is running for a fourth term. Murkowski is a political moderate noted for her willingness to cross party lines on key issues. Much to the annoyance of conservatives, she survived a 2010 primary loss by winning the general election as a write-in candidate. Her recent vote to impeach former President Donald Trump sparked the ire of the Trump faction. With repeated threats of a primary challenge on the radar, Murkowski might be in trouble in any other state. But in Alaska, she is well-set to easily overcome a challenge from any party or side of the aisle, and much of it is due to a major change in election laws.
Election Reform Creates a New Dynamic
In November 2020, Alaska voters approved a new system of voting by a narrow margin of just under 4,000 votes. Under the new system, a blanket primary will be held where all voters choose from the same list of candidates. The candidates themselves declare their party affiliation, or lack thereof; voters can select one candidate. The four candidates that receive the most votes advance to the general election in November. There, voters can rank candidates from one through four (although they don’t have to rank anyone beyond their first choice, if they choose not to). If no candidate receives a majority of first-preference votes, candidates are eliminated and their votes reassigned by preference.
Because independent candidates don’t appear on primary ballots, it is not 100% possible to predict the probable result of this new primary system. But previous elections present a clear picture: it is almost certain that two Republicans will advance in almost every race in the state.
|Result||2010 Senate||2014 Governor||2014 Senate||2016 Senate||2018 Governor||2020 Senate|
|1st||Miller (R) – 55,878||Parnell (R) – 80,903||Begich (D) – 58,092||Murkowski (R) – 39,545||Dunleavy (R) – 43,802||Sullivan (R) – 65,257|
|2nd||Murkowski (R) – 53,872||Mallott (D) – 43,237||Sullivan (R) – 44,740||Metcalfe (D) – 15,228||Begich (D) – 33,451||Gross (I) – 50,407|
|3rd||McAdams (D) – 18,035||Millette (R) – 11,296||Miller (R) – 35,904||Blatchford (D) – 10,090||Treadwell (R) – 22,780||Blatchford (D) – 5,463|
|4th||Kern (D) – 6,913||Snowden (R) – 10,594||Treadwell (R) – 27,807||Lochner (R) – 8,480||Toien (L) – 5,790||Howe (L) – 4,165|
As can be shown here, two Republicans would have advanced to the final-four in every single major statewide election from 2010 on. In fact, it would be just as likely for three Republicans to advance as it would for two Democrats to advance. Alaska is still a very Republican state, and there are far more Republican voters than Democratic ones.
A Re-Run of 2016
How does this new system help Murkowski? Well, it’s fairly simple. As an incumbent Senator, it’s almost certain that she would receive enough votes to make the top-four. The challenge is making the top-two. Murkowksi’s previous elections have shown her to be uniquely strong in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and the vast Alaskan Bush. Crucially, she remains popular with Alaska’s large indigenous community; she received over 54% of the vote in all four of the Democratic-leaning House districts of the North Slope and rural west. Conservative Republicans dominate in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley as well as the exurban, suburban, and rural areas surrounding the major cities. Democratic strength traditionally and currently derives from the core of Anchorage, the Bush, and the Alaskan Panhandle (especially around Juneau).
The 2016 election provides a perfect case study for Murkowksi’s bipartisan appeal. This unusual election, a four-way contest between a Republican, Democrat, Independent, and Libertarian, fits the new system almost perfectly. In 2016 and 2020, Donald Trump lost all four House Districts based in northern and western Alaska. However, Murkowski carried all four of them in 2016. She also carried all of the House districts based in the Panhandle, even those based in Juneau. Joe Miller, the conservative firebrand that beat Murkowksi in the 2010 primary only to lose to her successful write-in bid in the general, secured the Libertarian nomination. Left-leaning independent Margaret Stock became the de facto Democratic nominee after receiving the endorsement of former Senator Mark Begich, leaving Democrat Ray Metcalfe in fourth place.
Because no candidate won a majority, the race would have gone to ranked-choice voting. As the lowest major vote-getter, Metcalfe would have been eliminated first. It’s hard to imagine a Metcalfe voter ranking the hard-right Miller ahead of Stock or Murkowski – in all likelihood, Murkwoski would have crossed the 50% threshold from Metcalfe’s votes alone. Even if she didn’t, Stock would have certainly put her across. In a one-on-one race with Miller, Murkowski would likely have garnered 65 to 70% of the vote. Miller had support from conservative voters in the Valley, but he failed to win districts there that are open to staunch ideological conservatives.
Ranked-Choice Voting Makes a Primary Futile
In a previous article, I’ve noted the difficulties of a moderate Republican making a top-two under this new system. HD14 representative Kelly Merrick’s seat is a staunchly Republican seat that Donald Trump won by over 20 percentage points. Assuming a primary defeat by a 60% to 40% margin, she would need to be first-preference by around 20-25% of Democratic voters to make the top-two against the conservative challenger. That’s a tough feat to be sure, but a doable one. It’s even more doable at the statewide level, as Trump only won Alaska by ten percentage points.
Murkowski cruised to her last primary victory. In an open, statewide primary, she would be almost certain to be the top vote-getter in the state one even if a fellow Republican bleeds off some conservative votes. In the runoff, she would enter with something few other Alaskan Republicans have: a proven track record of dominance among typically Democratic voters. Winning a third of Democratic voters isn’t a theory for her – it’s a demonstrated fact. She did this without losing all her Republican support, too. In the aforementioned HD14, she beat Miller by 12 points (a 46% to 34% margin). And it’s worth noting that the NRSC would be almost certain to aid Murkowski over any challenger, as they do with any and all incumbent Republican Senators.
Simply put, the path to a successful primary challenge of Murkowski is nonexistent. While former President Donald Trump has vowed to campaign against Murkowski, this would have been a challenge even before the top-four system was introduced. Alaska’s politics are highly local and rely on uniting disparate coalitions that cross ethnic and political lines, and Murkowski has shown herself to be an expert at this.
Unless both Republican and Democratic support for Murkowski utterly craters – something the new top-four primary seems designed to prevent – there is little to no chance that a primary attempt against Murkowski succeeds. Murkowski is virtually guaranteed to make the top four, and is equally well-set in the general whether pitted against a Republican, Democrat, independent, or any variation thereof.