Usually, an Alaska Senate race in what is more than likely to be a GOP favored year wouldn’t make much noise. While it has trended towards Democrats, it hasn’t done so to the point where the state is competitive. At least at the federal level. But 2022’s senate race will bring multiple storylines. Part of it will be Alaska’s new electoral system of a top four blanket primary runoff for the general. The other part is the status of incumbent Lisa Murkowski. While some, like Elections Daily Editor-in-chief Eric Cunningham, initially felt that Murkowski would be fine, that momentum is changing. I no longer think that’s the case. In fact, I think Murkowski is in more danger than most currently believe she is.
Murkowski’s Past Struggles
It’s important to start off with Murkowski’s past as a Senator in Alaska – and it’s a messy one with a lot of bumps in the road. First, Murkowski has never won a majority of the vote in her senate races. Not in 2004, not in 2010, and not in 2016; in all three she finished with under 50% of the vote. That shows that Murkowski has never been incredibly popular with Alaskans even though she’s survived so far.
In 2004 her problems were quite simple. Her father, Frank Murkowski, appointed her to this seat in 2002 after he resigned it to become Governor. That move immediately began cries of nepotism which followed her until the 2004 election. Couple that with a challenge from former Governor Tony Knowles and you had Murkowski underperform George W Bush by just about 13 points.
Then in 2016, the Libertarians were able to convince a former Murkowski foe in Joe Miller to run. That run saw Miller get nearly 30% of the total vote as a Libertarian. Murkowski ended up getting 44.4% of the vote in what was basically a four way race, with a Democrat and left-leaning independent taking 25% of the total vote. It wasn’t Murkowski’s best performance, but considering past circumstances, 2016 was pretty good for her and was thought to be a sign that maybe her past issues were behind her.
It’s Time to Stop Talking about 2010
I’m not forgetting Murkowski’s stunning 2010 win. Yes, it was one of the most impressive political victories in America’s history. Yes, it showed Murkowski had a strong enough brand to win as a write in. But it’s time to stop talking about it. It has been twelve years since that moment and a lot has changed politically since that election.
Murkowski’s style of politics, which used to be the mainstream, now seem out of touch. Remember that Murkowski only lost her 2010 primary by around 2000 votes. I am quite confident that if she were to face a similar challenge in 2022, that number would be much wider. Her staying power with Republicans has tanked, and if recent polling is to be believed, her numbers with independents (who lean right in Alaska) aren’t great either.
The only people she is above water with approval wise are Democrats, and even they don’t give her 50% approval. That just wouldn’t be enough to do what she did in 2010. It’s not the same atmosphere of American politics, where today voters are tired of the perceived establishment and dynasties – of which Murkowski is both. And I do think that people are tired of being represented by a Murkowski in this seat. Republicans want something new.
The New System Won’t Necessarily Save Her
And I know what you’re going to say next. “But Joe, doesn’t that new primary and general style mean that Murkowski will be okay, even against another republican?” You would be completely in the right to say that too. The new four-way runoff general from an all party primary does make Murkowski’s life easier. It almost certainly makes sure she makes it to a general election. But I don’t think that necessarily means she’s favored in that race.
Firstly, the general election would have ranked-choice voting. While that again seems to favor Murkowski, it does not necessarily in my opinion. If we learned anything from the Virginia GOP convention, it’s that whoever leads after the first round in a ranked choice voting scenario, is most likely to win. Now, that’s not always the case (see the ME-02 election in 2018), but most of the time that seems to be the case. And no polling shows Murkowski coming close to the lead as of now.
Now, she could arguably move up from second to first in the final round as a de facto Democratic candidate in the eyes of those voters. But to have that happen might mean that Democrats don’t have anyone serious up. And that doesn’t seem likely to happen currently, as 2020 nominee Al Gross seems to be heavily considering a run. And his name recognition with Democrats and independents would help him in this race. That would potentially be enough to get him above Murkowski into second place. If that gap is wide enough, it would be near impossible for Murkowski to get enough votes from the fourth place finisher to over take Gross and go into a final round with Kelly Tshibaka. So, if Gross gets in, this race becomes much much harder for Murkowski.
A Race Made of Ifs and Maybes
This race still has a lot of question marks though. It’s not certain that Gross jumps in, meaning that no serious left wing candidate will likely run. That makes Murkowski’s survival much more probable. I also still have doubts over Kelly Tshibaka as a candidate and if she can deal with the long haul this race will be. She is a first time candidate and going directly into a senate run can be difficult. Murkowski certainly can still survive what will be a strong challenge to her. She has before. But do not assume she is safe. Because for now, that’s not the direction this race is heading.