washingtonpost.com  > Politics > Elections > 2004 Election

Sen. Murkowski's Big Problem: Dad, the Governor

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 10, 2004; Page A01

KOTZEBUE, Alaska -- A formidable obstacle stands between Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and winning the fall election.

Her father.

Murkowski visits an Eskimo village north of the Arctic Circle. Voters there -- and elsewhere in Alaska -- do not like the way she got her Senate seat. (Blaine Harden -- The Washington Post)

An Aug. 10 article on the U.S. Senate race in Alaska incorrectly implied that Republican Ted Stevens would stay on as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee if the GOP retained control of the Senate in November. Stevens would be prevented from continuing as chairman under Senate Republican term-limit rules but could take another committee chairmanship.

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Frank Murkowski, a barrel-chested conservative fixture in this Republican-dominated state, held Lisa's job for two decades until he was elected governor in 2002. Then, to the disgust of many Alaskans, he selected his daughter, an obscure state legislator, to serve out his Senate term.

The father, thanks to the unpopular appointment and even more unpopular cuts in the state budget, has since become the most disliked governor in this state's short history, several pollsters say. The daughter, while garnering positive reviews for her brief season in Washington, has been unable to shake the taint of nepotism. And that taint, depending on results in a few tight contests in the lower 48, could end up tipping the U.S. Senate back to the Democrats.

"It is something I have to deal with," Lisa Murkowski said. "I have never once asked Alaskans to like how I got this job."

On a recent campaign swing that took her north of the Arctic Circle, it was clear that many voters do not like it. Here in a coastal village where native people subsist on caribou, whale meat and berries, the borough mayor squired the senator around with painstaking civility, apologizing that berry picking had kept most villagers away from her town meeting. Yet when the senator was out of earshot, Mayor Roswell Schaeffer Sr. explained that he is peeved by what "Lisa's dad did."

"It's going to have a negative impact," Schaeffer said. "I think her dad was wrong in the way he did it."

In a state that is more than 14 times the size of Virginia, bad vibes from the appointment linger: Bumper stickers snidely ask, "Yo, Lisa, who's yer daddy?" Her own campaign signs tacitly acknowledge the problem. They shout "Lisa" in big block letters and whisper "Murkowski" in smaller print.

The senator's pollster, David Dittman, said that when Alaskans are asked an open-ended question (What don't you like about Lisa?), they say they "don't like the appointment." That was the response of about 90 percent of those polled at the beginning of the campaign, Dittman said, adding that it "is beginning to fade as time goes on."

After a 12-hour day of campaigning between Eskimo villages, Murkowski -- a thin, soft-spoken woman who is married to a pasta maker in Anchorage and has two young sons -- conceded that her candidacy is paternally challenged.

"In some people's mind, the father-daughter connection is a liability," said Murkowski, who, by Alaska standards and in comparison to her outspoken father, is a moderate Republican. "I am working very hard to let people know that I am not a clone of Frank Murkowski."

For nine months, statewide polls have shown Murkowski narrowly trailing her Democratic rival, former governor Tony Knowles. According to a poll for an Anchorage TV station released last week, she trails Knowles by about two percentage points. (She appears headed for an easy victory in a Republican primary later this month.)

She supports abortion rights, has publicly disagreed with her father over his decision to cut a popular state payment to the elderly and is widely regarded as a more flexible and harder-working senator than her father was. Murkowski sits on Senate committees important to her state: Energy and Natural Resources, Environment and Public Works, Indian Affairs, and Veterans' Affairs. Still, she said, escaping his shadow is unlikely.

"Some people will visit the sins of the father on the daughter," she said, adding that she and her father do agree on most issues and he is "really proud of me."

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