Alaska Governor Battles a Shifting Tide

Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski, left, discusses the recent leak from a oil transit line at Prudhoe Bay oil field with Neil Dunn of BP. Murkowski faces an expected tough primary on Tuesday.
Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski, left, discusses the recent leak from a oil transit line at Prudhoe Bay oil field with Neil Dunn of BP. Murkowski faces an expected tough primary on Tuesday. (By Al Grillo -- Associated Press)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 21, 2006

ANCHORAGE -- Gov. Frank H. Murkowski (R) left Washington four years ago to serve as Alaska's chief executive and what he hoped would be a gratifying capstone to his many years in public service. He now faces an ignominious end to that long political career as he struggles to avoid defeat in Tuesday's Republican gubernatorial primary.

Murkowski's early campaign commercials told the story of his problems. In one television ad, his wife, Nancy, admits that he's a stubborn man. A newspaper ad had him suggesting that he needed a personality transplant. A radio jingle to the tune of Merle Haggard's ballad "Okie From Muskogee," available on his Web site, ends with: "He might not win awards for his charisma, but Alaska's gonna need Frank in '06."

A defeat on Tuesday would make him the fourth incumbent to lose a primary election this month. On Aug. 8, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) and Rep. John J.H. "Joe" Schwarz (R-Mich.) were defeated in primaries. Murkowski, who has been running third in recent public polls, may be headed for the same fate.

Murkowski spent 22 years in the Senate, rising to chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where he battled unsuccessfully to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, fought to prevent bans on logging in the Tongass National Forest with limited success and championed a natural gas pipeline that would bring the state's gas reserves to the Midwest.

When control of the Senate shifted to the Democrats in the spring of 2001, Murkowski decided to return to Alaska and run for governor. He won that 2002 race handily -- and immediately got into trouble by appointing his daughter Lisa to fill the Senate seat he vacated. She won reelection in 2004, but her father never fully recovered.

An automated telephone poll by SurveyUSA last month put Murkowski's approval rating at just 21 percent, second-lowest of any governor. A poll commissioned by the Democratic Governors Association earlier in the summer found that just 15 percent of Alaskans said he deserved reelection.

"He enjoyed a lot of support as part of the delegation while he was in the Senate," said Carl Shepro, a political science professor at the University of Alaska at Anchorage. As governor, he said, "it's become very, very negative."

Other problems followed his daughter's appointment. Facing a substantial deficit in his first year in office, Murkowski balanced the state budget in part by reducing the longevity bonus payment to older residents. He irritated Alaskans by pushing to buy an expensive new jet. His administration has run into ethical problems, and he upset legislators by secretly negotiating with energy companies over a new natural gas pipeline.

"It's been a cumulative process of bad decision-making," Gerald McBeath, a political science professor at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, said in an e-mail.

In a televised debate Thursday night in Juneau with his main rivals, Murkowski said, "I think the media is not used to a governor making tough decisions."

Campaign manager Mike Scott said the governor's approval rating has roughly doubled in the past six weeks because the campaign has promoted accomplishments, including a significant increase in education funding and improvement in student test scores. "What the campaign is allowing us to do is to get his record out," he said.

Murkowski's priority has been to win approval for a 2,140-mile pipeline to carry Alaska's vast natural gas reserves from Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope to Canada for delivery to customers in the American Midwest.

Last week, the state legislature approved a new oil production tax that amounted to a significant overhaul of the state's tax code and which will provide the state an estimated $2.7 billion annually in additional revenue. A contract for the pipeline is pending.

Despite the power of incumbency, Murkowski has struggled to raise money and has trailed former Wasilla mayor Sarah Palin and former state senator John Binkley in the battle for the Republican nomination.

Palin has positioned herself as the change candidate. Jean Craciun, an independent pollster, said Palin is drawing support from moderate and independent voters. Binkley, who is largely financing his own campaign, has spent more than $1 million on the primary and has more support from the Republican establishment.

Public polls in July by Craciun and on Aug. 14 by David Dittman, a former Murkowski adviser who quit the campaign several weeks ago, have shown Palin leading, with Binkley second and Murkowski third. Nonetheless, Scott said he thinks Murkowski can win. "What we've got essentially is a horserace," he said.

Democrats are poised to nominate former governor Tony Knowles, who lost the Senate race to Lisa Murkowski in 2004. The general election also will feature an independent candidate. Earlier polls showed Knowles defeating Murkowski. But given Alaska's Republican leanings, he could find himself in another tough fight in the fall against Palin or Binkley.

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