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. (Published 8/11/04)
A formidable obstacle stands between Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and winning the fall election.
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."
Knowles also has a shadow looming over his candidacy. It comes from Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).
Asked in an interview whether he would like the Democratic presidential nominee to come to Alaska to give his Senate race national exposure, Knowles paused for a long moment. "No," he said. "I have to win this race on my own accord. There are no coattails I am looking to."
About eight hours later, after a campaign rally in the suburbs of Anchorage, Knowles revised his remarks on Kerry. "It would be an honor to have him up here," he said. "But I don't think he would help my campaign much."
Alaska, a state that is extraordinarily dependent on oil from the North Slope and government funds from the nation's capital, has two inviolable political commandments that all statewide candidates must obey, political analysts say.
First, candidates must support resource extraction, particularly oil drilling in Alaska's 19.6 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They must also applaud the Bush administration's recent rescission of the "roadless rule," a Clinton-era regulation that limited logging in Alaska's 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest.
In the view of most Alaskan voters, President Bush is on the right side of these issues, while Kerry is not, pollsters say. Kerry's election, almost certainly, would keep the refuge locked up and re-impose restrictions on logging in the Tongass. Not coincidentally, polls show, Bush will shellac Kerry in Alaska come November.
All this puts Knowles, a former mayor of Anchorage and former two-term governor with liberal positions on many social issues, in a dicey spot, especially as his election could, depending on results elsewhere, tip majority control of the Senate to the Democrats. The GOP controls 51 of the Senate's 100 seats. The races for six seats held by Democrats and three seats held by Republicans (in Colorado, Oklahoma and Alaska) are considered "tossups" by political experts.
A shift in power, in turn, would put at risk the second commandment of Alaskan politics: Bring home as much federal money as possible.
If Democrats were to take back the Senate, Ted Stevens, 80, Alaska's senior Republican senator, would lose his chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which essayist Russell Baker described as "a job that allows its holders to pillage the federal treasury for the benefits of the good, needy folks back home."
Stevens, known here as "Uncle Ted," has excelled at his job and -- with the help of Frank Murkowski -- propelled Alaska to the very pinnacle of pork. The state ranks first in per capita federal spending, with $11,745 for each of its 648,818 residents, according to the U.S. Census.
As Knowles walks through this political minefield, he makes two arguments.
First, as a Democrat, he says he would be more effective than Lisa Murkowski in persuading leaders of his party of the wisdom of "responsible" drilling in the Arctic refuge and logging in the Tongass.
"I will put Alaska first over partisan and special-interest powers that determine what comes out of Washington," Knowles said in the interview.
Second, Knowles is effusive in his praise of Stevens, despite the senior senator's effusive endorsement of Lisa Murkowski. (Stevens called her "a hell of a lot better senator than her dad ever was.")
"Ted is a personal friend," Knowles said. "I always worked well with him when I was governor, and I think we could work together in Washington as a team, on both sides of the aisles."
Murkowski, too, said that a principal reason why Alaskans should return her to Washington is her relationship with Stevens. "He and I get along very well, which is certainly to my advantage," she said.
On almost every resource-and-pork issue that is critical to Alaskan voters, there appears to be little or no difference between Knowles and Murkowski.
Murkowski, though, touts a distinction that Knowles is hard-pressed to dispute. She is 47, and her Dec. 20, 2002, appointment links her seniority in the Senate to the Class of 2000. Knowles, 61, would come to the Senate with no seniority.
In Alaska, perhaps more than any other state, politicians with seniority or influence in Washington pack a powerful punch. Murkowski's brief tenure in Congress could outweigh Knowles's charisma as a campaigner, his depth of expertise on issues and the loyalty he garnered as a relatively popular governor, according to Jerry A. McBeath, a professor of political science at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.
"She is younger, and she could stay in office forever," McBeath said. "Alaskans tend to focus on long-term seniority and how it will help the state develop economically."