Republicans need to keep all of their current Senate seats to have a shot at regaining control of the Senate in the 2022 midterms. A conservative insurgency combined with a new ranked-choice voting system may put GOP control of Alaska in doubt.

Republicans have controlled the Senate seat in question since 1980. The incumbent, Lisa Murkowski, was appointed to the seat by her father, Frank, when he vacated the seat to become Alaska’s governor. She has become a key player in the evenly divided Senate, occasionally voting against Republican leadership and always using her position to advance her state’s interests. Alaska remains a strongly Republican state, and thus inside-the-Beltway wisdom holds that she should be a shoo-in for reelection.

That wisdom is flawed. The same moderation that has made Murkowski a Senate player has long alienated her from the conservative party base. She shockingly lost the Republican nomination in 2010 to outsider Joe Miller, only winning reelection as a write-in candidate because Democrats had nominated a nobody expecting her to easily turn back Miller’s challenge. Murkowski had no problems getting the Republican nomination in 2016, when Miller ran as a Libertarian. She won, but the real story was that Miller got 29 percent of the vote. Since Donald Trump carried the state with only 51 percent, it’s clear that Miller likely again got a majority of Republican votes. Murkowski won with 44 percent only because Democrats again failed to run a serious race.

Democrats are unlikely to make the same mistake again with Senate control in the balance. Al Gross, the 2020 Senate nominee, has indicated he might run again, a development that would surely delight Democrats since he raised $19.5 million in his last race, a state record, and already has statewide name identification. Gross would likely not have a chance if he were paired against the moderate Murkowski, but her decade-long alienation from conservative Republicans has only intensified since she voted to impeach Trump. The state party censured her in March and set out to find a conservative who could win. Kelly Tshibaka, former head of Alaska’s Department of Administration, jumped into the race less than two weeks later.

Tshibaka is an almost postcard-perfect candidate for Alaska conservatives. She grew up in Alaska, went to Harvard Law School and then worked in government jobs in the D.C. area until she returned home to work for Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R). She is a devout Christian who, with her husband, Niki, founded a church in Alexandria, Va., and has worked extensively in faith-based activities. Her campaign website touts her as “pro-life” and “pro-2nd Amendment,” and her campaign announcement video slammed Murkowski for her vote against Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. Given Murkowski’s estrangement with Alaska conservatives, it’s no surprise that early polls show Tshibaka well in front.

That would mean the end of the road for Murkowski in most states. But Alaska adopted a unique election system in 2020 that could shake things up.

Alaska has eliminated party primaries entirely. Instead, all candidates from all parties will appear together on one primary ballot, and the top four candidates regardless of party advance to the general election. Alaskans in the general election will then have the option to rank up to all four candidates on their ballot in their order of preference. Under this “ranked-choice” system, if no candidate wins a majority of the vote, the last-place candidate is removed and that person’s votes are reallocated to each voter’s recorded second preference. The reallocation continues until someone has a majority.

This system opens the way for Gross, or another strong Democrat, to win even if Tshibaka gets a plurality on the first count. Both the 2016 election results and polling show that Murkowski’s support overlaps with voters who would normally vote Democratic. As a result, Tshibaka’s attacks on Murkowski could backfire; it could push the incumbent into third place but might anger Murkowski’s backers so much that they either support a Democrat or don’t rank Tshibaka at all on the second or third rounds of counting. That could be enough to give Democrats a majority of the vote.

The only poll so far shows this isn’t likely to happen yet, as it projects Tshibaka ahead of Gross on the final count by a 54-to-46 margin. But things could easily change, given the emotions that an intense campaign can create. Tshibaka also hasn’t faced the barrage of negative advertising that any serious candidate will ultimately endure. It will be a challenge for her to remain aggressively conservative enough to defeat the sitting incumbent while also attracting that person’s voters.

Alaska is still a Republican state, and Tshibaka has to be rated the early favorite. But don’t be surprised if both parties pour money into the race as it heats up later next year.

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