Her defeat in the 2010 primary to tea-party-backed challenger Joe Miller was one of the most shocking developments in a politically tumultuous year, but she made a comeback by winning the general election as a write-in candidate, receiving 39.5 percent against Miller’s 35.5 percent and a Democrat’s 23.5 percent. Since the Republican candidate for governor received only 59 percent that year, Murkowski clearly persuaded many traditionally Democratic voters to cross party lines.
Her 2016 reelection effort demonstrated the same pattern. Miller ran again, this time as a Libertarian. He received more than 29 percent in the general election and beat Murkowski in many conservative GOP strongholds. Murkowski again won, with only 44 percent, while a Democrat and an independent candidate combined for another 25 percent. Once again, she combined a minority of Republican voters with a significant number of independents and Democrats to beat back her own party’s majority faction.
Murkowski’s vote to convict former president Donald Trump in his impeachment trial after the Jan. 6 riot further enraged Republicans. The state party censured her in March and set out to find a challenger. Within weeks, Trump and the state party endorsed Kelly Tshibaka, a native Alaskan who had only returned to the state in 2019 to take a gubernatorial appointment. The political neophyte has surged to the top of the polls as a result, although a recent poll that also included Miller running again as a Libertarian showed Murkowski narrowly on top.
It’s almost unheard of for an incumbent to win when their own party opposes them. But that’s what Murkowski has been doing for the past decade; courting and winning non-Republican votes is her ace in the hole. Tshibaka can run as far to the right as she wants, but that won’t win her any votes in the center. Murkowski owns Alaska’s center, and she’s banking those voters will come through again for her even with Trump stumping for her foe.
Alaska’s new, unique “top four, ranked-choice” electoral system is another factor in her corner. Adopted by popular vote in 2020, Alaskans will no longer choose party nominees in party primaries. Instead, candidates of all parties will compete in the August primary. The top four candidates regardless of party advance to the general, where voters will be asked to rank the contenders in order of their preference. This means that a candidate cannot win with a mere plurality of the vote; the winner must garner a majority.
Murkowski’s path to victory goes something like this: Tshibaka earns the 30 to 40 percent of Alaskans who are dead-set against Murkowski’s reelection but falls short of the majority. Murkwoski, meanwhile, reassembles the centrist coalition that has propelled her to victory in the past. She can lose up to 80 percent of the Republican vote and still win if she can get independents and Democrats to back her again. That gets Murkowski within striking distance, or perhaps with a small lead if she can claw back moderate Republicans who are currently unhappy with her. She can then argue that Democrats should back her over the Trump-endorsed, ultra-conservative Tshibaka when they rank candidates. She would then return to the Senate as a Republican, backed mostly by Democrats and independents.
That’s a narrow path, and lots of things can go wrong. The biggest challenge is that voters are not required to rank anyone after their first choice. Democrats could decide they have no reason to prefer one Republican over another, a choice that would force Murkowski to win back a significant portion of the traditionally GOP vote. Democrats could also choose to make a play for the seat themselves, banking that their candidate could torpedo Murkowski’s cross-partisan coalition and force her into third place. That would place her and her voters in the unenviable position of having to decide whether they prefer a Democrat or a Republican who spent nearly two years attacking Murkowski and her record.
Losing the support of one’s own party is usually a death sentence for an incumbent politician. For Murkowski, however, it’s a way of life. Don’t count her out as she tries to continue her remarkable career against all the odds.