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Opinion Underestimating Lisa Murkowski is a half-baked idea in Alaska

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) on Capitol Hill in August. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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The 63-pound salmon mounted on a wall in the Hart Senate Office Building is about half the size of the senator who reeled it in from an Alaska river. If the fish underestimated the woman, it was not the first creature to do so. Or the last.

Among the seven Republican senators who voted to convict President Donald Trump in the January 2021 impeachment trial concerning his incitement of the Jan. 6 riot, only Lisa Murkowski is up for reelection this November. So, Alaska’s senior senator has received allocations from Trump’s inexhaustible reserves of resentments. This seems to trouble her minimally.

His unhappiness is a minor inconvenience compared with the rigors of campaigning in a state one-fifth the size of the continental 48 states. Alaska’s westernmost bit, an Aleutian Island, is closer to Tokyo than to the state’s capital, Juneau, which is adjacent to British Columbia. Although two-thirds of Alaskans live in or near Anchorage, many of the other third cannot be reached by roads, so boats and small aircraft must suffice until winter multiplies the transportation options: dog sleds and snow machines.

Furthermore, in 2020, Alaska voters, disregarding the desires of the leaders (and the activist bases) of both parties, changed, by referendum, the state’s voting. Out went party primaries too easily dominated by a fire-breathing few; in came a nonpartisan “jungle” primary with all candidates on the same ballot. The top four finishers advance to ranked-choice voting in November: If a candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, the winner is known. If not, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is erased, and his or her votes are reallocated according to voters’ rankings, until a candidate acquires a majority. This is a Madisonian reform, designed to encourage rule by majorities whose political temperatures do not skew far toward fevers.

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In 2002, when her father, Frank, left the Senate to become governor, he appointed her to complete the final two years of his term. She has subsequently won three terms. The second, in 2010, she won as a write-in candidate, becoming the only person other than South Carolina’s Democratic former governor, Strom Thurmond, in 1954 to be elected to the Senate by write-in votes. Murkowski, having lost the 2010 Republican primary, was resigned to the end of her political career until some constituents convinced her that Alaskans could do something unconventional. Which they did wearing to the polls rubber wristbands that when turned inside out reminded them how to spell “Murkowski.” (Alaska election officials had barred Murkowski from using Thurmond’s tactic of giving voters pencils imprinted with his name.)

Trump has endorsed Murkowski’s Republican opponent, Kelly Tshibaka. Tshibaka’s through-the-looking-glass understanding of Washington, where she yearns to work, is that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) “has repeatedly bailed out Joe Biden, giving him gifts of Senate votes,” and that Murkowski — “Biden’s Chief Enabling Officer” — “has stood shoulder to shoulder with” Biden.

Most Alaskans were born elsewhere, and the state’s libertarian tinge perhaps reflects the fact that many people moved there to get away from somewhere irritating. But the federal government owns about 60 percent of the state, so federal officeholders with seniority matter, and voters behave accordingly.

In his 40 years in the Senate (1968-2009), Republican Ted Stevens was as unapologetic as he was indefatigable in diverting a river of federal resources to Alaska. He even thought the (never-built) Bridge to Nowhere might — this is the frontier spirit of boosterism that flung railroads into every corner of the continent — stimulate the development of a somewhere. Rep. Don Young, now in his 25th term, has been Alaska’s only congressman since 1973. He is the longest-serving Republican in congressional history, and if Republicans control the House in 2023, he will become even mightier for Alaska.

No state has been hurt as much as Alaska by the Biden administration’s fossil fuel phobia. Oil and gas provide about a quarter of the state’s jobs. Are Alaskans apt to entrust their defense against Washington to Tshibaka, whose understanding of Washington is weird?

Alaska’s August primary occurs, Murkowski says, as fishing season is ending and hunting season is impending. This third-generation Alaskan says politics is secondary: “We’re not inside; we don’t watch TV.” Of the question with which many Republican candidates are belabored by unreconciled constituents — “Who won the 2020 election?” — she says: “Nobody asks me.” If she really is, as conventional wisdom says, the most vulnerable Republican senator, this is excellent news for McConnell, the fellow standing over there giving Biden “gifts of Senate votes.”

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