The last time a Democratic president sent Supreme Court nominees to the Senate, Sen. Lisa Murkowski was a member of the Senate Republican leadership bracing for a tough Alaska primary against a more conservative GOP challenger.
More than a decade later, Murkowski has undergone a political transformation — thanks in part to a political near-death experience, where she lost that 2010 primary only to resurrect herself in a subsequent write-in campaign with the help of centrist voters. She is now among a handful of Republicans who are seriously entertaining a vote for President Biden’s pending Supreme Court nominee, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Her vote is being closely watched not only in D.C., where Democrats are eager to put a bipartisan stamp on Jackson’s likely confirmation, but also back home in Alaska, where Murkowski is standing for reelection this year under a newfangled election process in which traditional party primaries have been replaced with an all-comers runoff system that lets voters rank their preferred choices in the four-candidate general election.
Beyond the immediate stakes for Jackson’s confirmation, Murkowski’s vote could be an indicator of how much senators of either major party might feel empowered to buck their party’s base and tack to the center under similar kinds of election reforms.
“It is meant to incentivize elected leaders to look beyond what the party platform or the base of your party wants to really be able to have that freedom to say: I know the party says vote this way, but I’m looking at it globally, and for the state of Alaska, I’m choosing to vote this way,” said Jason Grenn, a former state legislator who led the campaign to implement the new system.
Grenn and others readily acknowledge that, even before a 2020 ballot initiative mandated the new system, Murkowski already had a well-earned reputation as a centrist in an increasingly polarized Senate. Now, however, she is operating in a political environment that is calibrated to reward bipartisanship instead of punishing it.
Although she backed the vast majority of President Donald Trump’s policy initiatives and nominees, she was among a small number of congressional Republicans who frustrated and ultimately foiled the GOP’s attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Under Biden, she has voted to confirm all of his Cabinet nominees, save for Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, as well as more than 50 of his judicial nominees — a record of cross-aisle comity matched only by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
With Jackson’s nomination, Murkowski immediately found herself on a shortlist of potential GOP backers, thanks to her broader record, as well as her vote as one of only three Republican senators who supported Jackson’s confirmation as a circuit judge last year — joining Collins and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).
Now all eyes are firmly on Murkowski. Collins on Wednesday announced she would back Jackson, saying the judge possessed “the experience, qualifications and integrity” necessary to serve. Graham on Thursday announced that he would reverse himself and oppose Jackson, citing her “lack of a steady judicial philosophy and a tendency to achieve outcomes in spite of what the law requires or common sense would dictate.”
Murkowski, who met earlier this month with Jackson, has kept her deliberations close to the vest. She largely declined to share her impressions of the confirmation hearings with reporters, citing the recent sudden death of Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), a congressional legend and longtime family friend.
In a brief interview Tuesday, she insisted her upcoming election had no bearing on the decision: “This is a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land, so this is kind of important for the country,” she said.
Still, political ramifications will be hard to avoid for Murkowski, who is the only senator facing election this year whose vote is considered to be up for grabs. Her main competition comes not from a Democrat — the party’s only candidate withdrew from the race last week — but from a more conservative Republican, former state administrator Kelly Tshibaka, who has Trump’s backing.
Tshibaka has made Murkowski’s bipartisan record — and even her deliberative approach — a line of attack, and she has directed particular scrutiny on her votes for Democratic nominees. In interviews, campaign op-eds and stump speeches, Tshibaka has criticized Murkowski’s decision to support Interior Secretary Deb Haaland — who made history as the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary, but is seen as hostile to the state’s oil and mining industries — as well as her 2012 vote for a federal district judge, who was confirmed 87 to 8 but went on to block two key projects in the state.
“We all sit and watch. … How’s Lisa Murkowski going to vote on this justice? How’s she going to vote on Deb Haaland? How’s she going to vote on whatever?” Tshibaka said on the “War Room” podcast Monday. “We don’t have a wishy-washy electorate in Alaska, and we know that, and we’re ready for a change.”
In a statement to The Washington Post, Tshibaka said Murkowski is “always torn between doing what’s right for Alaska or catering to her Washington, D.C., elitist friends. And too much of the time, she comes down on the side of her elitist friends.” The statement said Murkowski “also fights against solid, constitutionalist judges like Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh and Justice Amy Coney Barrett.”
Murkowski opposed Kavanaugh but voted to confirm Barrett.
“When I’m a senator for Alaska, there will be no guessing games because Alaskans will always know where I stand: I will be with them, and not with the leftist nominees and the D.C. insiders,” Tshibaka said.
Alaska has voted for every Republican presidential candidate since 1968, but the state’s brand of conservatism tends to be a pragmatic one, and Murkowski has taken pains to forge a political identity rooted in putting her Alaskan interests above national political fights. That reputation was burnished further last year when she played a central role in negotiating a bipartisan infrastructure bill that stands to deliver billions of new federal dollars to the state.
She has other considerable resources to draw on, including a family name that goes back in statewide politics more than 50 years and an outsize campaign account. The most recent campaign finance reports, filed on Dec. 31, showed Murkowski with $4.2 million in her coffers, while Tshibaka had $634,000.
Murkowski’s critics often point out that she has never vaulted 50 percent in a general election, winning three elections instead with pluralities, but the new system — which will permit voters to rank second-, third- and fourth-choice candidates who are then eliminated in an instant-runoff system — could cater to her broad appeal across the political spectrum.
Matt Buxton, editor of the Midnight Sun, a center-left Alaska politics website, said Murkowski has “a pretty clear path to winning” under the new system. “I think that it really plays well to the coalition that she has — of moderate, pro-business Republicans, with Alaska Natives and a decent amount of labor pretty friendly with her, too,” he said. “They’re all kind of the things you need to be able to win here, and she’s got them.”
Compared with the 2017 health-care battle and the 2018 fight over Kavanaugh’s confirmation, the political temperature in Alaska around Jackson’s confirmation appears to be relatively muted. Both Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said this week that they had not been overwhelmed with phone calls or correspondence about Jackson.
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Key interest groups in the state have also stayed on the sideline. Murkowski has been particularly attuned to Alaska Native leaders, who played a key role in her 2010 write-in victory and whom she frequently cited in explaining her opposition to the 2017 Republican health-care effort and Kavanaugh’s nomination, as well as her support for Haaland.
This time around, several Native community leaders and associations in the state have sent letters backing Jackson, as have the National Congress of American Indians and the Native American Rights Fund. But the state’s most influential umbrella group, the Alaska Federation of Natives, has not yet taken a position on Jackson’s nomination after taking a rare stand against Kavanaugh.
Another key factor is that Murkowski appears unlikely to have a strong Democratic challenger. The only declared Democrat in the race, state Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson, announced Friday that she was ending her campaign, and while it is possible that another Democrat could run ahead of the June 1 filing deadline, that candidate is unlikely to attract significant support from national party organs.
Asked about the race Wednesday, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), said Alaska was “not one of my focused races.”
With potentially no serious candidate running to her left, even conservative critics acknowledge that a vote for Jackson could make a lot of political sense for Murkowski, who will need liberal and moderate voters to put her on their November ballot, even if they do not rank her first.
Suzanne Downing, a former state GOP spokeswoman who runs Must Read Alaska, a conservative politics site, said that “Republicans are not coming back under any circumstance” to Murkowski. So while a vote for Jackson may harden opinions against her and give Tshibaka a new talking point, she said, it could pay dividends on the other side of the political spectrum.
“I’m kind of a critic of hers, but she understands her state well,” Downing said. “She’s no dummy when it comes to campaigning. She puts together a good team. And this is a vote where the Democrats have nowhere else to go, and Republicans aren’t coming back anyway. Everyone’s fighting over the middle 250,000 undeclared voters, the ones that are swing voters.”
On the other hand, Buxton said Murkowski has “a lot to lose” if she opposes Jackson. “There’s a lot of people who would support her who I think would be really soured by that, especially running into an election year, especially at a time when the Supreme Court is more tense and political than it’s ever been,” he said.
Back in the Senate, Murkowski’s colleagues declined to make public predictions about where she might land — and they took her at her word that political calculations won’t be at play.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) praised her “ability to navigate choppy waters” and expressed awe, 12 years later, at her write-in survival act. “She’s pretty independent, as you know,” he said.
“Knowing Lisa,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), “I think Lisa is going to do what she thinks is right.”