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Will Lisa Murkowski Be an Exception to the Fate Befalling Anti-Trump Republicans?

Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via AP, Pool

Wyoming, where Rep. Liz Cheney lost her primary to Trump-backed Harriet Hageman, is not the only state where voters cast ballots on Tuesday. The other state includes Alaska, where returns are not to be expected for some time. One race to watch is surely to see whether or not former governor and former vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, will once more hold elected office, as Alaska's representative for the district at-large.

In Alaska's new and complex rank choice voting system, voters will also decide which of the 19 candidates will be on the ballot in November election for the Senate seat currently held by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who is running for re-election. Her most formidable opponent is Kelly Tshibaka, who, like Hageman, has been endorsed by Trump, there are 19 candidates on the ballot. It's a system that may actually help Murkowski. 

Newsweek's Nick Mordowanec did a pretty succinct job explaining the system in a piece examining Tshibaka's chances:

Alaska voters will rank their top four candidates in each race. Unless one candidate garners over 50 percent of the first-choice votes, the candidate with the least support is eliminated from contention and voters' second choices are taken into account. The process continues in the same manner if another round does not result in a candidate hitting the 50 percent threshold.


Polling of 1,201 likely Alaska voters conducted by Alaska Survey Research between July 2 and July 5 showed Murkowski winning after round three—even after losing the first two rounds to her Trump-endorsed opponent.

The survey also showed Murkowski with a 42.5 percent favorability rating compared to Tshibaka's 32 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percent.

The top four candidates will head to the general election in November, regardless of party affiliation. 

It's hard to argue that anyone has been a greater thorn in Trump's side than Liz Cheney, and we all saw what happened to her tonight. She not only lost, but she may lose by more than the 30 points she was trailing behind Hageman in some polls. 

Trump has had it out for Sen. Murkowski, too, one of the seven Republican senators who voted to convict the former president in February of last year. Again, Trump had already left office, at this point. 

As I wrote for a VIP piece in May of last year, POLITICO focused on both the Cheneys and the Murkowskis, among others, as RINO political dynasties that Trump has taken issue with. 

The question is not so much whether Alaska will have a Republican senator once members for the new Congress are sworn in on January 3, 2023. The state is heavily Republican. The prognosticators acknowledge as much, since the race is considered "Safe Republican" or "Solid Republican." 

Rather, the question whether it will have a senator who has not been afraid to go after Trump, and live to fight another day, should Murkowski come out the victor. Or, it will have a senator who had Trump's backing.

Last month, Geoffrey Skelley and Zoha Qamar analyzed for FiveThirtyEight "What It Will Take For Lisa Murkowski To Win Reelection In Alaska." As they wrote about the race:

Murkowski very well could have faced another defeat in a traditional party primary this year if not for the 2020 voter initiative that altered Alaska’s electoral system. But instead, all 19 Senate candidates will run on the same ballot in the state’s Aug. 16 primary, and the top-four vote-getters will then advance to the November election, where ranked choice voting will determine the winner. (Perhaps not coincidentally, her allies promoted this change.) Murkowski is all but guaranteed a spot in the general election as an incumbent with near-universal name recognition. Tshibaka, whose campaign has spent millions of dollars, will presumably also advance. It’s hard to say who exactly will join them, as the only semi-notable Democrats in the race are former Seward Mayor Edgar Blatchford and Patricia Chesbro, a member of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Planning Commission.

Given the lack of a high-profile Democrat, the ranked choice voting process seems likely to set up a contest between the two leading Republicans. And in early July, Alaska Survey Research released a poll that looked at how a hypothetical general election could play out if it involved Murkowski, Tshibaka, Chesbro and Dustin Darden, a candidate of the Alaskan Independence Party. As the table below shows, Tshibaka led in rounds one and two, but once the ranked choice votes were reallocated in the third and final round, Murkowski won by 4 percentage points, although that gap was inside the margin of error.

But how support shifted under ranked choice voting lays out a path that Murkowski likely has to follow to win. Initially, Murkowski attracted 43 percent of registered Democrats, who made up 17 percent of voters in the ASR poll, and 44 percent among the 52 percent of the sample who weren’t affiliated with either major party. But she won only 17 percent among registered Republicans, who made up 31 percent of voters, while Tshibaka won nearly all remaining GOP support. Things didn’t shift much in the second round after dropping the last-place candidate, Darden, and reallocating his votes. Then, after dropping Chesbro for the third round, Murkowski jumped ahead by gaining almost all the outstanding support of Democrats — about 97 percent of them — and 60 percent of independents. This was just enough to outdistance Tshibaka, who ended up with slightly over 80 percent of Republican voters and 40 percent of independents.

For both Murkowski and Tshibaka, this poll offered hope and a warning. Murkowski clearly has a path to victory and FiveThirtyEight’s Senate forecast currently gives her an 85 in 100 shot at winning. But given the overall margin, the survey suggests she can’t afford to lose much more Republican support if she wants to come out on top. Moreover, because of how ranked choice voting works, Murkowski needs to ensure that Democratic voters who back a Democrat in the first round actually name Murkowski as their second choice. In top-two primary states, we’ve seen that races between two candidates from the same party can often produce a fair amount of ballot roll-off — that is, not casting a vote for a race — among voters from the party not represented. So if many Democrats don’t list a second preference this November, it could spell doom for Murkowski.

Tshibaka, meanwhile, may look to win over more Trump voters to defeat Murkowski. After all, the poll’s final round found the incumbent still received support from almost 1 in 5 Trump voters in a state where Trump won 53 percent in 2020. So it’s no wonder that Trump held a rally in Anchorage on July 9 in support of Tshibaka, after the ASR poll was in the field. Tshibaka could also seek to make more significant inroads with rural Alaskans, who backed Murkowski at around 70 percent in the survey. That group includes many Alaska Natives, who make up about 15 percent of the population and have traditionally been big supporters of Murkowski — however, Tshibaka is making a concerted effort to win over Alaska Natives by making campaign stops far afield in the vast state.

Murkowski isn't one to count out. Not only did she win the 2010 general election after losing to Joe Miller in the Republican primary, she won through a write-in campaign, becoming only the second successful senatorial candidate to do so. Her approval rating among Alaskans also looks to have improved, according to data published last month from Morning Consult. Skelley and Qamar began their piece by making it clear Murkowski is a "political survivor." 

If Murkowski does manage to hang on, though, it's not necessarily the case that this is representative of Republicans, including the most notorious of RINOs, who have taken their chances when it comes to voting against Trump while remaining in a party that the former president is still very much influential in. 

Not only does Murkowski have a history of winning against odds in a fiercely independent state, Alaska has a rather different system of electing candidates as it is.

Republicans who voted to impeach Trump have had a pretty bad electoral history in their primary races since then, or have chosen to retire rather than lose. The former president has also had a fairly successful time in selecting candidates, with many (but not all) winning their primary races. 


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