Murkowski leads Tshibaka in first test of Republicans’ strength

Fight for Alaska’s U.S. Senate seat is “Murkowski’s race to lose,” says political scientist

By: - August 17, 2022 1:15 am

Troy Wuyts-Smith waves signs for Lisa Murkowski in Juneau, Alaska, as Alaska’s senior U.S. Senator seeks re-election on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

In unofficial results, Alaska’s sitting U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski has a small lead in the primary race for U.S. Senate over Trump-backed Republican challenger Kelly Tshibaka, about 2 percentage points ahead. As of 12:16 a.m. Wednesday, Murkowski had 43.3% of the vote, while Tshibaka had about 41%, representing a difference of 3,246 votes.

Amy Lauren Lovecraft, professor of political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said the votes for Tshibaka is an indication of former President Donald Trump’s influence.  

“Murkowski is a known quantity, a tried-and-true tested Republican who has served the state really well financially and in other ways.” Rejecting her “is going to absolutely be a Trump effect,” Lovecraft said, speaking on the phone Tuesday night before unofficial results were released.

Juneau Republican voter Ben Topacio is a Trump fan. He predicted Wyoming GOP Rep. Liz Cheney’s loss in her race without the former president’s backing, and said Trump’s endorsement swayed him to vote for Tshibaka.

“She’s a newcomer and everything. Probably she can, you know, do something better than Lisa Murkowski,” he said after voting in Lemon Creek. “She’s been in the seat long enough. It’s about time to change.”

Kelly Tshibaka waves at passing motorists in Midtown Anchorage on Aug. 16. With her is her daughter. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Kelly Tshibaka waves at passing motorists in Midtown Anchorage on Aug. 16. With her is her daughter. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

In a way, Lovecraft said, the results of the open primary for U.S. Senate don’t matter “because the election for the actual seat will just come down to those final four and everything is wiped clean, and they’re all at zero again.”

At that point, Lovecraft predicts Murkowski will win the ranked choice election.

“Because Murkowski has a substantial number of Democrats who support her, she may, in fact, take Democratic votes in the actual election in November, because Democrats are potentially too afraid to vote for a Democratic candidate and leave Tshibaka an opening,” Lovecraft said. 

Lovecraft added about Murkowski, “We just can’t underestimate the power of her willingness to be upfront and open about being a pro-choice candidate.”

That was definitely a factor for downtown Juneau voter Capri Potter.

“I voted for Lisa Murkowski,” the 21-year-old said. “She’s a lot more conservative than I am just in general, but I appreciate her stance on abortion right now.”

For Potter, the issue of abortion played a big part in deciding who to vote for in the primary, not just in the Senate primary race.

“That’s just something that I’ve grown up with that’s been a right my whole life and the idea of losing it – but also the other chipping away that’s been happening from the Supreme Court – is very scary,” Potter said.

Aside from the abortion issue, Potter said she trusts Murkowski to be good at her job.

“I feel like she’s been a pretty consistent politician over the years. And so I haven’t agreed with all the choices she’s made over the years, but I think she’s good at her job.”

“Murkowski’s race to lose”

Despite Tshibaka’s popularity due to Trump’s endorsement, University of Alaska Southeast political science professor Glenn Wright doesn’t see the Republican as a major challenge to Murkowski.

“I think it’s really going to be an uphill fight for anyone but Murkowski to win in November. I think it’s really Murkowski’s race to lose and I think that’s because most Alaskans are conservative but moderate,” Wright said Tuesday afternoon.

He said Murkowski has a lot to offer establishment Republicans, liberal voters, and to Alaskans who are not ideologically motivated.

“Murkowski is in a really pivotal position in the Senate. She’s arguably our most moderate senator nationwide and that puts her in a tremendous position of power. And that’s a position that’s really been beneficial to Alaska,” Wright said.

“Obviously, there are a lot of Trump voters in Alaska. There are obviously a lot of conservative voters. But, you know, Lisa Murkowski is really popular and she’s weathered really serious challenges before,” Wright said. “She taught the state of Alaska how to spell her name in order to win an unprecedented write-in campaign. So, to me, thinking back across her career, it’s hard to see this as a major challenge.”

In unofficial results, Democratic Party-endorsed Patricia Chesbro came in third as expected, with  6.2% of the votes and Republican Buzz Kelley rounded out the final four with 2.22% of the votes.

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Lisa Phu
Lisa Phu

Lisa Phu covers justice, education, and culture for the Alaska Beacon. Previously, she spent eight years as an award-winning journalist, reporting for the Juneau Empire, KTOO Public Media, KSTK, and Wrangell Sentinel. She's also been Public Information Officer for the City and Borough of Juneau, lead facilitator for StoryCorps Alaska based in Utqiagvik, and a teacher in Tanzania and Bhutan. Originally from New York, Lisa is a first generation Chinese American and a mom of two young daughters. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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