Murkowski’s lead grows, benefiting from open primary

Political scientist says Senate race is an example of the new system working as it was designed to

By: - August 17, 2022 7:34 pm
Signs for Lisa Murkowski line Northern Lights Boulevard on Aug. 16, the day of Alaska's primary election. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Signs for Lisa Murkowski line Northern Lights Boulevard on Aug. 16, the day of Alaska’s primary election. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

As election day results came in late Tuesday night and into early Wednesday morning, Alaska’s sitting U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski’s ever so slight lead over Trump-backed Republican challenger Kelly Tshibaka widened. By Wednesday afternoon, the trend continued.

“Alaskans made it clear they want a Senator who puts Alaska first, always. Seniority matters. Honesty matters and understanding the needs of Alaskans and being able to deliver on those needs matters,” Murkowski said in a statement Wednesday.

With 395 of 402 precincts reporting at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Murkowski led with 68,800 votes over Tshibaka’s 61,994. Democratic Party-endorsed candidate Patricia Chesbro held the third spot with just over 6% of the votes, or 9,620, and Republican Buzz Kelley rounded out the final four with 2.22%, or 3,450 votes. 

What new primary contest means for Murkowski

This was the first time Alaska voters participated in an open and nonpartisan contest for the primary. Instead of primaries based on party or affiliation, every single candidate, regardless of party or affiliation, was on a pick-one ballot.

This new primary is part of the ranked choice system narrowly approved by voters in 2020. Instead of one candidate emerging from each primary contest, the top four vote getters get to advance to the general election in November. In the case of Alaska’s 2022 U.S. Senate primary race, that likely means three Republicans and one Democrat.

University of Alaska Southeast political science professor Glenn Wright said the 2020 ballot measure was designed in part to reduce the incentives for politicians to “move to the wings of their respective parties.” A moderate Republican like Murkowski, he said, didn’t have to worry about being bumped in the primary by a more conservative Republican, like Trump-backed Tshibaka.

“The basic intuition is that the old primary system and the general election system as well created a series of incentives that made it challenging for moderates to successfully run for office, especially moderate incumbents,” Wright said.

Murkowski was first appointed to U.S. Senate in 2002 by her father, Frank Murkowski, who was serving as Alaska’s governor at the time. She won a partisan primary in 2004, then beat out Democrat Tony Knowles in the general election. In 2010, Murkowski lost in the Republican primary to Joe Miller, only to defeat him in a successful write-in campaign during the general election. In 2016, she again won the Republican primary, and then beat Miller again, who ran as a Libertarian, in the general election.

Since then, with her vote to impeach former President Donald Trump and her support for abortion rights, Murkowski has arguably emerged as more moderate.

While Alaska is a red state, most Alaskan voters are in fact “quite moderate,” Wright said.

“You would think that given Alaska’s sort of center-right political culture, that we would have a lot of center-right politicians but, of course, over the last decade here, just like at the national level, incentives created by the party primary system tended to push politicians to the fringes,” Wright said. 

It doesn’t necessarily mean that politicians can’t be conservative Republicans or liberal Democrats. But it does mean that if you’re a moderate, especially in a state like Alaska, which is relatively moderate, that you know, you don’t have to worry about the extremist primary challenge as much.

– Glenn Wright, University of Alaska Southeast political scientist

Alaska’s new top four ranked choice system, which begins with the nonpartisan open primary, eliminates that incentive.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that politicians can’t be conservative Republicans or liberal Democrats. But it does mean that if you’re a moderate, especially in a state like Alaska, which is relatively moderate, that you know, you don’t have to worry about the extremist primary challenge as much,” Wright said.

Looking ahead

U.S. Senate candidate Kelly Tshibaka raises a fist, inspiring supporters to do the same, during a rally featuring former President Donald Trump at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska on Saturday, July 9, 2022. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

A post on Tshibaka’s campaign website late Tuesday night said described Tshibaka as heading “to the general election with momentum and in prime position to defeat 21-year incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski.”

“I am grateful to the people of Alaska for the support they showed me today – we accomplished this together as a team, and we will prevail together in November as a team. I am also thankful for the strong and unwavering support President Trump has shown Alaska. I look forward to the next three months of conversations with Alaskans, and to a great victory on November 8th!” she said in the statement.

With two Republican candidates receiving most of the vote, Amy Lauren Lovecraft wonders what direction Republicans nationally will go to be successful in the midterm in November as well as in 2024. Lovecraft is a professor of political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks

“Who will they fund? Will they fund the incumbent? Will they give airtime to both of them? That kind of stuff is definitely in the air,” Lovecraft said.

“From a total party perspective, right, they want to fund who they think is going to win. And they want to fund on a national level in a way that they think the wind is shifting. Are Trump’s picks winning most of the primaries or only a few. Right? So that’s going to be heavy fisticuffs within the Republican Party. They’re going to have to figure that out, and it’s going to be a tell for 2024.”

Third and fourth place

A volunteer carries a sign for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Pat Chesbro and Democratic state Senate candidate Jesse Kiehl on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022, Alaska’s primary election day. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Likely third-place finisher Chesbro, the lone Democrat in the U.S. Senate race, said Wednesday she wished she had received more votes, but she’s not quitting the race. She hopes, by November, to convince people to vote their values, as opposed to voting for someone who doesn’t align with their values for fear of a more extreme candidate winning.

“I think there are a lot of people in Alaska who share my values,” Chesbro said. She listed Roe v. Wade, the environment, curbing gun violence and addressing firearm-related suicide as some of those values.

“I think people have become discouraged,” she said, adding that if voters assume that their values cannot be represented in DC, “then they won’t vote for me.”

“I don’t know exactly how to get people to allay their fears. And I think maybe that might be what we’re going to be trying to do between now and November.”

Fourth-place finisher Republic Buzz Kelley did not return requests for comment.


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Lisa Phu
Lisa Phu

Lisa Phu covered justice, education, and culture for 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].