Infrastructure, abortion and LGBTQ rights feature in final Alaska U.S. Senate debate
Republicans Lisa Murkowski and Kelly Tshibaka are well-funded and polling close together as the election approaches
From left to right, the three actively campaigning candidates for Alaska’s U.S. Senate seat are seen during the televised Debate for the State on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022, in Anchorage. The debate was hosted by KTOO, Alaska Public Media, and Alaska’s News Source. (Screenshot)
In the final debate of Alaska’s U.S. Senate election, incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and her principal challenger, Republican Kelly Tshibaka, argued about contentious issues including abortion and gun control, but their biggest difference was one of strategy and bipartisanship.
During a fast-moving hour, Tshibaka criticized Murkowski for working with Democrats and the administration of President Joe Biden during her latest term in Congress, while Murkowski defended her choices and said they allowed her to deliver results on Alaska priorities, including infrastructure spending. Tshibaka would be unable to do the same, Murkowski argued.
“This Senate race is really about who can best deliver for Alaska, and the record is out there in terms of what I have done for Alaska every single day. Every single day,” Murkowski said.
Democratic candidate Pat Chesbro, trailing the two Republicans in opinion polls and fundraising, answered questions calmly but was somewhat of an afterthought as the two Republicans directed questions at each other.
A fourth candidate, Republican Buzz Kelley, is on the ballot but has suspended his campaign and has endorsed Tshibaka. He did not participate in the debate.
Murkowski’s infrastructure vote is a focus
Appointed to the Senate by her father, then-Gov. Frank Murkowski, in 2002, Murkowski earned a reputation for pragmatism in her latest term, working with Democrats and moderate Republicans to write a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that includes billions of dollars in Alaska-related provisions.
All three members of Alaska’s congressional delegation voted for the bill.
“Anybody who says they wouldn’t vote for that bill is not from the state of Alaska, unless you like these potholes around here,” then-Congressman Don Young said in a speech three weeks before his death earlier this year.
During this year’s campaign and at Thursday night’s debate, Tshibaka criticized Murkowski’s role in drafting and supporting the bill.
“Alaskans are paying for inflation from the infrastructure bill,” Tshibaka said.
She noted remarks by Alaska’s junior U.S. Senator, Dan Sullivan, who said that permitting restrictions imposed by the Biden administration will slow the rollout of infrastructure funds.
Tshibaka has repeatedly criticized Murkowski for voting in committee to support the nomination of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American in the role, and she did so again Thursday night.
“One of the chief things we’ve got to pick up in this next session is clearing away these regulatory hurdles that the Biden administration — through the nominees that you confirmed — have set up to block our access to infrastructure,” Tshibaka said.
Haaland’s nomination would have advanced without Murkowski’s “yes” vote, and Murkowski noted that millions of dollars have already come to the state, including $30 million announced that day for Tanana Chiefs Conference to install high-speed internet in parts of rural Alaska.
“It is funding that is coming out to the communities literally as we speak today,” Murkowski said.
Chesbro said she supports infrastructure funding and thanked Murkowski for her role in helping the bill go through Congress.
Differences on abortion and LGBTQ rights
In a series of questions focused on social issues, Tshibaka and Murkowski differed on abortion access and the rights of LGBTQ Alaskans.
Murkowski supports the codification of abortion rights in federal law and has proposed legislation to do so, while Tshibaka labels herself “pro life” and said she supports a federal law that would ban abortion under some circumstances.
She said she supports proposals to allow birth control without a prescription and through the mail.
Tshibaka opposes medications that cause abortions. She includes the “morning after” pill, which most medical groups have said work as emergency contraceptives.
Asked about the treatment of LGBTQ youth in Alaska, Tshibaka said she wants to “ensure the dignity and safety and rights of all Alaskans. And we need to do that without jeopardizing and undermining the dignity and safety and rights of other Alaskans. So for example, I would protect the rights of women to compete against biological women in their sports.”
She said she might support segregated sports teams for transgender men and transgender women.
That is a position that supporters of transgender rights say is discriminatory.
“There should be no discrimination against anyone at any time,” Murkowski said. “That is bullying and villainizing young people at a time in their lives when that is highly destructive, when people like Kelly Tshibaka preach conversion therapy.”
Murkowski’s comment referred to an article Tshibaka wrote in 2001, while a college student, in which she said, “unlike race or gender, homosexuality is a choice.”
Tshibaka has since said she no longer holds that view.
Chesbro said she recently attended the funeral for her son-in-law, a transgender man, and said “one of the things that we had at his memorial service was the group of people who had obviously been … marginalized, bullied throughout their entire lives. You couldn’t have asked for a better group of people. I would support the LGBTQ group forever as a principle,” she said.
Tshibaka fails to answer question on Trump
Murkowski and Tshibaka also differed on a question about whether former President Donald Trump should testify in front of the committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol after that committee issued a subpoena.
Murkowski, who voted to convict Trump in the post-insurrection impeachment trial, said Trump should testify under oath but she doubts he will.
Chesbro also said she believes Trump should testify.
Tshibaka did not answer the question, saying instead that “the legality of this subpoena is being adjudicated in the court system now, and that’s the proper place for it to be determined.”
She added that she hasn’t heard about the Jan. 6 committee when she talks to voters.
“Alaskans are focused on the issues affecting them right now in their homes and in their wallets … things like inflation, public safety, the erosion of our constitutional rights, education. Those are the issues I think we need to start focusing on,” she said.
Tshibaka takes aim at pro-Murkowski ‘dark money’ spending
Tshibaka criticized the fact that Murkowski’s re-election is being supported by millions of dollars in advertising purchased by third-party “dark money” groups funded from the Lower 48.
Murkowski said it’d be a mistake to think that affects her.
“It couldn’t be further from the truth in terms of me being beholden to anybody on the outside,” Murkowski said.
Federal law forbids candidates and their campaigns from coordinating with third-party groups, and Tshibaka’s campaign has also benefited from those groups. This week, a group funded by a believer in the QAnon conspiracy theory delivered $45,000 worth of Tshibaka-branded toys to Alaska. Another group has reported $1.4 million in pro-Tshibaka ad spending, but both of those efforts are small compared to the amount spent to benefit Murkowski’s campaign.
The largest third-party group active in Alaska this year is the Senate Leadership Fund, directed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. It has said it intends to spend about $5 million to support Murkowski.
The candidates themselves have directly received millions of dollars in donations.
From the start of 2021 through Sept. 30 this year, Murkowski reported receiving $8.6 million in her official campaign accounts. Tshibaka has reported $4.4 million in the same period. Chesbro has reported only $174,000.
Many traditional Democratic donors and voters have eschewed support for Chesbro in favor of Murkowski.
Nineteen candidates competed in Alaska’s Aug. 16 primary for U.S. Senate. Under Alaska’s new voting system — installed by a 2020 ballot measure — four candidates advance from the primary to the general election, where a winner will be chosen by ranked-choice voting.
The four finalists this year were Murkowski (45% of all votes), Tshibaka (38.6%), Chesbro (6.8%) and Republican Buzz Kelley (2.1%).
Soon after the results were announced, Kelley — who raised no money and was a surprise top-four finisher — said he would suspend his campaign and endorse Tshibaka.
For her part, Tshibaka attributed Kelley’s place on the ballot to her own advertising campaign, which used the slogan “Kelly for Alaska.” Since then, Tshibaka’s campaign has changed the wording of many of her signs.
More than 24,000 Alaskans have already voted, and early voting remains available through Election Day. Until Saturday, absentee voters can request a blank ballot be delivered by mail; after that date, they must request a ballot be delivered by fax or online.
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