stands in the Susitna Brewing Co., answering questions at a town-hall meeting, though what’s notable is how little convincing she’s having to do. Many of the 50 or so attendees came not to be won over but to ask how they can donate or volunteer to help her bid to become the Last Frontier State’s U.S. senator. The little town of Big Lake sits in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley—the beating heart of Alaska’s conservative movement—where a majority of voters are united on one thing: They want Sen.
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Alaska’s Senate race hasn’t featured much in national coverage, since the winner is guaranteed to be a Republican. The question is which Republican. Now in her third full term, Ms. Murkowski is in danger of losing her sinecure in the closest race she’s run since 2010, when she lost the Republican primary and prevailed with a statewide write-in campaign. Yet GOP voters have only further soured on her—particularly infuriated by her vote against Justice
and her more recent approval of
nominations and for gun control.
A recent video exposed a Murkowski staffer acknowledging the successful ballot initiative in 2020 to convert Alaska to ranked-choice voting was created in part by people who “wanted Lisa to get re-elected.” And there’s no question the new system has benefited her. She would have lost a Republican primary to Ms. Tshibaka.
Even with that boost, Ms. Murkowski is on thin ice. Most of her support will come from Democrats and left-leaning independents who rank her second after Democrat
(who is polling at about 13% and will be eliminated after the first round). An internal Tshibaka poll at the end of August showed the two Republicans in a dead heat in the final round, and a September AARP survey showed the same result. Only this week, a FiveThirtyEight simulation showed Ms. Tshibaka winning in 53 out of 100 scenarios.
Still, the challenger is up against the powerful forces of incumbency. Here at the Big Lake gathering, the first question is about the barrage of ads slamming Ms. Tshibaka, courtesy of the Senate Leadership Fund, the political-action committee associated with Minority Leader
Although the SLF claims it doesn’t have enough money to bring viable GOP Senate candidates over the finish lines in states like Arizona, it’s spending millions on TV and radio ads to help Ms. Murkowski in a state that will remain Republican even if she loses.
The SLF has flooded the Alaska zone with vicious spots essentially claiming Ms. Tshibaka committed fraud during her time as a federal employee. The ads are so deceptive that at least one Alaskan radio station refused to air them. The Murkowski campaign is also being floated by out-of-state high-dollar donations from business tycoons. By some estimates, pro-Murkowski forces outspent the Tshibaka side 10 to 1 in the runup to August’s jungle primary (which sent four candidates to November’s ranked-choice election).
That Ms. Tshibaka is still swinging comes down to a conservative base that harbors a tangible resentment against Ms. Murkowski—from her installation into her job by her predecessor and father, then-Gov.
in 2002 to her recent votes against Alaskan interests. “I don’t like that this is a family dynasty,” says
a 28-year-old from Wasilla who drove to the Big Lake event. “We need people who are fresh and honest.” He nods approvingly as Ms. Tshibaka runs down the list of Murkowski offenses, including providing the tie-breaking committee vote for Interior Secretary Deb Haaland—who since has spearheaded moves to shut down drilling in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and to block a vital road from southwest Alaska’s King Cove to neighboring civilization over environmentalist complaints it might disturb birds.
Ms. Tshibaka (“rhymes with Chewbacca, and yes the force is with us,” she says) is also deftly using the Beltway attacks to her advantage, contrasting Ms. Murkowski’s “D.C. insider” status and “need for approval” with her own independence. “I don’t have any money from the Republican Party,” she tells the audience, “which means I don’t owe anyone any favors.” She pitches her oversight credentials (she worked as a watchdog in three federal administrations), and her vow to use the leverage of a Senate position to Alaska’s advantage.
Her path to victory requires conservatives to turn out, and she’s working to ensure that they do it with a grueling schedule of meet-and-greets across Alaska’s vast geography, coupled with grass-roots interaction (she and her family alone have knocked on more than 3,500 doors since Labor Day, while the campaign has hit 25,000). Alaska averaged about 50% turnout in the 2018 midterms, and given the small population, the campaign estimates that every additional 3,000 voters equals about a percentage point increase.
The death of Alaska’s longtime representative,
and the new ranked-choice system (and the state’s constantly evolving guidance on how it works) is making for a wild cycle, and no one can be sure what November will produce. But those high-profile swing-state Senate seats might not be the only ones switching hands.
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