Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire 
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski discusses her reelection campaign with supporters during the official opening of her Juneau campaign headquarters Thursday evening at Kootznoowoo Plaza.

Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski discusses her reelection campaign with supporters during the official opening of her Juneau campaign headquarters Thursday evening at Kootznoowoo Plaza.

Murkowski opens up at Juneau HQ debut

Senator chats with supporters about U.S. vs. Belgium voting, moose chili and Project Veritas

This article has been updated to include an objection from Project Veritas General Counsel & CCO, John Sullivan.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski celebrated the opening of her Juneau campaign headquarters Thursday night by spending a couple of hours talking about Alaska’s new ranked choice voting with a Belgium man who says a similar system exists in his country, being at the center of ongoing national political turmoil, and having Project Veritas stalk her and her Anchorage campaign staff.

The Republican four-term incumbent also talked with the few dozen supporters about Southeast Alaska concerns such as landslides that have closed the cruise ship dock in Skagway for the rest of the summer, and in an interview afterward emphasized improved transportation and connectivity among her primary goals for the region during the next six years.

The headquarters at Kootznoowoo Plaza in the Mendenhall Valley has been operating for a couple of months. But the “official” debut five days before Tuesday’s primary election essentially served as a Juneau campaign stop while touring Southeast Alaska going into the final weekend of events.

“The challenges that we face as a state right now are great,” she said to attendees after being introduced by three Alaska Native leaders. “Our economy is not where we wish it to be. And on the national level the concerns with inflation and what were facing with international events and war and threats.”

She continued: “It is a tenuous and difficult time…and it requires strong leadership and it requires leadership that is willing to try to come to solutions rather than just send messages about what one position may be on the other side and cast stones.”

Murkowski spent the evening making the rounds to chat at least briefly with all of the attendees, while sampling moose chili made by the hunter who shot the animal and taking a moment near the end to relax in one of the dozens of red and blue chairs (roughly matching her campaign logo colors) a campaign worker obtained for a collective $10 at state surplus auction.

She reminisced about her days interacting with certain Democrats as a member the Alaska State Legislature with the spouse of one of those representatives (“We actually liked one another even though our politics were different.”) Sympathy was expressed for an election official of many years who will review primary absentee and questioned ballots (“all eyes will be on you”). And she bonded with numerous supporters saying she’s too often portrayed as controversial for being a “moderate” Republican (“the news media doesn’t necessarily want to report when people are coming together.”)

Election enigmas

Questions and thoughts about the open primary where the top four finishers regardless of party will advance to the November general election and ranked choice voting were brought up by several people. Murkowski agreed the primary is similar to “straw polling” in the sense all the major contenders will still be competing afterward and thus she’s “focused on the one that matters.”

Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire 
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski discusses her reelection campaign with supporters during the official opening of her Juneau campaign headquarters Thursday evening at Kootznoowoo Plaza.

Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski discusses her reelection campaign with supporters during the official opening of her Juneau campaign headquarters Thursday evening at Kootznoowoo Plaza.

But Murkowski, who has never won a majority of votes in her three senate reelection campaigns, said the new system is likely to change her strategy somewhat between the primary and general elections. Polls show her primary challenger, Republican Kelly Tshibaka, getting more votes than Murkowski from party members, but the incumbent ultimately prevailing when Democrats and independents who rank her as a second or third choice are added to the totals.

“You have to figure out how to move beyond your base,” she told a supporter. “You have to introduce yourself to more people.”

But Murkowski said she also expects an aggressive effort to support Tshibaka since national attention is on Alaska due to the new voting system and the incumbent being among perhaps four Republican senators — along with Maine’s Susan Collins, Wyoming’s Liz Cheney and Utah’s Mitt Romney — seen as not being sufficiently loyal to their party.

“There are those on the outside who are making it about a broader agenda, a broader initiative,” Murkowski said during her opening remarks.

The new voting system also made for an interesting topic of discussion with Glen Wyats, formerly of Belgium who is eligible to vote in his first U.S. election. He said the system in his home country is similar in many ways, although it usually involves ranking candidates in seven or eight political parties, and there is one huge difference in terms of participation.

“In Belgium voting is mandatory,” he told the senator. “You can be fined. If you don’t vote they can track you down.”

Getting tracked down for political reasons U.S. style was fodder for conversation with a couple hearing about “scandalous” videos released this week by Project Veritas, a so-called investigative journalism outlet infamous for its deceptively edited footage. The videos show a couple of Murkowski staffers saying they supported the initiative that resulted in ranked choice voting (which Murkowski told a Project Veritas spokesperson “was an initiative led by the people in the state of Alaska”), which the senator said were obtained by a 50-year-old woman who showed up at the Anchorage campaign headquarters professing to be a big fan.

“She sits with the volunteers for three weeks,” Murkowski said. “She’s just being the perfect volunteer. All the while she has a camera in her clothing and she’s talking to all these people trying to find some connection, some conspiracy.”

Uniting by dividing?

In an interview after the two-hour event, Murkowski said if reelected she sees furthering some of her achievements such as obtaining significant ferry and other funds in the $1 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden last year.

“In six years I see Southeast Alaska as a more connected region, and I am trying to address exactly that,” she said.

The bill includes $1 billion during the next five years for essential ferry services to support rural communities, and Murkowski said one of her tasks will be helping determine where and how specific funds are allocated.

“It is not my job as a federal representative to design a marine highway system,” Murkowski said. “What I can do is help to facilitate and support a marine highway system.”

One goal, for instance, is electrified ships able to operate using shore-side power, Murkowski said. An extension of that goal is furthering hydroelectric and other power projects in small Southeast communities paying rates far in excess of towns like Juneau.

Murkowski also stated more attention needs to be paid to regional solutions for currently national problems such as workplace shortages, which means boosting infrastructure including broadband connectivity and housing.

“It’s been a challenge, quite honestly,” she said, “If we can’t get housing we lose some of the anchors we have.”

When asked if those goals are likely to be more or less difficult if Republicans take control of Congress in this year’s election and/or the presidency in 2024, Murkowski focused on the coming two years and offered what isn’t exactly a universally held view.

“I’ve always felt we can get more things done if you have a split government,” she said, adding “right now, Biden has to deliver on every promise made to every progressive and every liberal” and as a result “half of the country is looking on with horror.”

Being forced to work with at least some Republicans has resulted in key pieces of legislation such as the infrastructure bill, she said. She also noted the evenly divided Senate agreed with only one dissent on Sweden and Finland joining NATO.

“There are, believe it or not, things we do agree on,” she said.

That said, obviously Murkowski favors having her party back in control of her chamber.

“Is it my preference we have a Republican Senate?” she said. “Absolutely. I think we’ve got a good shot at it, but quality matters. Candidates matter.”

In an email, Project General Counsel & CCO, John Sullivan objected to the characterization of Project Veritas by referring to “dozens of articles published in a single day on Aug. 25, 2022 by virtually every news outlet in which the organization was rightly called an investigative journalism media organization.”

Sullivan added, “Our videos are never deceptively edited or taken out of context which is why we are undefeated when sued. It has never been proven. How dare we show people expressing their own views, in their own words, on video? Very ‘deceptive,’ indeed…”

Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com.

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