U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski prepares to meet officials at the Sealaska Heritage Institute during a visit to Juneau on Tuesday. She was planning to visit the city on Wednesday, but moved up and rescheduled much of her trip when a stop in Bethel was cancelled due to weather concerns. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski prepares to meet officials at the Sealaska Heritage Institute during a visit to Juneau on Tuesday. She was planning to visit the city on Wednesday, but moved up and rescheduled much of her trip when a stop in Bethel was cancelled due to weather concerns. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Murkowski seeks capital opportunities amid election storm

Senator discusses energy, earmarks and last-minute campaigning during unscheduled stop in Juneau.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski wasn’t sure who she’d be meeting or what she’d be discussing after making an unexpected detour to Juneau on Tuesday, exactly one week before a potentially close election. But she’s already got a long list of requested earmark projects for the city and Southeast Alaska stored on her phone if she gets reelected.

The plan was to spend the day in Bethel before traveling to Juneau on Wednesday, until she was told at the last moment an approaching storm in Bethel might keep here there a while, Murkowski said during an interview Tuesday afternoon. By then she’d already made impromptu visits to Bartlett Regional Hospital and a local radio station, and hastily arranged plans by her staff for the rest of the day included meeting officials at the Sealaska Heritage Institute and a group wanting to discuss a project involving local heat storage pumps.

“What is it? I have no idea,” she said. “You give your team not even six hours and it’s like ’put together stuff.’”

Such on-the-fly planning might seem out of place for a 20-year incumbent with a multi-million dollar war chest, but Murkowski said it’s all part of the unpredictability of circumstances that happen in Alaska and campaigning in general.

“What I do know is there’s a group of meetings that was set up for tomorrow when I was supposed to be here with the collective out there that’s been working to build out these heat storage pumps,” she said. “It may be that I end up at a school, back at the hospital — this is the nature of a campaign. It is a little bit of go where people are instead of trying to create things that are a little more difficult to do on short notice.”

Plenty of people nationally are keeping an eye on the campaign pitting the moderate Republican Murkowski against Donald Trump-backed challenger Kelly Tshibaka, with predictions of polls and pundits varying from a dead-even race to a decisive win by Murkowski. Among the most recent predictors of a close race is a Newsweek article listing Murkowski first in an article headlined “Five Republican Incumbents Most Vulnerable to Losing Their Races,” although as expected she’s expressing more optimism.

“I feel like our campaign is in good place,” she said. “I’m proud of the campaign we have run. I think it’s been positive. I think it’s been designed to inform voters rather than just scream about how awful other people are, and I think Alaskans have responded favorably to that.”

That claim comes in the wake of numerous negative statements by Murkowski’s campaign in releases and social media about Tshibaka, claiming she’s wrong or lacking knowledge in her claims about certain issues due to a 28-year absence from the state. Murkowski denied the absence claim is an attack.

“I don’t think that pointing out the simple fact that somebody who is saying she is from Alaska, for Alaska or whatever her campaign slogan is, is being really truthful when she’s been back in the state for less than three years after being gone for 28 years,” she said. “That’s a fact. I don’t think that that’s negative at all.”

Murkowski also noted “I don’t do my own Twitter account; my campaign does that,” and stated that while numerous attacks might be coming from independent expenditure groups that people think are part of her official campaign, they are separate entities who legally cannot coordinate with each other.

The “mainstream” versus MAGA candidates among Republicans is also playing out on the national stage, especially since several candidates in the latter category are seen as the key to whether the GOP wins control of the Senate. Murkowski, who said her knowledge of such candidates is what she sees in the media, says her preference is definitely to be in the majority even if it includes some of the most controversial candidates.

“Would I prefer to be in the majority, and to help set the policies and the agenda for not only Indian Affairs, but for Interior Appropriations and the other appropriations committees I might be in line to chair?,” she said. “Absolutely.”

Murkowski said she’s in position to chair those two named committees if the Republicans win control of the Senate, and will remain the ranking Republican on the Energy Committee regardless of the outcome. As for other committee assignments she said the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions — which she is on “may be an interesting one to watch as well” since it appears there will be considerable movement after the election.

One prediction by numerous pundits and implied by some Republicans in Congress is the Senate will refuse to confirm any additional judicial nominees, especially for the U.S. Supreme Court, if the GOP takes control of the chamber after the election. Murkowski said she doesn’t agree, especially because she believes the divide in the Senate will be tiny no matter which party wins control, but Biden will have to change his approach.

“I think it will be very, very difficult for him if he advances judicial nominees who are viewed as either very partisan, with either records that tie them to statements or positions that have been highly political or partisan,” she said. “I think it depends on the individuals he will nominate…Biden is going to have to change. He’s going to have to position himself more to the middle, toward uniting rather than dividing. He’s going to have to stop listening to some of the people on the furthest extremes of his party.”

Also being questioned if the Republicans win control is the fate of efforts to codify abortion rights and possibly others such as affirmative action that are now before the Supreme Court. Murkowski, who has stated she supports codifying abortion rights with some restrictions (including a religious freedom clause.) She also favors codifying contraception and gay marriage rights.

One of Murkowski’s most-touted accomplishments of her current term is helping author the bipartisan infrastructure bill that will provide billions in dollars for Alaska projects during the next several years. When asked what projects and funding she’s being asked to consider if reelected, she said the list of earmarks is considerably longer than last year because, following the death this spring of Rep. Don Young — who handled many of the requests for the current budget year — “basically everybody came to my office.”

As for the list itself, she took out her cellphone and began scrolling through an ever-growing collection of requests.

“It is all over the map depending on the region that you’re in,” she said. “For instance, here in Juneau it’s support for a composting facility to extend the landfill. Support for JAMI, the health and wellness behavioral facility. Support to establish a CDL program here. A bridge over the channel — the second Douglas crossing.

“In Craig it’s support for a wastewater lift station. I think there’s probably no fewer than a dozen wastewater lift facilities that we’re trying to help across the state. Ketchikan is seeking support for a wastewater treatment upgrade. Wrangell is as well. Klawock, it’s help with a domestic violence shelter. Petersburg, it’s also water treatment plant upgrades. Valdez, also disposal of wastewater. Yakutat, they want a waterline extension to replace the PFAS contamination.”

While such projects and issues aren’t as headline-grabbing as abortion and gun rights, they are ultimately among the most important day-to-day duties of the job, Murkowski said.

“When you think about what it means to have a wastewater lift station, not too sexy,” she said. “But quite honestly people want to be able to flush their toilets and I don’t think that’s an unrealistic expectation.”

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

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