U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski speaks during a meet-and-greet Oct. 12 at Louie’s Douglas Inn. The four-term Republican incumbent is being opposed by the state’s party leadership in favor of a challenger backed by former President Donald Trump, similar to the 2010 election when she won a historic write-in campaign against a Tea Part challenger that defeated her in the primary election. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski speaks during a meet-and-greet Oct. 12 at Louie’s Douglas Inn. The four-term Republican incumbent is being opposed by the state’s party leadership in favor of a challenger backed by former President Donald Trump, similar to the 2010 election when she won a historic write-in campaign against a Tea Part challenger that defeated her in the primary election. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Murkowski swings for middle in race filled with wild pitches

Four-term U.S. senator who won 2010 write-in campaign again facing strong challenge from the right

This is the third part in a three-part series of interviews with U.S. Senate candidates.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski doesn’t have to worry about people spelling her name right on the ballot this time, but in many ways she’s facing a similar significant challenge as her historic write-in win a dozen years ago due to a fellow Republican challenger who’s preferred by the party faithful.

The four-term Republican has been disowned by the state’s party leadership (and a majority of its voters in surveys) in favor of a challenger backed by former President Donald Trump after Murkowski voted to convict him of impeachment charges related to the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot. She’s also something less than universally loved by Democratswhose crossover vote she’ll need — due to actions such as voting to confirm Trump-nominated Amy Coney Barrett for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Such is the wide world of political sports in the race that she topped her main opponent 56.6%-43.4% in a poll a few weeks ago, a national pundit site relies on some of the same data to predict her opponent will win and one of the state’s conservative media outlets keeps suggesting the senior Senator is trying to win by riding the coattails of just-sworn Democratic U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola.

Murkowski, in an interview following an evening meet-and-greet with a few dozen supporters at Louie’s Douglas Inn on Oct. 12, responded to the assortment of wild pitches with the characteristic middle-of-the-road emphasis of her campaign.

“My read is people are looking at those who are willing to stand and put themselves out there, and are willing to serve and I think they are listening to individuals that are there to serve Alaska and aren’t afraid to say it,” she said.

None of this is particularly new or daunting for a longtime politician whose most-famous moment was winning an against-all-odds write-in campaign (especially given the spelling of her name) against a Tea Party candidate in 2010. People on all sides of the political spectrum have things they grumble about, but Murkowski is currently among the most influential members of an evenly divided Senate and has a campaign war chest whose many millions (in both the accounts of her campaign and a supportive PAC) dwarf the funds of any other politician in the Last Frontier.

“The way I conduct myself and the relationships I build really doesn’t change,” she said. “I figure I have to find people to work on issues that are important to Alaska. That means I’ve got to work with Republicans and I’ve got to work with Democrats. I can’t work with everybody. There are some (people) that are just more problematic. It’s harder to do and so I find allies in other corners. I think that’s not unusual; you try to find these alliances and I think I have done so over time.”

Murkowski’s headline achievement since President Joe Biden took office was securing billions in federal funds for Alaska as one of the 10 members of Congress who negotiated final passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The biggest chunk of that was $3.7 billion over five years in federal highway formula funding for highways and bridges, including $1 billion for rural ferries under a definition that ensures the state will receive most or all of the allocation.

The ferry funds have generally been crowd pleasures when mentioned during the campaign in Southeast Alaska and the rest of the coastline serviced by the Alaska Marine Highway System. But at Wednesday’s event an employee with the system for more than 30 years said the current problems are as much about leadership as money, to which Murkowski expressed sympathy and reiterated her support of the ferries without directly addressing his concern.

When asked after the event what a U.S. Senator can do about ferry leadership that is essentially under the governor’s control, Murkowski said it comes down to influence and convincing skeptics of the statewide importance of the AMHS.

“I think there is a level of persuasion that can come to our state, to our administration from our governor all the way down,” she said. “We have an opportunity now because we have resources that give us some breathing room that we have not had until now, so let us seize this. Let us not miss this moment.”

During Wednesday’s interview Murkowski also singled out other lesser-known collaborative efforts, including maternal health legislation largely aimed at helping rural hospitals lacking such services that she co-introduced with Sen. Tina Smith, a Minnesota Democrat, which became law as part of omnibus bill this spring.

“We were able to work an initiative through the health committee that has nothing to do with our politics,” Murkowski said. “They have everything to do with the issues — in a state like Minnesota she’s got rural populations, she’s got (other) challenges — that are not so unlike here, so we’re finding common grounds to help people.”

Murkowski said “there are plenty of political witch hunts and rabbit trails that we can go down,” but there are also legitimate areas of inquiry into actions of major consequence.

“We were able to allocate a lot of federal money, taxpayer dollars, following COVID that were directed to very specific programs,” she said. “We’re seeing reports coming back that indicate there were fraudulent entities that were set up to take that federal funding and basically suck it away from those who truly needed it. We need to investigate that. Those are things that I think are our core responsibilities.”

Alaska might seemingly be spared the brunt (if not the entirety) of some other controversies inciting other races across the country, such as who won the 2020 presidential election and what some Republicans call an “invasion” of migrants along the southern border. But a literally chilling variation of the latter occurred this month when two Russians requested asylum after fleeing their homeland in a small boat and landing on St. Lawrence Island, with Murkowski becoming directly involved as questions arose about more Russians possibly seeking haven from efforts to force them to fight in the Ukraine war.

“I met with the two men,” she said. “What I heard directly from them is they were willing to risk their lives, they were willing to put themselves in an open boat, because of the fear of retribution from their own president. As native people in a rural part of Russia, the conscription that is going on there is a higher percentage than other parts of the country.”

When asked if she favors accepting such asylum seekers or sending them home, Murkowski said the solution is to focus on the problem at its source.

“What that tells me is our support of Ukraine and what Ukraine is doing as a small country to stand up to Putin and his — I believe — war crimes that are going on, this is hard for Ukraine, it’s hard for so many other countries that are in that shared sacrifice, but it is critical that we stand with Ukraine,” she said. “You don’t give up on your friends and allies.”

Murkowski’s evening stop at the Douglas bar came during a day that started at dawn in Sitka, was followed by daytime visits to Angoon and Hoonah, and ended with a flight to Anchorage late that night. When asked what different and/or new concerns residents she met in the variety of communities expressed, she said there’s an unusually singular focus on one thing.

“I don’t know if I’ve heard anything new, but what I have heard, underscored and underlined in every single community is housing, housing, housing,” she said. “That’s pretty unique that everywhere I’m going in the state to have one primary issue…it used to be you’d go to different parts of the state and it’d be high cost of this or energy that or housing.”

As with the potential northern border refugee crisis and plenty of other policy areas where complexity confounds simple fixes, Murkowski said her solution is in stabilizing the foundational aspects of the problem.

“One of the ways we can be helpful is when you build out the stuff that goes with it,” she said. “You want a house you need to have water, you need to have sewer, you need to have road access to it, people want to have broadband. We’re helping with that.”

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

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