Republican Kelly Tshibaka, center, a Republican, looks on Thursday, prior to a U.S. Senate debate in Anchorage. She faces U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, left, and Democrat Pat Chesbro, right, in the Nov. 8 general election. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

Republican Kelly Tshibaka, center, a Republican, looks on Thursday, prior to a U.S. Senate debate in Anchorage. She faces U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, left, and Democrat Pat Chesbro, right, in the Nov. 8 general election. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

Policy divides clear in fiery forum

Murkowski and Tshibaka attack each other as liars and extremists, Chesbro stays relatively low-key

The nastiest head-to-head battle of the major races in the Nov, 8 election was fought at furious pace during a statewide televised debate Thursday, with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski characterizing her main challenger Republican challenger Kelly Tshibaka as clueless and a liar, while the challenger also accused the incumbent of lying as well as casting votes allowing for an extreme liberal agenda.

Murkowski and Tshibaka are engaged in a race that is either dead even or favoring the incumbent due to the state’s new ranked choice voting system, according to various polls and pundits. While both are Republicans they’re relying on very different groups of voters to prevail and that was evident in their answers to a wide range of questions during the hour-long debate, in which candidates were given between 15 and 60 seconds to respond.

A successive pair of Tweets from U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Republican challenger Kelly Tshibaka during the hours following their debate on statewide television Thursday night typifies an increasingly prolific and nasty campaign leading up to the Nov, 8 general election. (Credit: Twitter)

A successive pair of Tweets from U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Republican challenger Kelly Tshibaka during the hours following their debate on statewide television Thursday night typifies an increasingly prolific and nasty campaign leading up to the Nov, 8 general election. (Credit: Twitter)

A third candidate whose far behind in polls, Democrat Pat Chesbro, also participated in the debate. The fourth candidate on the ballot, Republican Buzz Kelley, has suspended his campaign and did not participate. Kelley has in the past said he supports Tshibaka.

The political leanings of the participating candidates emerged clearly during the first question about codifying abortion rights nationwide.

Murkowski, positioning herself as a moderate willing to reach across the bipartisan aisle, said she supports such a bill, albeit with restrictions including a conscious provision for providers who object to performing them and retaining the Hyde Amendment that prohibits using federal Medicaid funds for most abortions.

“We cannot go backwards 50 years in time,” she said.

Tshibaka, favored by the state’s Republican party apparatus and endorsed by former President Donald Trump, said she’s pro-life and doesn’t believe a bill legalizing abortion nationwide would be upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. She said she would support a bill making abortion illegal sometime during the second trimester and favors making birth control (but has previously said she opposes the “morning after” pill) available without a prescription through the mail.

“I think this would be wonderful, especially in many of our Alaska Native rural communities where they don’t have a post office open all the time,” she said.

Chesbro, in keeping with her mostly mainstream Democratic positions, talked about her discussions with women who opted to have abortions — and a women with cancer who did not — and said the government shouldn’t control those difficult decisions.

“I think it needs to be up to the decision of the individual, no one else,” she said.

The two questions candidates were allowed to ask each other were among the most engaging moments of the debate. Tshibaka, as would be expected, used both of her questions to challenge Murkowski. One asked in general terms why she supported many of President Joe Biden’s policies and nominees; the other asserted the incumbent initially campaigned against “dark money” from outside the state influencing elections, but now receives millions in such contributions.

“Why are you beholden to Lower-48 and D.C. dark money that doesn’t care about our Alaska future?” Tshibaka asked, although her campaign also has received support from such groups.

“This could not be further from the truth,” Murkowski replied. “We recognize there are outside groups weighing in. They are weighing in on my campaign, your campaign and a host of campaigns.

“As a candidate, we cannot control that. It might be frustrating, but we can’t control that.”

Tshibaka, allowed a brief rebuttal, reiterated her claim by stating “when they come in and help you keep your Senate seat you owe them favors.”

Chesbro, who’s raised a relatively minuscule amount compared to the multi-million dollar contributions to the two Republicans, stated definitively “nobody owns me.”

“I think money is a problem in the races we have in this country and I think we really need to start thinking about the impact of that money,” she said. “If you don’t have money sometimes you can’t get your voice out there. I don’t know the answer to that.”

Murkowski, in turn, invoked the bipartisian infrastructure bill she played a large role in passing in directing her first question at Tshibaka, touting both the reported $2.7 billion allocated so far to Alaska and asking why the challenger frequently claims the state isn’t benefiting from the funds.

The problem is the funds are getting help up by “Biden’s bureaucrats under regulations designed to kill all infrastructure,” Tshibaka said, adding Murkowski voted to confirm officials implementing such regulations.

The senator, in rebuttal, cited several projects already receiving funds “literally as we speak” such as flood diversion in Seward and broadband services in Bethel.

Chesbro sided with Murkowski on the issue, stating “I am supportive of it and I thank Sen. Murkowski for her role in having it go through.”

Chesbro also directed her first question at Tshibaka, asking her stance on the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act — passed by the House, but not the Senate — which proponents say offers protections for workers seeking to unionize. Tshibaka, siding with business groups opposing the bill, said she opposes it because it would force some employers to unionize.

In response, the Democrat said the bill’s intent to prevent retribution against employees seeking to unionize. Murkowski, noting she has been endorsed by multiple labor organizations, said that while the bill is controversial “it is something where recognize there is good engagement about the good things in it and where there are challenges we will address it.”

The Democrat’s second question was a pointed challenge to Murkowski, noting she voted to confirm four of the six judges who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade and then said she’d gotten the wrong impression from nominees at the time.

“In light of this how will you change your approach to confirming justices?” Chesbro asked.

The confirmation process is broken, Murkowski said, because nominees are no longer evaluated by their qualifications and temperance.

“We are evaluating them based on what president appointed them,” she said.

Tshibaka said “I will support constitutionalist nominees for the Supreme Court regardless of what president appoints them,” an answer unlikely to be seen as bipartisan since the “constitutionalist” reference generally refers to a strongly conservative position that favors overturning abortion, affirmative action and other rights not specifically defined in the Constitution.

The rancor between Murkowski and Tshibaka was evident in many of the other questions during the debate, while Chesbro was largely a congenial and low-key afterthought.

Tshibaka described Murkowski — referring to throughout the debate as “the incumbent” — as ineffective despite her 20 years in the Senate as well as an enabler of Biden’s agenda. The challenger attacked Murkowski for voting to confirm Interior Secretary Deb Haaland because it purportedly locked up oil and other state resources, and for her campaign receiving millions from out-of-state “dark money” groups who don’t disclose their contributors.

“When I talk to Alaskans, we just don’t want a senator who’s bought and bullied by the D.C. establishment,” Tshibaka said. “We want somebody that represents our Alaska independent voices.”

Murkowski, in turn, attacked the challenger as extreme on social issues such as favoring conversion therapy for LGBTQ youths,

“Frankly, she’s been gone from the state for 28 years and she’s out of touch with Alaskans and what Alaskans expect and want,” Murkowski said. “Alaskans want results, they don’t want partisan political rhetoric.”

A question about ensuring election integrity also resulted in answers reflecting the relative political positioning of the candidates.

Tshibaka said she favors state control rather than “federalization of elections,” but supports federal funds for signature verification purposes such as machines that can detect legitimate matches. Murkowski asserted she’s the only Republican who consistently supports the 2021 John Lewis Voting Rights Act to ensure, for instance, election laws “do not discriminate against our Alaska Native people through literacy exams.”

Ensuring ballot access for all was also expressed in a different sense by Chesbro.

“I am wary of things I am hearing, of the things we hearing are around the country about people who are intimidating people,” she said. “The system cannot be safe is everyone doesn’t have access to it.”

A related question about whether Trump should testify before the Congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, and if he committed crimes related to events that day, saw somewhat more agreement among candidates.

Chesbro and Murkowski agreed Trump should testify, but whether he committed a crime should be determined through the legal process. Tshibaka, taking a different tack, said the legality of the subpoena is being determined by the courts, which she believes is appropriate, but largely deflected the question by stating it’s not of great interest 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 also pivoted from the subject when asked what Congress can do to mitigate climate change impacts such as Typhoon Merbok which devastated western Alaska this fall. She focused instead on the need to extract the state’s natural resources and “radical environmentalists” hampering those industries during Biden’s tenure, adding such resources are necessary to establish renewable energy facilities.

Short-term actions such as ensuring food is provided to affected areas and longer-term solutions such as more resilient housing in affected areas were suggested by Chesbro. Murkowski said some efforts are already under way through the infrastructure bill and an energy act passed a couple of years ago that focus on climate resilience.

Moments after the broadcast ended both Tshibaka and Murkowski issued statements proclaiming they won the debate — and the other was a loser.

“Kelly Tshibaka yet again resorted to partisan talking points when given the opportunity to discuss the issues that matter most to Alaskans,” a press release from Murkowski’s office states. “Kelly was absent from Alaska for 28 years, and it’s clear that she is now woefully out of touch with what Alaskans need.”

On this occasion, Tshibaka’s press release showed she agreed with the approach used by the incumbent.

“Kelly proved that Lisa Murkowski has grown more and more liberal over her 21 years in the Senate and consistently sides with Washington, D.C. insiders over the people of Alaska,” the release states. “Murkowski has enabled Joe Biden’s assault on Alaska, voted for almost all his radical nominees, and worked together with the people who are trying to wipe out our energy industries and turn Alaska into a national park for the rest of the country.”

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

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