Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) will face off against Donald Trump’s endorsed candidate on Tuesday, a long-awaited showdown that comes more than a year after she voted to convict the former president over his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack.
The primary comes as Trump racks up wins across the country in his quest to rid Congress of Republicans who have crossed him. And polls have showed his pick in the race, Kelly Tshibaka, leading the primary pack.
But observers say Murkowski shouldn’t be overly worried yet. Alaska’s new electoral system that features an all-party primary followed by a ranked-choice vote in the general election means the moderate senator is all but guaranteed to advance on Tuesday, even if she isn’t the top vote-getter. And the system could work to her advantage in November as well.
“She can’t lose anything and we think the electorate is going to skew more Trumpy than the general and we think the electorate is going to be more partisan across the board,” John-Henry Heckendorn, an Alaska-based political consultant, said, referring to next week’s primary.
That will likely change in November, he said.
“The bar is low for Murkowski in the primary because she’s likely to be favored, one would imagine, by a larger and less partisan electorate in the general.”
Still, the race will likely be seen as another test of Trump’s clout, and Murkowski, who is the only one of the seven senators who voted to convict the former president up for reelection this year, is not favored to come in first on Tuesday.
Trump traveled to Alaska last month to hold a rally for Tshibaka, former governor and congressional candidate Sarah Palin, and current Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R). The former president took the opportunity to blast Murkowski over her vote during his impeachment trial last year.
“She voted to impeach me. And I did more for this state than any president in history. And that piece of,” he said, before mouthing the word “garbage” to the crowd, “voted to impeach me!”
Trump’s backing of Tshibaka appears to be felt among the state’s grassroots conservatives as well. The conservative women’s group Maggie’s List endorsed Tshibaka over the incumbent GOP senator late last year, citing recommendations from the state party chairs.
“A lot of the reasoning for that had to do with Kelly’s strong, conservative values and how she reflected the values of Maggie’s List as an organization,” said Tina Ramirez, national spokesperson for Maggie’s List.
But Murkowski only needs to finish in the top four on Tuesday to advance to a general election. And other Republicans are less convinced that Tshibaka will be able to oust Murkowski, who has a large footprint in the state.
“I don’t think Tshibaka would be part of the conversation if it weren’t for Trump’s endorsement,” said one national Republican strategist. “It’s a state that Trump won by a pretty wide margin.”
But, the strategist added, “I wouldn’t say he’s as popular there as he is other places.”
The strategist noted Murkowski’s robust campaign operation as a plus for her going into November. She’s well-known in the state and has a significant fundraising advantage. Murkowski raised $1.7 million in the second quarter of the year to Tshibaka’s $587,000.
Murkowski has also defied odds in the political arena before, overcoming a primary loss in 2010 with a write-in campaign.
“There’s no better politician in Alaska than Murkowski,” the strategist said. “She’s going to do everything she needs to do to win.”
Additionally, Murkowski holds a relatively solid approval rate in her home state. According to data released by Morning Consult, 46 percent of Alaska voters say they approve of Murkowski’s job performance while 39 percent say they disapprove.
Alaska’s new ranked choice voting system could also benefit Murkowski, a frequent swing vote in the Senate who has had crossover appeal.
A candidate needs more than 50 percent of the vote to be declared the winner outright. If the front-runner doesn’t have that percent of the vote, the candidate with the fewest votes that round drops off the ballot, and those who ranked that candidate first will have their votes go to their second choice. The process continues until a candidate has more than 50 percent.
Observers say it’s likely Murkowski would be the one to pick up independent, Democratic and centrist Republican votes in subsequent rounds.
An Alaska Survey Research poll laid out a hypothetical general election between Murkowski, Tshibaka, Democrat Patricia Chesboro, and Alaskan Independence Party candidate Dustin Darden. It showed Tshibaka leading in the first two rounds of voting, but Murkowski leading Tshibaka by 4 points in the third and final round.
The Morning Consult poll showed 62 percent of Democrats and 41 percent of independents saying they approve of Murkowski’s performance.
“For Murkowski, I’m not going to say it’s a done deal and nobody is obviously taking it for granted, but without a serious Democrat in that race, she has all the room that she needs to her left to pick up the votes that she needs in the second or third round,” the national GOP strategist said.
Still, ranked-choice voting is a new concept in Alaska and experts aren’t quite sure how it will play out.
“We know that some people will decline that opportunity, but we don’t know at what rate,” Heckendorn said. “Those are the questions that are going to be really impactful when it comes to how Lisa Murkowski’s election shakes out.”
One hint could be a special election held on Tuesday to fill the state’s at-large House seat, which was previously held by the late Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska). It will be held using ranked-choice voting.
The Republican candidates for Young’s seat include former vice presidential candidate and former Gov. Sarah Palin and Nicholas, while the Democrats include former Senate candidate Al Gross and Mary Peltola.
Palin has trailed Begich and Peltola in a number of recent polls, despite getting Trump’s official backing. And ranked choice could benefit a candidate like Begich, given that a traditional primary would have brought out a more conservative base who would likely rally around Palin.
“This is the first time in Alaska history that we will actually understand how the electorate behaves in a ranked-choice voting environment,” Heckendorn said. “What we are going to learn about Murkowski’s race is what we can glean from the congressional special election.”
–Updated at 11:09 a.m.