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The fate of the $550 billion infrastructure package coming soon to the House floor has potential repercussions well beyond President Joe Biden’s White House and Democratic Party.
After a bipartisan group of senators struck a deal this summer on rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, Sen. Lisa Murkowski extolled the benefits of legislation that would provide funding for transportation projects she said are the “lifeline” to linking the far-flung communities in her vast rural state.
For the Alaska Republican who alienated many in her party by voting to convict Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial, the prospect of record federal dollars headed to the state for highways, bridges, seaports, and airports also provides a salient issue she hopes will help her survive a likely tough 2022 election.
“I have always believed that the most effective re-election tool is being an effective lawmaker,” Murkowski said in a brief interview in the Capitol.
Murkowski, who hasn’t formally declared her candidacy, said she’d announce her election plans “when I have plans to announce.”
Her prospective race is one of several in both chambers featuring Republicans critical of Trump that will test whether their legislative prowess and constituent service can counter the sway the former president has over the party base. The contest will be further complicated by a new open primary process.
The Senate-passed infrastructure bill she helped write has provisions to help Alaska residents, and people in the state are “loving it,” she said, adding that “we need to get it across the finish line.”
The infrastructure measure’s (H.R. 3684) passage isn’t assured, as moderate and progressive Democrats fight over tying it to a larger spending package aimed at bolstering the social safety net. The White House made a late push Wednesday to settle differences ahead of the vote leaders are aiming to hold early next week.
Murkowski is likely to announce her candidacy after the measure is enacted and “take a victory lap” in the state, said Jim Lottsfeldt, an Anchorage political consultant who’s worked on her past campaigns.
Murkowski may need all the help she can get to win a fourth full Senate term. The independent-minded moderate who clashed with the former president faces a competitive challenge from Kelly Tshibaka, the former head of Alaska’s Department of Administration.
Trump’s endorsement of Tshibaka boosted her standing. The state Republican Party censured Murkowski for her impeachment trial vote and followed Trump’s lead in backing Tshibaka.
About a third of Alaska voters “have really coalesced around Trump,” Lottsfeldt said, and those voters “absolutely won’t vote for Murkowski.” But Murkowski can ultimately prevail with the votes of moderate Republicans, Democrats, and independents in Alaska’s new, open-primary election system, Lottsfeldt said.
McConnell’s Money Machine
The 19-year Senate veteran and daughter of a former senator and governor has allied with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose fundraising and strategy help could prove invaluable in retaining the seat. Groups linked to McConnell are “a money machine” for funding campaign ads aiding Murkowski, Lottesfeldt said.
The McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund (SLF) raised and spent nearly $500 million helping Republican Senate candidates in the 2020 election. The super PAC endorsed Murkowski in April, with its president, Steven Law, saying in a statement that “Alaska needs the kind of experienced representation” she provides. SLF and its affiliates “have played a decisive role in Alaska’s Senate races,” the statement added, noting that it spent $6.9 million to help Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) get re-elected in 2020.
Murkowski held a fundraising advantage entering the summer, with $2.3 million in cash on hand. Tshibaka, who entered the race at the end of March, raised $759,000 and had $276,000 on hand through June. The third fundraising quarter ends next week.
Despite occasionally breaking with some of her Republican colleagues, Murkowski has demonstrated loyalty to McConnell on key issues, such as Democratic legislation to overhaul election and voting laws. After wavering for months on whether she’d support elections legislation, Murkowski recently raised concerns that the new compromise bill (S. 2747) drafted by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) represented “overreach by the federal government into states’ election systems,” according to an email from her spokeswoman, Karina Borger.
Palin Eyes Race
Two conservative Republicans, former Gov. Sarah Palin and attorney Joe Miller, have said they’re considering running. Palin, the vice presidential running mate of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008, told a Christian conference in August she’d enter the Senate race “if God wants me to.”
Murkowski’s tenuous support in the party hit a breaking point in 2010 when Miller rode a wave of Tea Party support to defeat her in the Republican primary. She won the general election through a write-in campaign and support from across the political spectrum. In 2016, she won with 44% of the vote on a splintered general election ballot that included Miller running as a Libertarian.
The state’s new election system, which Murkowski supported in a referendum narrowly passed by Alaska voters last year, could save the senator from some of the trouble she had in 2010. Candidates from all parties plus independents compete in the open primary, and the top four finishers advance to the next round. In the general election, voters will have a chance to designate second and third choices in a process known as ranked-choice voting.
But the new system may not be enough to save Murkowski, Art Hackney, a veteran Republican consultant in Alaska said in an email.
“Lisa has an absolute path to re-election,” he said, “and an absolute path to being replaced.”