Defying the anti-establishment anger, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski forcefully makes her case for another term. "Seniority actually means something in the Senate," she insists at a fundraiser in this southeast Alaska tourist and fishing town.
Murkowski delivered that message three days before a plane crash killed former Sen. Ted Stevens, who for four decades consistently delivered billions in federal dollars for roads, bridges, ports, pipelines and military projects that transformed the 49th state.
Stevens' legacy looms large in Tuesday's Republican primary, in which Murkowski is trying to fend off Joe Miller, a decorated combat veteran, former judge and blame-Washington candidate backed by the tea party and former Gov. Sarah Palin. Reminding voters of the riches from seniority looks like it could sweep the better-known, better-financed Murkowski to the nomination and a likely victory in November over the Democrat on the ballot.
A primary triumph by Murkowski would be a vindication for incumbency in an election season in which opponents of long-serving lawmakers argue that it's time to shake up Washington.
The last Republican to argue that Senate longevity matters was Utah's Bob Bennett, who was rudely swept aside by tea partiers and other GOP voters at the state convention in May. Alaskans, however, have proved reluctant to change the congressional lineup after years of heavy reliance on federal funds. The state's lone representative, Republican Don Young, has served in the House since March 1973.
Murkowski, 53, considered the 86-year-old Stevens a mentor. He was with her at a recent campaign event and planned to join her during the final days before the primary. After Stevens died in the Aug. 9 crash, Murkowski changed her Facebook photo from one of her family to pictures of her and Stevens.
She likened the loss Alaskans felt with his passing to what Americans felt upon the deaths of Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.
"The thought of losing Ted Stevens, a man who was known to business and community leaders, Native chiefs and everyday Alaskans as Uncle Ted, is too difficult to fathom," she said. "He truly was the greatest of the Greatest Generation."
Stevens, who in 2004 appeared in campaign ads calling Murkowski a key member of the delegation, described her as "a hell of a lot better senator than her dad ever was."
Appointed to the Senate in 2002 by her father, Frank, then the governor, Lisa Murkowski ranks fifth in the Republican leadership and serves on the Appropriations and the Energy and Natural Resources committees, crucial for oil, gas and mineral-rich Alaska. If Republicans win control of the Senate in November, Murkowski would head the latter panel.
During campaign stops, she tells Alaskans that she shares their frustrations with the federal government, especially since President Barack Obama took office in January 2009. She says the government has been overstepping its bounds, intruding on states' rights and spending too much, and she insists she's fighting back.
She helped lead an unsuccessful charge against allowing the Environmental Protection Agency to issue regulations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, saying that encroached on the power of lawmakers. Last month, she voted against extending unemployment benefits. The cost, she said, simply couldn't be put on the "government credit card." She opposed Elena Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court, questioning her view of the 2nd Amendment and gun rights.
Miller, a graduate of Yale Law School and West Point, has never held elective office. He calls Murkowski a late voice to the conservative chorus. For much of her career, Murkowski has been known as a centrist, and Miller notes her history of voting with Democrats.
"She has a very liberal voting record and that also reflects her views of government as being the answer to all ills," he said. "That kind of perspective isn't going to pull the nation from the course we're on."
Murkowski makes no apologies for her voting record, acknowledging that while she's not a guaranteed Republican vote, she votes "with Alaskans' interests 100 percent of the time."
The biggest bloc of voters in the state consider themselves undeclared and nonpartisan; those voters have the option of voting Republican on Tuesday.
"It's much more powerful to say I'm working to reduce spending, deal with our nation's deficit, push back on the federal government, and give specifics for that rather than just say, 'I'm a conservative,'" she said in an interview during a recent campaign stop in Ketchikan, her hometown.
When charter boat operator Jerry Tallman told her she's not as conservative as he, she didn't try to convince him otherwise, instead repeating a version of her fighting-the-feds line. It was good enough for him.
"I guess I'm more for Murkowski (than Miller) because I'm familiar with her and she's done a good job," he said.
In other parts of the state such as Wasilla, the foothold of the nascent tea party movement in Alaska and Palin's hometown, Murkowski is seen by many as a Republican in name only, an obstruction to change in Washington.
She's "at best, a middle-of-the-road conservative," not in sync with the group's espoused fiscally and socially conservative beliefs, said Frank Bettine, a director of the Conservative Patriots Group, which has endorsed Miller.
Miller has picked up a list of boldface endorsements, notably from Palin, Mike Huckabee and the Tea Party Express, a California-based group that's been hitting the air waves and holding rallies.
The group claims at least partial credit for upset wins in other states — Sharron Angle in Nevada and Mike Lee in Utah. But in Alaska, it's drawn smaller crowds — from a handful in Ketchikan to a few dozen in Anchorage — to some of its events and rallies.
When she enters a venue, as on this Ketchikan swing, Murkowski works it with ease, calling people out of the crowd to ask about their profession — "How are things going at the shipyard?" — and listening intently at the folks who stop to talk.
"I should look at her record, but I sort of feel like a lot of people you meet come off as slimy, but she presents herself as genuine," said Ani Drozdowska, 31, a Democrat who likes Murkowski.
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