The Alaska political landscape shook like a 7.0 magnitude earthquake on June 18, the day Donald J. Trump endorsed Kelly Tshibaka for Senate.
It’s not the biggest political earthquake the state has seen – that prize goes to former Gov. Sarah Palin. But, this one will have aftershocks all the way until Nov. 8, 2022 and maybe beyond.
Tshibaka, who is not a household name yet in Alaska, met with Trump two weeks ago at Trump Tower in New York City. It went well.
The former president had been closely following her ascent as a Republican candidate who would challenge the powerful Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
Tshibaka is a former state commissioner of the Department of Administration, reporting to Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who has a good relationship with Trump.
Murkowski, unlike Tshibaka, is very much a household name in Alaska. The Murkowski family has held the Senate seat for 40 years. First, it was Frank Murkowski, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1980. When he became governor in 2002, he appointed his daughter, Lisa, who was at the time in the Alaska House of Representatives.
Murkowski is now the second-most senior Republican woman in the Senate, after Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. She is, for the Republicans, the most unreliable vote.
Trump, who is not on Murkowski’s A-list, did well in Alaska during the 2020 presidential election. He won 53 percent of the vote, with the Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen peeling off 2.5 percent of votes from conservatives.
In fact, Trump did better in 2020 than in 2016, when he was running against Hillary Clinton. Since last November, Trump has retained a majority approval rating in the state.
The conventional wisdom is that Murkowski can beat anything. She has had well-oiled and well-funded campaigns since she first had to run for the office in 2004.
In 2010, she lost the primary to Republican Joe Miller, who ran to her right. She then launched a write-in campaign, and even though she had only been in office for eight years (two appointed, six elected), and had a name with a tough spelling challenge, won the general election.
It was historic. Someone like Lisa Murkowski should never be underestimated.
But particularly in the Trump years, she has gotten herself sideways with conservatives. She went hard against the president on matters such as the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the retention of Obamacare, and she voted to impeach Trump, even after he had become a private citizen, something that even those who are not constitutional scholars find wrong.
In March, the Alaska Republican Party State Central Committee voted to censure Murkowski, ask her to not run as a Republican, and pledged to give her no support in her reelection. The vote was 77 percent in favor of the resolution to censure her and find a new candidate to represent the party.
It was historic. But the party vote tally may have underrepresented the actual sentiment amongst voting Republicans of the state.
Radio talk show host Dan Fagan has been covering politics in Alaska for decades and says he has never seen a politician as hated as much as Murkowski.
“Polls show 87 percent of Republicans don’t like her and 63 percent of all Alaskans view her unfavorably. It would be a miracle of all miracles if Lisa Murkowski ends up in the top three, when it’s all said and done,” Fagan said.
Top three? That is something most Americans don’t understand. Doesn’t the top vote-getter win?
Not in 2022. In November, Alaskans were persuaded by dark-money dollars to enact a new voting scheme – a wide-open, nonparty primary. The top four vote-getters head to the general election, where they compete in a ranked-choice system, such as Maine has been experimenting with.
It’s a voting scheme designed by Murkowski’s former campaign manager, with the understanding that, although Murkowski is a Republican, she cannot win a Republican primary. She needs to be in a jungle primary to get enough votes to advance to the general election, as she relies on liberal voters.
Then, when it comes to the November ballot, her campaign manager, using the dark national money to persuade voters they would have more choices, set in place a system where the more moderate candidate can win.
In addition to an untested ranked-choice ballot, where the second-place winner often is the victor, Murkowski has the backing of Sen. Mitch McConnell and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
But what Murkowski’s campaign manager didn’t factor in was the Trump effect. He is still popular in Alaska, and with his endorsement, Tshibaka will be able to raise more money, get her name recognition elevated in record time, and get her message out to all corners of the state.
Kelly Tshibaka. Pronounced like Chewbacca. It’s a name you have not heard before in national politics. And it’s about to become one of the most talked about names for 2022.
Suzanne Downing is publisher of Must Read Alaska and writes for Must Read America and Newsmax.
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