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Sins of the Father?

Alaska’s Budget Fights Could Hurt Lisa Murkowski in 2004 Election

She was thrust into high office under unusual circumstances by her father, Alaska Gov. and former Sen. Frank Murkowski (R), late last year.

So could Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) re-election bid in 2004 be damaged by her dad’s current low standing among the voters?

Democrats like to think so. A poll released last week by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee showed that while Lisa Murkowski’s job performance ratings were fairly low, Frank Murkowski’s were considerably lower.

The poll, conducted for the DSCC by the Mellman Group, also showed that just 28 percent of the 600 likely general election voters surveyed between March 13 and 16 were certain to give Lisa Murkowski a six-year term of her own. The survey’s margin of error was 4 percent.

“It clearly indicates that she is vulnerable to a strong challenge,” said pollster Mark Mellman. “People have reached a negative judgment about her father and a relatively negative judgment about her, and that creates a real opportunity for a strong Democratic challenger.”

Democrats are hoping that former Gov. Tony Knowles (D) runs for the Senate next year, though he has been mum about his intentions so far. Former Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer (D), who got 41 percent of the vote against Frank Murkowski in the gubernatorial election last year, is the likely alternative if Knowles doesn’t run.

Republicans dismiss the poll, questioning its methodology and conclusions.

“The fact is, Frank Murkowski was elected governor last year and previously served in the Senate for several decades,” said Dan Allen, communications director at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “He’s a popular figure and a statesman. The Democrats seem to be grasping at false hopes if they’re grasping at that.”

Nevertheless, Lisa Murkowski’s image in the public’s mind, if not her ultimate fate, is inextricably linked to her father.

Frank Murkowski represented Alaska in the Senate for 22 years before being elected governor last November. Several days after taking office, he appointed his 45-year-old daughter, who had spent four years in the state House of Representatives, to complete the final two years of his term.

Although Gov. Murkowski released a list of more than 20 people he was considering for the seat and interviewed several of them, in the end he argued that his daughter was eminently qualified and said she best represented his values — and the state’s.

But complaints about nepotism invariably followed. Indeed, 54 percent of the poll respondents said the way Lisa Murkowski came to the Senate was a convincing reason to vote against her next year. On top of that, 33 percent of those surveyed had a positive view of her job performance, while 34 percent were negative. More trenchantly, 57 percent of voters had a negative view of Frank Murkowski’s job performance, compared to 36 percent with a positive view.

For a freshman, Lisa Murkowski has taken an unusually active role in her first three months in the Senate. She was in the thick of the unsuccessful fight to get the Senate to approve oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

She has introduced legislation to split the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, calling the liberal-leaning court’s rulings “close to the fringe of legal reasoning.” And last week, she introduced an amendment, which went down to defeat, designed to restore $67 billion to President Bush’s proposed tax cut.

But while Lisa Murkowski has tried to sculpt her own image in Washington, D.C., thousands of miles away from the voters who will decide her fate next year, her father has lurched from one controversy to another since becoming governor — most related to the state’s reeling finances.

Just last week, Republicans who control the state Legislature in Alaska essentially walked away from Murkowski on his budget plan, which includes some tax increases and cuts to social services. House Majority Leader John Coghill (R) told the Anchorage Daily News that parts of the governor’s budget are “tough to swallow.”

Murkowski struck back, buying half an hour of TV time for a statewide budget address scheduled for last night. Murkowski aides said he wanted to explain to voters what he was trying to accomplish without the fog of legislative rhetoric.

David Dittman, an Anchorage-based pollster who has worked for some of Frank Murkowski’s campaigns, said the governor’s low poll numbers are not surprising given the budget crisis.

“Alaska is a huge entitlement state,” he said. “Every single program has a constituency of some kind. No matter what you do, you’re going to make someone mad.”

Dittman predicted that these skirmishes would be long forgotten by Election Day 2004.

But Brad Woodhouse, a spokesman for the DSCC, said Democrats would be able to exploit the fallout from Frank Murkowski’s hard line on the budget — and use it against Lisa Murkowski because she is fairly unknown statewide.

“She does have an opportunity to define herself, but we have an opportunity to define her, too,” he said. “There’s no doubt that her father is a drag on her, especially after the fake process he went through appointing her.”

Several Democratic sources said the committee decided to release some of the poll numbers — though not the head-to-head matchups between Lisa Murkowski and Knowles and Lisa Murkowski and Ulmer — to convince national party activists and donors that the seat is winnable, rather than to try to lure Knowles or Ulmer into the race immediately.

Dittman said Lisa Murkowski’s perceived vulnerability could also inspire a high-ranking Republican to challenge her in the GOP primary next year. The name most frequently mentioned is State Railroad Commissioner Johne Binkley, a former state legislator who has rural roots but now lives in Fairbanks, a politically pivotal city.

“She’ll have more trouble in a Republican primary,” Dittman said. “If she gets through the primary, she’ll be OK in the general.”

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