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A Tale of Two Governors … And One Daughter

In a Republican state like Alaska, incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) should be a safe bet for re-election.

But with controversy still hanging over the way she came to office, the Alaska Senate race between Murkowski and former Gov. Tony Knowles (D) will be one of the most closely watched contests in the country this year.

The primary issue “is nepotism,” conceded Anchorage-based Republican pollster David Dittman. “That still annoys people, she has good high job approval ratings but people [just] don’t like how she got the job.” How she got that job — through a gubernatorial appointment from her father and predecessor Frank Murkowski (R) — was the impetus for a pending statewide ballot initiative on how to fill Senate vacancies and part of a recent ABC-TV “20/20” report on nepotism.

It also means that Lisa Murkowski’s political fate is unquestionably tied to that of her father, whose 14 months as governor have been anything but smooth.

Lisa Murkowski made no excuses about her circumstance when she told the news magazine’s John Stossel: “The fact of the matter is, I’m in the United States Senate today because my father, who is now the governor, was able to appoint me.”

The elder Murkowski believed his daughter was the “best replacement” for him, she said. “The appointment gets me to the end of my father’s term and that’s it. After that, it is up to me to demonstrate that I can be their Senator, I can be the best Senator that they’d ever want.”

And that is precisely what she’s doing, says Murkowski’s campaign manager Justin Stiefel.

She works hard, flies back to Alaska almost every weekend and is focused on doing her job, he said.

“To a large degree, [the nepotism issue] has died down around here,” he said.

But Dittman said that Murkowski must tackle the issue head on, acknowledge that people are upset about how she came to her position, and then ask voters to put that anger aside and judge her on her performance.

If she can put that issue to rest and get past it, “she’s in real good shape,” he said.

Stiefel points to the “20/20” interview as proof that Murkowski “has not been one to shy away from” the issue and adds that since her December 2002 appointment, she has opened all of her meetings and speeches back home with an acknowledgement of the situation.

Afterwards, “people hear her and ask her how they can help” get her elected, he said.

Even if people are willing to look past her appointment, she cannot get too far away from the issue as it continues to percolate back home.

Three Democratic state legislators — Reps. Eric Croft, Harry Crawford and David Guttenberg — formed Trust the People and snagged roughly 50,000 signatures, more than twice what is needed, in about two months to put a measure on the November ballot to change the way Senate vacancies are filled.

The initiative would require a special election and take away the governor’s appointment prerogative.

The Alaska attorney general is challenging the legality of the measure and the state Legislature is in the midst of knocking it off the ballot by passing an almost identical bill.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Lesil McGuire (R) — a friend of Murkowski’s from her days in the state House — is winding its way through the Legislature.

Every step of the way one party or another has questioned the other’s motives.

Republicans say Trust the People was formed simply to embarrass Murkowski and force her to appear on the ballot at the same time as the initiative spurred by her appointment. Furthermore, they say, the petition drive was funded by “outside” money from liberals in Washington, D.C.

Democrats counter that almost one of every 12 Alaskans signed the petition. Additionally, they say the Republican-controlled Legislature is only acting preemptively to spare Murkowski and they suspect that Republicans very well might gut the bill next year, after the election.

In the past, legislators have approved bills sufficiently similar to ballot initiatives, thereby throwing the measures off the ballot, then gone back and reversed themselves, said state House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz (D).

Furthermore, Democrats have introduced a bill almost identical to McGuire’s every year since 1998 but the majority defeated it every time, he said.

To blunt such criticism, McGuire has said she would add language making it clear that future Legislatures are to let the law stand.

Randy Ruedrich, chairman of the Alaska Republican Party, said that if the Legislature acts, that would please voters who signed the petition.

As to whether Republicans would then repeal the bill, he said that charge was an effort by Democrats to “discredit the Legislature” but added that the “Legislature is always free to amend the laws of the land.”

A lot of the anger and mistrust among Democrats stems back to before Frank Murkowski appointed Lisa to the Senate.

When he was running for governor in 2002, the Legislature tweaked the succession law to deny his predecessor, Knowles, the ability to name Frank Murkowski’s Senate replacement, enabling the elder Murkowski to choose his own successor after he won the governor’s race.

Murkowski, who spent 22 years in Washington, ran for governor in the middle of his Senate term, when Knowles was prevented by term limits from seeking re-election.

Now that Knowles is challenging Lisa Murkowski, he’s mining the nepotism issue.

“It’s an issue we have been bringing up but … we don’t have to,” says Knowles spokesman Bob King. “It’s very much an issue that’s in the public’s mind.”

The entire episode left a bad taste in the mouths of Republicans too, according to Ivan Moore, an Alaska-based Democratic pollster.

There’s “bubbling resentment on the right end of the political spectrum,” he said, noting that several top-tier Republicans who were passed over in favor of Lisa Murkowski remain bitter.

Lisa Murkowski does have a primary challenger in Jim Dore, a dark-horse candidate who frequently runs for office, but she could face a stronger challenge from the right. Although Moore said that the likelihood of that is diminishing, former Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin (R) has not ruled out the possibility of a primary challenge. Candidates have until June 1 to file.

Even if she does not draw any more primary opponents, Murkowski still has to deal with her father’s declining popularity, Moore said.

The race is probably more about Frank Murkowski than Lisa, he said. Her negative is at 40 percent, he said, but of those who do not like her, nearly 90 percent don’t like her father either.

Dittman agrees that rightly or not, some Alaskans may take out their growing frustration with the governor on the daughter.

“A lot of it is irrational but she will be the only Murkowski on the ballot … they could take it out on her,” Dittman said.

Stiefel says he does not believe one Murkowski’s popularity will affect the other’s.

“Alaskans are smart enough to know they are two separate, individual people,” he said. “This is not a referendum of approval on his behalf.”

By all accounts, partisans on both sides expect the race to be neck and neck.

“It will be competitive right down to the wire,” says Dan Allen, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

A recent poll that Moore conducted on behalf of KTUU-TV in Anchorage showed Knowles with a 4-point lead, within the margin of error, over Murkowski.

That poll was immediately met with skepticism and criticism by Republicans.

Two days after it was published, the NRSC released a memo from Hans Kaiser, a Republican pollster with Moore Information (no relation to Ivan) Public Opinion Research.

Kaiser pointed out that Ivan Moore had worked as former Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer’s (D) pollster in her unsuccessful 2002 gubernatorial bid against Frank Murkowski.

While Republicans looked for holes in Moore’s data, they have yet to offer contradictory numbers showing Murkowski in the lead, King said.

“They’re attacking his numbers but not providing their own,” King said. “If you don’t like the message, it’s pretty easy to attack the messenger.”

Whether the race, which has yet to begin in earnest, turns truly nasty will largely depend on the influx of money everyone expects outside groups to dump into the campaign, Dittman said.

Ultimately the price tag for the race, including spending from both candidates, the political parties and outside groups, could total $15 million, Stiefel said. That’s a lot of money in a state where $100,000 can buy a week’s worth of heavily rotated television ads, he said.