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Can Lisa Murkowski Fend Off Kelly Tshibaka in Alaska?

Can Lisa Murkowski Fend Off Kelly Tshibaka in Alaska?

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Paulette Schuerch, a Native Alaskan who helped Lisa Murkowski’s fabled write-in campaign for Senate in 2010, is now working for the senator’s Trump-backed opponent, Kelly Tshibaka.

The breaking point for Schuerch, as she detailed in a telephone interview from her home in Kotzebue, a village 35 miles above the Arctic Circle, came in 2014. That year, Murkowski initially evaded insensitive comments about suicide made by Don Young, the state’s congressman, whom she had endorsed, before later asking him to apologize. Suicide is a delicate topic for many rural Alaskans, especially Alaska Natives, who have some of the highest rates of any ethnic group in the country.

At a meeting on the margins of an annual gathering of Alaska Natives, Murkowski looked several of the delegates in the eye, Schuerch said, and told them: “Don’t you give me the stink eye and shake your heads at me. I see you.”

“That really turned me off,” Schuerch recalled. “Suicide affects us all the time. I can’t support somebody who doesn’t understand that.”

It’s a story Schuerch has told increasingly often, and she is now helping Tshibaka make inroads among Alaska’s Native population, which has long been a key element of Murkowski’s winning coalition.

Tshibaka has been visiting villages in rural Alaska, participating in traditional events like the Utqiagvik blanket toss and crashing on the floors of schools in her sleeping bag.

And while public polling in Alaska is scarce, Tshibaka’s campaign points to Schuerch’s break with Murkowski as a clear sign that the independent-minded senator may be in trouble in her re-election bid.

On Saturday, former President Donald Trump is holding a rally for Tshibaka in Anchorage, Alaska’s most populous city. Tshibaka’s team is confident that Republican partisans have soured on Murkowski over her support for President Biden’s cabinet nominees — especially Deb Haaland, the secretary of the interior.

In an oil-rich state where jobs are often scarce and energy is a top political issue, the Biden administration’s environmental conservation moves have rankled many rural Alaskans, who depend heavily on resource extraction for their livelihoods. Tshibaka has sought to exploit the Native community’s disquiet with Haaland, a Native American herself who has become a lightning rod in Alaska.

Tshibaka often accuses the Biden administration of wanting to “turn the entire state of Alaska into a national park,” a line that appears to resonate with people like Schuerch.

“I think after 21 years in the Senate, Lisa Murkowski is taking Alaska Natives for granted,” Schuerch said.

Complicating the picture, however, is Alaska’s unique nonpartisan primary system, which voters approved as part of a 2020 ballot initiative and is being used this year for the first time.

Under the system, the four candidates from any party who receive the most votes in the Aug. 16 primary are expected to proceed to the general election in November, when voters will rank them in order of preference. This is called ranked-choice voting.

The ballot initiative, which passed narrowly by a popular vote, was pitched to Alaskans as a cure for gridlock and partisan polarization in a state that has one of the largest shares of independent voters in the country and prides itself on bucking national voting trends.

And while Kendall insists that the top-four system was not put in place to benefit Murkowski, his former boss, there’s no question it has complicated Tshibaka’s path to victory.

“It doesn’t allow the farthest-right Republican to knock out the moderate and be the only candidate in the general election,” said Jim Lottsfeldt, a political strategist who is supporting Murkowski. “The old primary system punished people who dared to be independent thinkers. You can’t do that anymore in Alaska.”

By Lottsfeldt’s reckoning, Murkowski ought to emerge with about 55 percent of the vote after voters’ preferences are taken into account, while Tshibaka, whose positions on issues like abortion might turn off moderates, is likely to finish at around 45 percent.

Tshibaka’s team is urging her supporters to use what’s known as “bullet voting,” in which voters do not rank any candidates besides their first choice — thus, they hope, denying thousands of second-choice votes to Murkowski.

They note, too, that Murkowski has never received more than 50 percent of the vote in any of her winning campaigns for Senate, and they point to polls showing the senator to be deeply unpopular with the Republican base.

It’s debatable whether Trump’s Alaska sojourn will help or hurt his preferred candidate. Tshibaka will probably cut television ads promoting his endorsement, using footage from Saturday’s rally, as candidates in other states have done.

But there’s a popular bumper sticker in Alaska that reads, “We don’t give a damn how they do it Outside” — a slogan that speaks to the frontier state’s suspicion of the Lower 48, as Alaskans often refer to the rest of the continental United States.

So Trump’s intervention, unless it is done with the sort of delicacy and tact that the former president is not known for, could easily backfire.

“Trump is not from Alaska, period,” noted Lottsfeldt, who added that the former president’s visit comes after weeks of tough congressional hearings about his role in inciting the Capitol riot.

“All I think it does is probably motivates people in the center to feel negative about Tshibaka,” Lottsfeldt said.

  • Under pressure to do more to respond to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, President Biden issued an executive order that aims to ensure access to abortion medication and emergency contraception while preparing for legal fights to come, Michael Shear and Sheryl Gay Stolberg report.

  • The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s conservative majority prohibited the use of most drop boxes for voters to return absentee ballots, a move that came as Republicans in the state have taken a range of steps since the 2020 election to try to limit the influence of voters over the state’s government. Reid Epstein has the story.

  • The ascent of Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee for governor in Pennsylvania, is perhaps the most prominent example of right-wing candidates for public office who explicitly aim to promote Christian power in America, Elizabeth Dias writes.

  • Cities around the South have challenged the supremacy of coastal supercities, drawing a steady flow of creative young people. In her Big City column, Ginia Bellafante asks: Will new abortion bans put an end to that?


On Politics regularly features work by Times photographers. Here’s what Sarah Silbiger told us about capturing the image above:

You can always count on photographing certain details on July 4. Kids with drippy Popsicles, rhinestone American flag T-shirts and oversize mascots of the Founding Fathers.

But what I find most interesting are the different photo-ops the White House creates. In 2019, I spent hours in the rain outside the Lincoln Memorial covering President Donald Trump’s display of tanks and a Blue Angels flyover.

In 2020, we photographed the White House from about half a mile away, in a field. Talk about social distancing.

In 2021, President Biden’s White House adopted a somber tone, to recognize American resilience during Covid, but cautiously celebrated the beginning of the country’s emergence from the pandemic thanks to vaccines.

This year, the absence of distance or masks made for a picture-perfect image of Biden’s extended family on a balcony of the White House. The bright white spotlight on the family, set up by White House officials, signaled to the news media that they, too, recognized the moment as an important photo-op.

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you on Monday.

— Blake

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