Politics & Government

Alaska's Lisa Murkowski walks a fine line

WASHINGTON -- The year 2009 was shaping up to be a good one for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, even as a Republican in a place where Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress.

With her mentor and friend Ted Stevens out of office, she had carefully maneuvered her way into his former seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, where he had wielded so much influence and had successfully steered billions of dollars in federal spending to Alaska.

As she prepared to run for re-election, Murkowski had seemingly bulletproof positioning for 2010. Her Appropriations Committee post ensured not only that plenty of money and projects would come to Alaska but that she got credit for them. Her higher profile in GOP leadership would help her raise money for her campaign -- and she had no serious Democratic opposition on the horizon. Her role on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and her reputation for working well with Democrats in the Senate gave her a heavy hand in shaping energy legislation in a way that benefited Alaska, including a possible cap-and-trade bill.

Then came the tea party movement, which seized on her pragmatic voting record and her new status as an appropriator, and painted them as liabilities.

Murkowski lost in the primary to Republican Joe Miller, the Fairbanks lawyer whose well-run upset was buoyed by former Gov. Sarah Palin's endorsement, more than a half-million dollars from the Tea Party Express political action committee, and an anti-abortion ballot measure that pulled the Republican Party's conservative base to the polls.

Twenty-four days later, Murkowski decided to do something that hadn't been done successfully since 1954: launch a write-in bid for the Senate.

"Alaskans deserve a fighter in the United States Senate who will always stand up for Alaska, who understands our great potential, who has the experience, respect and seniority to accomplish that," she told supporters at the rally announcing her bid. "I am that senator."

To be that senator, though, she'll have to do more than persuade supporters to fill in an oval and write her name on their ballots.

In the final days leading up to the election, she's walking a fine line. To snatch votes from Miller, she'll have to persuade Republicans she's conservative enough. But she'll have to also avoid coming off as too conservative. Otherwise she'll drive away Democrats who might be inclined to choose her over Scott McAdams.

Polls in write-in races are often unreliable, but the most recent Time/CNN poll suggests voters are evenly divided between Murkowski and Miller, with McAdams trailing.

In recent days, the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee has pumped $311,942 toward advertising that promotes Miller -- and attacks McAdams. The committee's aim is to keep McAdams from prevailing in a three-way race where the winner doesn't have to get 51 percent of the vote, said NRSC chairman, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

"That would be a disaster if the Democrat won Alaska," Cornyn said last week in an interview on MSNBC.


Murkowski, 53, was born in Ketchikan and raised in Fairbanks. She graduated from Georgetown University in 1980 and Oregon's Willamette University College of Law in 1985. Until this fall, her standard biography left off a detail that was common knowledge in legal circles in Alaska and among those closest to her but not widely known: It took five tries for Murkowski to pass the state bar exam.

She practiced law for a decade, then ran for the state House in 1998. She won re-election by 57 votes in 2002, and was poised to become the Republican House majority leader before her father appointed her to his vacant seat in the Senate. Murkowski, up for election two years later, narrowly defeated former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles, in part with a last-minute advertising push featuring Stevens.

But as the run-up to this year's election began, she stepped out of Stevens' shadow, securing a post in the Senate's all-male Republican leadership circle and putting distance between her controversial 2002 appointment by her father, then-Gov. Frank Murkowski, and her narrow 2004 re-election. Thanks to a series of retirements and good timing, she landed the top Republican job on a committee crucial to Alaska: Senate Energy and Natural Resources.

She also put behind her a scandal over a sweetheart land deal with a political supporter which, in the summer of 2007, had threatened to surround her Senate career with the same taint of corruption that knocked Stevens out of office after 40 years and swirled around a number of other Alaska politicians, including Republican U.S. Rep. Don Young.

Like many of her Republican colleagues, Murkowski was far more likely to vote with her party when the GOP controlled the Senate from 2003 through the end of 2006. She voted with Republicans 95 percent of the time from 2003 to 2004, and 91 percent of the time from 2005 to 2006. When Democrats regained Senate control in 2007, she voted with Republicans 80 percent of the time. (Stevens did so 81 percent of the time.)

She voted the Republican position 82 percent of the time over the past two years, according to a Washington Post database of voting records. Since President Barack Obama took office, Murkowski has voted in lockstep with most of her Republican colleagues against the president's major initiatives: the $862 billion stimulus bill, health care and a bill to overhaul the nation's financial regulatory system. She also voted along party lines against both of the women Obama nominated to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

"Think about the legislation we have had before us," Murkowski said in a recent interview. "Health care reform, financial regulatory reform ... that moved through the process on absolutely clearly a partisan basis. This was not something where I'm teaming with my leadership group on. This was something that all Republicans, whether they're Tom Coburn conservatives or coming from the state of Maine, came together and said, 'This is not good for this country.' "

McAdams has seized on Murkowski's voting record on spending, with a campaign radio ad suggesting she shifted to the right when she joined the Senate Republican leadership ranks in 2009.

It features a woman saying, "Lisa's changed," and points to several votes where Murkowski cast party-line votes against spending bills that included projects for Alaska. Many of the bills passed anyway -- and in some cases in 2009, Murkowski's office sent out press releases touting the projects, including money for the Covenant House -- a shelter for abused women -- and Big Brothers Big Sisters. But Murkowski and most other Republicans did not actually vote for the bill that included the projects when it came before the Senate at the end of 2009.

Another way to analyze her record is to look at who she votes with -- and who she's unlikely to vote with.

Among Republicans, Murkowski most often votes with the top Republican on Appropriations, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., according to an analysis by OpenCongress, which operates a nonpartisan website designed to make government more transparent. Among Democrats, it's Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., considered one of the most conservative members of his own party.

"She and I understood that working together was important, and we were able to find a way to do it," Nelson said of their work on an appropriations subcommittee that oversees legislative branch spending. "It's certainly a credit to her, as far as I'm concerned, that she was willing to do that because she could have taken the approach that others have, and that's 'no' against everything. But she realized we had a responsibility, and we did it jointly."

She's least likely to vote with two senators who are at the extreme edges of politics: Coburn, a conservative Republican from Oklahoma who has long crusaded against earmarking, and Sen. Bernard Sanders, an independent from Vermont who generally votes with Democrats and is a self-described democratic socialist widely considered to be one of the country's most liberal senators.


She has also occasionally parted ways with her party, voting with Democrats and the other three Republican women in the Senate to support the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in the opening days of the Obama administration, for example. She and Stevens and Young all defied a presidential veto in 2007 to vote to expand Medicaid for poor children, a move that expanded eligibility for the popular children's health insurance program known in the state as Denali KidCare.

One bipartisan vote was especially problematic in the primary campaign: the 2008 vote during the Bush administration authorizing the bank bailout that created the Troubled Asset Relief Program. She has said she regrets her vote -- a point Miller has hounded her on -- and it has hurt her with tea party sympathizers.

But she's also been attacked by Miller for her willingness to work with the Democratic chairman of the energy committee, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., with whom she cosponsored legislation in 2007 on now-stalled legislation that would cap greenhouse gas emissions.

And while Murkowski voted against the stimulus, she carried on with the Alaska tradition of ensuring the federal money tap was wide open for the state -- another unpopular move in a national climate where earmarks are increasingly seen as a sign of wasteful spending.

She told the Alaska Federation of Natives and other nonprofits in early 2009 to "get your grant writers ready" despite her own trepidations about the bill.

"I don't pass the tea party's purity test. It's as simple as that," Murkowski said in an interview. "On cap- and-trade or whatever other issue they might have, I just don't pass because I am willing to listen, I am willing to sit down with colleagues on the other side of the aisle to see if we can't develop good policies from good ideas that come from different perspectives."

It's unacceptable to compromise on core principles, Murkowski said, adding, "But when you're trying to develop policy, when you're trying to govern for all, I think it is important to welcome different perspectives and see if we can't figure out what the best path forward is."

In Murkowski's mind, one of the most puzzling attacks has come from the Miller campaign for her work on issues benefiting Alaska Natives.

She's been stung in the final weeks of the campaign by Miller's accusations that more than $1 million in backing she's received from Alaska Native corporations comes as a direct result for her support of their continued status in the U.S. Small Business Administration's 8(a) program.

Alaska Native firms have been under scrutiny for the no-bid federal contracts they're eligible for under 8(a). Some in Congress have suggested changing the guidelines for awarding contracts.

Miller said in a statement this week that the donations from Native corporations and Murkowski's support of their agenda reflected what he described as a "shocking" level of corruption.

Their political action committee, which is independent from Murkowski but supports her write-in bid, has pumped $1 million so far into the race on her behalf.

"Their efforts to preserve the status quo and re-elect their 'bought and paid for' Senator are not even bound by the law," Miller said in a statement. "The Alaskan Native corporations have reaped billions from questionable set-asides and federal contracting programs and Senator Murkowski has fought efforts to reform them. We now know why."

But Murkowski ticks off a long list of accomplishments in her time on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee other than her support of the 8(a) program, including working on the Tribal Law and Order Act and the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Act. The support she's seeing from Alaskans Standing Together comes from what she's been doing for eight years "in a very aggressive manner," Murkowski said.

"Joe Miller needs to look at what I have done to help Alaska Natives all over this state," Murkowski said. "For eight years, I've served on the Indian Affairs committee, two years as the ranking member. I've been on that committee since Day One. I will stay on the committee for as long as I'm in the Senate because of my commitment to making a difference for Alaska Natives."


From her perch as the top Republican on the Senate Energy Committee, she's waged an aggressive campaign over the past year to curtail the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate major emitters of greenhouse gases.

Murkowski has led the charge against the EPA in the matter, saying she has concerns about an executive branch agency, rather than Congress, writing such rules. The White House has used the threat of the EPA writing the rules as a prod -- so far, unsuccessfully -- to spur Congress into writing comprehensive climate change legislation.

"It was kind of the boldness and the arrogance of the administration that they would just tell the Congress, 'Look, we don't care how you are approaching this. We're going to move on this as an initiative,' " Murkowski said. "I started asking my folks within the energy committee: How do you keep them from moving forward?"

Murkowski settled on a resolution of disapproval, a rarely used procedural tactic that would keep the agency from moving forward with its rule-making process.

Earlier this year, two energy lobbyists with high-ranking positions in the EPA during the Bush administration acknowledged they'd had a hand in writing language for Murkowski that could potentially mute the agency's power. Environmental groups made quick work of pointing out that those lobbyists represented clients including the CSX railroad, Arch Coal, Duke Energy and Progress Energy, the National Alliance of Forest Owners and the Alliance of Food Associations.

With $355,000 in campaign contributions from electric utilities and another $265,000 from oil and gas interests, she was among the top recipients in Congress of campaign contributions from those sectors, a designation that good-government groups seized on.

"Energy companies do not generally make contributions out of the goodness of their hearts, they make contributions because it makes business sense," Melanie Sloane of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said at the time.

"People think that every day we pass monumental legislation," Murkowski said. "Oftentimes, the most important thing that you have done that day is help a family with a visa. It doesn't ever make the headlines, but what you have done has been extraordinarily helpful for a family. But equally important is to keep bad things from happening, and that was the whole push for the EPA resolution of disapproval."

The same questions about her ties to the oil and gas industry were raised this summer after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill when Murkowski and Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, played an instrumental role in delaying energy legislation to address offshore drilling safety. The bill had, as its centerpiece, language that would have lifted a $75 million cap on damages, a provision the industry opposed and Murkowski said would have made a more challenging business climate for small producers.

Although the Democratic chairman of the Senate Energy Committee never joined Murkowski in her crusade against the EPA, Bingaman praised her for working with him to craft a separate energy bill that passed successfully out of committee this year.

"There are things we obviously disagreed on -- that she did not support and I did support -- but at the end of the day we were able to get a bill she was willing to report from the committee for consideration by the full Senate, and I thought that was a significant accomplishment," he said.

Murkowski, Bingaman added, has been a fierce defender of her home state.

Alaska is always "a central part of what she advocated for," he said. "I think she sees herself in being in the tradition of her father and of Ted Stevens in trying to stick up for Alaska, and ensure that Alaska's taken care of."