WASHINGTON ― They opposed confirming Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. They voted against repealing the Affordable Care Act. They voted against confirming Betsy DeVos to be the secretary of education.
This describes virtually every Senate Democrat (except for West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who voted for Kavanaugh) on some of the most consequential votes taken since Donald Trump became president.
It also describes one Republican: Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
For the past two years, Murkowski has bucked her party when it often mattered the most. Her vote against Obamacare repeal was arguably her boldest; she resisted intense GOP lobbying and public criticism from Trump to join two other Republicans, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and the late John McCain of Arizona, to torpedo her party’s priority issue.
Her vote against DeVos meant Vice President Mike Pence had to come to the Senate to break a tie. And her opposition to Kavanaugh was as significant as it was dramatic. The outcome was going to be close, and nobody knew what Murkowski planned to do ― including her staff ― until the Senate held a procedural vote to advance Kavanaugh’s nomination. When her name was called, Murkowski stood up at her desk, looked dead ahead and said in a barely audible voice, “No.”
(She ended up voting “present” on the final vote for an arcane procedural reason; the Congressional Record reflects her position was a “no” on the nomination.)
Trump tore into Murkowski after that vote, warning that she “will never recover” politically. The Alaska GOP considered reprimanding her, as well as withdrawing its support for her and requesting that she not seek re-election in 2022 as a Republican.
Months after the furor, tucked away in a Capitol Hill office decorated with maps, Native Alaskan art and fish mounted on the walls, she says she has no regrets.
“Almost without exception, I hear ‘thanks’ from people, whether they’re Alaskans or strangers you’re passing in an airport somewhere,” she said in a Monday interview. “Some thank me for not voting for (Kavanaugh). Some thank me for just voting my own conscience and not being tied to a party position.”
She acknowledged she’s “not so naive” to think that everyone in her state party is pleased with her. But that’s okay.
“I still believe that it was the right vote for me, and if I had to do it all over again, it would be the same vote,” she said. “I have moved on, and I think most Alaskans have as well.”
To be sure, the Republican senator largely votes with her party. She’s voted to confirm all of Trump’s lifetime federal judges beyond Kavanaugh, even though she’s pro-choice and many of Trump’s court picks strongly oppose abortion rights. She voted for the GOP tax bill that gives the richest 1 percent of Americans 82 percent of its benefits over time.
But sitting in front of a monstrously large, wall-mounted Alaska king salmon that she caught herself ― his name is “Walter” and he weighed 63 pounds when he was alive, rest his soul ― Murkowski seemed incredibly at ease with her reputation for acting more independently than her GOP colleagues. It makes her a rare breed in a Congress that’s become so politically polarized that it struggles just to keep the government open.
Strategically, Murkowski’s position makes sense, considering the Alaskans who actually get her elected. Despite representing a red state, her base is not conservative Republicans, but a cobbled-together mix of moderate Republicans, Democrats and independents. And she’s kept them with her for the better part of 16 years (she was initially appointed to her Senate seat in December 2002).
“Out of 100 members in the Senate, she’s the only one that’s really wearing the balls right now,” Carroll Knutson, a 74-year-old Republican resident of Soldotna, Alaska, told HuffPost during a reporting trip to the state in 2017, right after her vote against Obamacare repeal. “I don’t know if you can put that in your story.”
For all the grief she’s taken when she’s defied her party, it would make sense if Murkowski has at least considered leaving it and rebranding herself as an independent. It would make even more sense given the way her party treated her in 2010, when it initially appeared her re-election bid was derailed after she unexpectedly lost the GOP primary to a tea party challenger.
Stunned, she responded by launching a write-in campaign featuring now-famous ads that carefully spelled out her name, M-U-R-K-O-W-S-K-I. Against the odds, and with no support from the Republican Party, she won.
Murkowski, 61, chuckled when asked if it sounded appealing to ditch her party. She said the reality is there are only two parties in Congress ― the Senate’s two independents caucus with Democrats ― and she has no interest in joining Democrats.
“I have looked at my colleagues on the other side of the aisle and I say, as many issues as I have with some of the Republican things, you guys have a lot more problems,” she said. “As long as I maintain the deliberation and the thought and the consideration for each issue that comes before me, and vote in a manner that I think is best for the people I work for, I think that’s what is more important.”
She added, “That’s where I’ll continue to be.”