After serving as Alaska's junior United States Senator for twenty-two years, in 2002 Frank Murkowski was elected governor of Alaska. As governor, Frank's first action was to dumbfound Alaskans by appointing his daughter Lisa to serve out his term in the Senate.
In 1998 Lisa, a Republican because her parents were, had been elected to the Alaska House of Representatives from a neighborhood in Anchorage. During the two terms she served in the House her pro-choice views and willingness to work with Democrats to develop a fiscal plan for the state that included reinstating the income tax put her out of step with the Alaska Republican Party, whose members trend from center-right to flat-out-nuts. She was so out of step that in 2002 when she was elected to a third term, by only fifty-seven votes, she barely survived a challenge in the Republican primary election from an opponent who was supported by Alaska Right to Life.
Based on the record she compiled during her tenure in the Alaska House of Representatives, what her father's brazen act of nepotism accomplished was to saddle the Alaska Republican Party with a United States Senator who the party's rank-and-file never would have selected had they been given a say in the matter. That fact became apparent in 2010 when Lisa stood for reelection and was beaten fair and square in the Republican primary election by a Fairbanks attorney named Joe Miller, a Tea Party ideologue and protege of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin who has no use for father and daughter Murkowski because she has never forgiven Frank for not appointing her to his Senate seat.
Several days before the primary election during a joint appearance with Miller at the Kenai-Soldotna Chamber of Commerce Lisa promised publicly that if he won she would support Miller in the general election. But when Miller did win she broke her word. The reason she did was that the Alaska Democratic Party's nominee was Scott McAdams, the titular mayor of Sitka, a small town in southeast Alaska. McAdams had no statewide name recognition, no political gravitas, and no money, and he had run for the Senate only because the Alaska Democratic Party had held its state convention in Sitka and during the convention no one else could be persuaded to run because no one thought Lisa could be beat in the general election.
When Lisa unexpectedly lost the Republican primary election the Alaska Democratic Party could have replaced McAdams with a real candidate around whom the anti-Miller vote in the general election could have been organized. When the Alaska Democratic Party inexplicably decided not to do so, that fortuity provided Lisa a window of opportunity to launch a write-in candidacy that the decision the United States Supreme Court had issued nine months earlier in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission made possible because it allowed business corporations that were owned by Alaska Natives who were terrified of Miller to finance the write-in campaign with contributions that totaled $1.7 million.
Lisa won the three-way contest in the November 2010 general election by defeating Joe Miller and Scott McAdams by 2,092 and 32,886 votes, respectively. But she only won because 36,474 Democrats and center-left independent voters who had voted for Ethan Berkowitz, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, abandoned McAdams in order to write-in Lisa.
Her history-making victory gave Lisa an opportunity to solidify the bipartisan coalition that had coalesced around her write-in candidacy by declaring that when the new Congress convened she would return to the Senate as an Independent who would represent the Alaskans of both political parties and of no political party who had reelected her. And being an Independent, she would not be a candidate in the 2016 Republican primary election.
While she did not do that, during the lame duck session that was held after the 2010 general election Lisa experimented with independence by voting to repeal the military's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy, voting to ratify a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that conservative Republicans abhorred, and voting to end a Republican filibuster of the DREAM Act, whose enactment would have created a path toward permanent residence for undocumented immigrants who had been brought to the United States when they were children.
Politico was impressed enough with her performance to report: "Murkowski's willingness to defy Republican top brass after a bitter fight to keep her seat may mark a pivotal point in her career as she emerges as a real maverick foil to Sarah Palin, the conservative idol who put Alaska politics on the national map. And while conservatives who helped oust Murkowski from the GOP ticket in Alaska may howl about her being a 'Republican in Name Only,' Murkowski could enjoy a powerful perch as a much-sought-after moderate in an almost evenly decided Senate."
But after that encouraging start, Lisa soon settled back in as a dependable member of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's Republican caucus. For example, last February when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly, without consulting the members of the caucus McConnell announced that the Judiciary Committee would not afford the individual the president nominated to succeed Scalia even the courtesy of a hearing. Lisa initially told the Alaska press that "I do believe that the nominee should get a hearing." But apparently after having been talked to by McConnell, the next day she fell into line.
When she did, she undoubtedly thought she could do so with impunity because, since she was generally popular, she did not need to curry favor with the Democrats and the center-left independent voters who six years earlier had saved her from Joe Miller, many of whom were outraged by McConnell's refusal to allow the Senate to consider the confirmation of Judge Merrick Garland who in March President Obama nominated to succeed Scalia.
Initially, that is how the 2016 Senate election in Alaska appeared to be playing out. Because in a state as blood red as Alaska the Democratic Party is a damaged brand, Kay Brown, the executive director of the Alaska Democratic Party, was instrumental behind the scenes in persuading an Anchorage attorney, retired army colonel, and MacArthur genius award winner named Margaret Stock to run as an independent in the general election with the Alaska Democratic Party's unofficial wink-wink support. Then in August Lisa easily defeated three never-heard-of-them candidates to win the Republican nomination, and Ray "Disco Ray" Metcalfe, a local political gadfly, won the Democratic nomination.
But that smooth-sailing for Lisa ended last Tuesday when Cean Stevens, the nominee of the Alaska Libertarian Party, unexpectedly ended her candidacy and the party's board of directors replaced Stevens with Joe Miller.
As of this writing the smart money remains on Lisa. But as any boomer Mouseketeer can tell you, on the Mickey Mouse Club Wednesdays were Anything Can Happen Day. And with Donald Trump and Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson both on the Alaska election ballot, and with Joe Miller now in the race, anything now can happen in the Alaska Senate election. When Miller narrowly lost to Lisa in the 2010 general election he won more than 90,000 votes. If he can do the same in 2016 he can win. In the same vein, if Democrats and center-left independent voters who saved Lisa in 2010 decide that, once burned, they will not save her again, and, because no one takes Disco Ray seriously, they decide to support Margaret Stock while Joe Miller's presence on the ballot depresses Lisa's vote count, Stock has a chance to win that a week ago she didn't have.
If Stock does win and then caucuses with the Democrats, depending on the outcome of the other Senate elections that presently are too close to call, control of the Senate may move to the Democrats. If it does, when he has time to think about it after he returns to the back bench, Mitch McConnell may regret that Lisa so quickly ended her experiment with representing the Alaskans who reelected her in 2010, rather than kowtowing to the Tea Party-tinged ideology of the Alaska Republican Party, a majority of whose hard core members, left to their druthers, have never wanted any part of her.