Lisa Murkowski doesn’t exactly have the strongest reputation as a campaigner, at least not out of the gate.
When she was a state house representative running for re-election in 2002 she had to wait with baited breath for the final batch of precinct numbers to come in before pulling ahead of primary challenger Nancy Dahlstrom. Her 2004 campaign to be elected for the first time in her own right to the U.S. Senate required a late campaign surge to come from behind and beat challenger Tony Knowles. Then there is the one no one can forget. The epic 2010 campaign required her to run as a write-in candidate after losing the republican primary to previously little-known and unfunded Joe Miller.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard republican party and political insiders on the ground in Alaska lament “when will Lisa learn?”
It seems that may have finally happened.
From calculated policy stands like being the first republican to support the Voting Rights Act, to aggressive media outreach to take credit for legislative accomplishments, to taking an aggressive and early approach to campaign organizing and fundraising, Lisa Murkowski is making it clear she won’t be slow out of the gate this time around.
Several campaign and political insiders, both in Washington DC as well as Alaska, told me how engaged and attentive Lisa Murkowski seems to be with re-election in 2016. One insider said “Lisa never stopped running after 2010.”
Low Key, But Aggressive in the Boardroom
Scott Kendall strikes a subdued tone as he sips coffee in the office his Black Rock Group rents in the downtown business-hipster enclave The Boardroom. He is the DC based political consulting group’s man in Alaska and the guy Murkowski tapped to run her re-election bid. Make no mistake, though, Kendall himself is no out of stater. He is a young lawyer who has lived in Alaska for 15 years and worked on plenty of in-state campaigns including last year’s race between Mark Begich and Dan Sullivan. He said Black Rock had been doing a lot of business in Alaska and wanted to open an office up here but they thought “sending a guy from Virginia to open an office in Alaska would be the worst idea in the history of politics.” So after working with Kendall on the Sullivan race, the Black Rock Group figured they had their guy.
When talking of the work he’s doing to build the Murkowski campaign infrastructure for an election still a year away, there is a notable contraction between the soft and deliberate manner with which Kendall speaks and the aggressive nature of the campaign plan he talks of executing. He tells of the campaign being farther along in March of this year than Lisa’s campaign was in March of the election year last time around. He openly touts a plan to raise so much money it scares off potential challengers and redirects out-of-state spending to other states, saying “if you are an independent expenditure group looking to put $800,000 somewhere, we want them to say “Florida or somewhere is a lot better target than Alaska.”
His rhetoric was so aggressive it prompted me to ask if he thought there was political capital to be gained in using whatever money and infrastructural advantage Murkowski can create to run up the electoral score if she gets a weak challenger. Kendall said “Yes, people (in D.C.) definitely notice that”, then with a slight smirk he ads “but there is also value to having a scalp on the wall”, a reference to Dan Sullivan’s defeat of Mark Begich, a politician respected on both sides of the aisle for his campaign prowess.
The Plan Is Coming Together
The Murkowski campaign has a well regimented plan in place. They already have Kendall and part time campaign staffer Angelina Burney in place laying the groundwork by planning events, sending emails, building lists, fundraising, etc.
The campaign has been aggressively fundraising for months, raking in $3.7 million since the beginning of 2014. As of June 31st Murkowski had $2.3 million cash on hand according to Federal Election Commission records.
Kendall said we should hear radio and tv ads hit the air soon. Expect to see a few more staff come on board around the first of the year, a campaign hq open in early february, and another round of staffing up and regional offices in march. While the campaign reserves the right make changes if they get a significant challenge, their plan seems pretty well in place.
What It All Means
Murkowski is putting in place a campaign structure geared to fighting off a stiff primary challenge and then a well funded general election opponent. Neither has yet emerged, however, memories of 2010, when opponent Joe Miller didn’t announce his campaign until May still linger. The campaign is acting like that kind of knock down drag out fight could easily materialize just as late this time around.
In conversations will both Kendall and previous campaign supporters the word “War” comes up more than you might expect for such an affable candidate. It seems clear Murkowski expects a fight and in true Alaska style plans to be armed to the teeth when it comes.
Yes, Lisa Murkowski has learned her lesson.
Lisa Murkowski Re-election Profile (Part 2 of 2)
Tomorrow, in part two of this article, we will examine where Murkowski stands in polling data exclusively released to TMS, who her challengers might be, and what support she might expect from within her party and the conservative base.