Tonight is a big night in the life of U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski’s re-election campaign. The campaign crew she’s brought on board won’t make a big deal of it and they probably aren’t thrilled that I’ve said it, but it is a big night.
Starting at 5:00 with the promise of free pizza and beer in the campaign’s brand spanking new Anchorage headquarters in a non-descript office strip on Northern Lights Boulevard, they will fling the doors wide and say, “We’re open for business!”
Don’t get too excited about the event, though. By political event standards it promises to be a low-key affair. It’s more of a soft opening meet-and-greet than a big bash-style event. Word is the Senator herself won’t be there. (CORRECTION: The campaign informs me Lisa will be able to be there tonight.)
It won’t be big and glitzy but, the moment will be hugely significant. Any time a campaign opens their campaign office it marks a major new phase in the campaign, and Murkowski’s re-election bid is no different. Up until now, the campaign has really been nothing more than a figurative mailbox where donors could drop money, and consultants working on various strategic elements of an unlaunched campaign could bill for services.
Now, however, Murkowski’s campaign is blossoming. Just in the last month, a campaign manager, deputy campaign manager, digital director, and regional staff in Fairbanks and Kenai have all been hired with more additions expected. A campaign office in Anchorage is opening, a website has been launched, and web and radio ads are hitting.
This campaign is alive.
Putting the band back together
The first thing I noticed when walking into Murkowski’s new Anchorage HQ last Friday to interview her new campaign staff was the fact that many of them had been there before.
Six years ago Steve Wackowski, was Communications Director for a Murkowski re-election campaign that tanked in historic fashion in the primary election, losing to until-then little known Tea Party upstart Joe Miller, only to rise from the political graveyard to win an even more historic write-in campaign in the general election.
Wackowski was the only senior member of the primary campaign team Murkowski chose to retain for the general election write-in run in 2010. That alone tells you what Murkowski must think of him. Now she has lured him out of the private sector to serve as Campaign Manager for her 2010 run.
And he isn’t the only one back for a second go-round: Deputy Campaign Manager Rachel Kallander, Digital Director Joe Plesha, and part-time campaign worker/part-time Senate staffer Angelina Burney all worked on Murkowski’s 2010 run.
That so much of her staff returns from six years ago is no accident and it isn’t about loyalty or team chemistry. It is a calculated strategic decision on Murkowski’s part. She wants one message to permeate every level of her campaign: “NEVER AGAIN.”
Wackowski said, “The reason the people from the write-in [campaign] have come back is to make sure we don’t have that scenario happen again. We are keenly aware, so is the Senator, which is why she is raising money and taking this race a lot differently than five years ago. We know what that was like and we’re here to not repeat the mistakes of the past.”
Murkowski wanted people running her campaign this time that don’t just know what happened six years ago; she wanted people who lived it and truly felt it. And because they did, neither she nor they will ever let the campaign be caught flat-footed again.
That resolve on Murkowski’s part is why she spent 2015 fundraising furiously. By the end of the year, she had amassed a $3 million war chest even though no significant challenger had declared to run against her.
It’s fair to say that Murkowski isn’t running against any current or potential challenger—she is running, and running hard against the memory of Joe Miller.
It’s about more than Lisa
With the the headquarters opening, the campaign has moved into a more active phase. General messaging has begun and a ground game is being developed. This is the time in a campaign when outsiders can start to get a sense of what that campaign is about, beyond simply getting their guy or gal elected.
Talking to the campaign staff, it’s clear that the Senator sees a generational shift of power and talent taking place in Alaska.
Lisa’s campaign says it is making active efforts to engage, hire, and involve young adults and young professionals, but every campaign says that. It’s a matter of campaign necessity that young people are coveted. They tend to be free of the time obligations that family and career bring and are willing to trade labor for opportunity and access rather than pay. That makes for a perfect marriage with cash-hungry political campaigns.
But Murkowski’s campaign crew made it clear that their focus on 20- and 30-somethings is about more than typical campaign management; it’s about what Murkowski sees as the needs of a state with significant fiscal and economic challenges in the coming decade.
Rachel Kallander said ”It’s not just because the energy of our campaign and Lisa want to incorporate young people, optically or strategically, it’s also because we recognize Alaska is in a very precarious position and in order to get out of it we have to have young people involved, at the ground level, in every party, in every organization, in every business. We need people who are here in the long term, who are invested. That is something that we believe in as a principle of our campaign and it supersedes just Lisa’s campaign. This is looking to the future of our state.”
Wackowski reiterated those kind of sentiments were at the heart of his discussions with Murkowski herself when he was deciding whether or not he wanted to sign on for another campaign, “She said, ’My son just graduated from college with a degree in business management and he wants to run our family business, The Alaska Pasta Company. I want to make sure people have enough money to go out to restaurants to eat so those restaurants can afford to order pasta from our family company, so we are doing this for the same reason.’”
Those aren’t just empty words. Murkowski has molded her campaign to reflect those values.
Wackowski is a thirty-something first time father with a son about to turn one. “It means a lot to my mother that my wife and I moved home to start and grow our family in Alaska” He said. “I want Alaska to be the kind of place where my son decides to start his family in 20 years and has a job.”
Kallander graduated from law school in December and is freshly returning to Alaska. She said “Steve and I have kind of joked that we both worked on the 2010 campaign and now we are here and we are both at different places in our lives than we were then. He wasn’t married, I still am not married but I’m in a serious relationship and want to raise my kids here. We are at kind of an “Oh my God” moment. We’re not just young people trying to get involved in politics, this is real high stakes.”
Need to open the tent
Murkowski’s staff knows their focus on the emerging generation of professionals in the Last Frontier means that they not only need to get with the times, but so does their party.
Wackowski says he has already had discussions with both current GOP leadership and those running for party leadership positions at the state convention this spring about the need to be more inclusive. “When I met with them, I said, ’We are the party of old white people,’” Wackowski recollects. “We need to open up the tent. Sometimes I wonder why a young woman would want to be a Republican. I think we have a problem reaching out to them. We are going to get old and become extinct if we cannot open up the tent.“
The staff appears to see this campaign as a way to both push that discussion within their party’s ranks, as well as a mechanism for role modeling the inclusive and engaging behavior towards young people, women, and minorities that they think should become the norm in Republican politics.
Busy weeks ahead
Murkowski’s crew is in full ramp-up mode. They say in the coming weeks that we can expect more staff and interns to come on board, regional offices in Kenai, Fairbanks, and Mat-su to be set up, digital marketing to greatly expand, and a field program to be developed and launched.
With that ramp-up comes the opportunity for Alaskans to become involved in the action themselves. The campaign is creating a slew of sub-groups within the campaign to afford average people the opportunity have input and be involved in the campaign in areas they are passionate about. Individual groups or coalitions will include veterans, commercial fishermen, young professionals, women, and many more.
And it all starts tonight.