The evidence has been there for a while, but its clear now. Lisa Murkowski has become ascendant in American politics.
The gold standard for political effectiveness in Washington DC, from a decidedly Alaskan perspective, is still Ted Stevens. It’s not clear yet how history will recognize Stevens, but from today’s perspective he was a senator who could bend Washington DC to his own will. He eventually chaired the Appropriations Committee, and was named Alaskan of the Century and “Uncle Ted” for his command of the Federal budget and its blessings showered on Alaska.
But this post isn’t about Stevens; it’s about his protégé and junior colleague that he appeared to enjoy the most serving alongside—Lisa Murkowski.
In some quarters of the Republican Party, Lisa Murkowski is as disliked as much as Hillary Clinton. In 2010 she, stunningly, lost the Republican nomination for reelection to the US Senate, staged an independent run, and recaptured her seat. The nation noticed.
That’s when things began to change.
From 2004 to 2010, Murkowski was a reliable Republican and a member of Mitch McConnell’s leadership team. She had Ted Stevens offering guidance for most of that time period, and she was liked by most of Capitol Hill. And what did she get for it? Republicans in Alaska dumped her in the 2010 primary.
From 2010 on, Murkowski has become increasingly independent. Her staff fretted when she joined hands with Democrats; they wanted an easier reelection in 2016 (which they got). Murkowski will often reference her gold bracelet that is ever-present on her wrist. It’s a gift from husband Verne; a replica of the rubber write-in band the campaign distributed. She will talk about the voters that wrote her name on a ballot and the duty she has to them to do what’s best for Alaska.
Now in 2017, when our nation’s politics is at its most toxic level, Murkowski prominence and influence has become apparent to all. She’s doesn’t seem to fear Trump, but chooses not to antagonize him either. She has spent this week in Alaska alongside Secretary Zinke of Interior. Zinke is announcing good thinks for Alaska, like ANWR exploration and the appointment of Steve Wackowski. Zinke is also hinting there are more good things to come. If Murkowski was viewed by Trump as an enemy, she wouldn’t be playing the inside game with his cabinet secretary.
It’s hard to find a national cause that doesn’t want Murkowski on their side. The deeply divided senate has marginalized many, but Murkowski, Susan Collins, John McCain, Dean Heller, Ben Sasse and Rob Portman have become the moderate middle that decides which side will win. Murkowski has stood up for Planned Parenthood and Medicaid expansion. She’s working closely with Governor Walker. She’s got critical committee assignments. She is showing political bravery and a deft hand.
Murkowski’s staff is no longer a group led by former Stevens staffers. From her chief of staff to committee staff to newbies and interns—these are “Murkowski people.” Her former campaign consigliore, Scott Kendall, is now Chief of Staff to Governor Walker. Her former Campaign Manager, Steve Wackowski, is now Alaska advisor to Interior Secretary Zinke. Heck, her friend and political ally (in many ways) is Mayor Ethan Berkowitz.
Governor Parnell stuck with Joe Miller after the Republican primary of 2010. Walker then beat him. Mayor Dan Sullivan did the same, and ran against her for a moment in 2016. He then dropped out after scores of Murkowski friends told him it was a suicide bet.
Murkowski detractors aren’t winning elections, and her friends are dominating Alaska politics. She has also become Alaska’s most popular political figure. Polls show it.
There are certainly risks ahead. Politics is growing uglier day by day. Will Murkowski fly too close to the sun; partnering with Bernie Sanders on drug importation that promises lower costs but opens the door to counterfeit medicine and opioid traffic? Or have to take a series of tough votes that angers McConnell, but is good for Alaska? Folks on the Right and the Left now play whack-a-mole with politicians who vote independently.
Murkowski is a young 60-something, and likes to hike and fish. This may be her final term, not because she gets voted out, but because she may want to do these things more often than a senate schedule allows.
But in 2017, she’s clearly killing it.