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Last Friday, I got the opportunity to chat with Alaska’s U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski about Jan. 6, the state of the Republican Party and her place in it and the stalled-out legislation on the Democrats’ agenda. Suffice it to say, she’s not thrilled about where the Republican Party is headed but if you’re hoping that she’s about to ditch her party label, that’s a big “Hell no.”
Q: It’s a day after the one year-mark for the Jan. 6 insurrection. Have things changed? What do you think about efforts to downplay or reframe it?
Murkowski: I wish that I could say with a degree of certainty that I feel like things are getting better. I think what happens after any kind of a tragedy or disaster is you deal with the aftermath of a cataclysmic event and people are a little bit shellshocked and numb and trying to figure out how they move forward. You go through the pain and the loss and the grieving and then you get on the other side of it things look better sometimes because you’ve put the worst behind you, but in this instance I’m not sure—and this really saddens me to think—I’m not sure that the worst is behind us.
When you appreciate where we are a year after. A year after an insurrection where a mob of individuals worked to thwart the certification of an election—an extraordinary event—and to think a year out you have so many who believe that those actions were justified because the election was stolen. You look at the polling data that is out there that shows within the Republican base itself there’s a percentage of those who believe that President Biden is not the rightful president or the statistics that were out from a recent poll that showed a percentage of those that believe violence was justified because in their view it was an effort to save democracy rather than to threaten democracy, I could not have imagined a year later we would still be at this extreme divide politically. That concerns me because I fear that if we cannot work to mend that divide that what we saw on Jan. 6, 2021, that it could be repeated and that threat to democracy is as frightening as anything that I can think of right now.
I wish that I had an answer that gave me a greater sense of optimism. I spent a lot of time yesterday thinking about where we were, where we are now, where we have come from and the events around Jan. 6, what led up to them, what I observed and I think we have to process in different ways the experiences on that day but I’ve never felt that trying to say, “Well we’ve just gotta get beyond this” was the way to heal this country. The way we get beyond an event like Jan. 6 is to understand what led up to it and to resolve to keep that from happening in the future. That’s how you get beyond it. You don’t get beyond it by denying the facts, by trying to suggest it was less than what it was, and I feel that we’re dealing with that in our country right now.
You’re one of the party’s moderates and have talked at times about struggling with your place in the party. Is this still a party for you?
I have been a Republican since I registered to vote. In 2010, when I did not receive the support of my party in a primary there were some who said, well, you just need to become a Libertarian, you need to adopt the flag of another party in order to stay on the ballot and I said, no, that’s not who I am. The verbiage I used is, “I’m not going to choose a political flag that’s convenient.” I believe in Republican values and principles but sometimes I wonder where the actual Republican party is today. Has it changed from the party that I entered, which those were the years of Ronald Reagan and you saw a party that was truly much more open tent? My plan is not to be changing my party, my plan is to continue to work to represent all of the people of Alaska, the Republicans, the independents, the Libertarians, the Democrats, the Greens and everything in between. My allegiance has never been to a party per se, but to the people that I represent. We’ve got a system in this country that’s a two-party system and it’s not like where you have in other countries where you have multiple parties and I’d like to think that the Republican party can be that party that allows for an expanse of perspectives as we have done before.
But, in fairness, I think both parties, both the Republicans and the Democrats seem to be more narrowed in their viewpoints and I’m hearing from a lot of people in the middle who feel disenfranchised by the two major parties out there. I think that’s one of the reasons why you have so many people in Alaska who choose not to affiliate themselves with either party. Over 60% of the electorate here is not Republicans and is Democrats. They may be very, very conservative but they choose not to align themselves with either party label and look at it and say I’m going to look at the issues, look at the individuals, and see if they align with my priorities rather than a party’s priorities. Things are where they are with where they are with the two-party system and the fact of the matter is in Congress, it’s a shirts and skins game. You’ve got the red team and the blue team.
I could say, well, if I’m not going to be a Republican, am I going to be a Democrat? Absolutely not. Hell no. The Republican party may be a little bit adrift right now, but the Democrats are worse in my view and worse, in particular, for our state. To me, that’s not an option.
Speaking of the Democrats. They are having trouble corralling their members on issues like voting rights and their Build Back Better legislation. Previously, you’ve been able to use your moderate position to negotiate for Alaska priorities. Is that something that you would consider with either of these issues? Would you ever swoop in and save the Democrats from themselves?
First of all, I would never think about doing something to come in and “save the Democrats from themselves.” It’s pretty well-known that I’m a lawmaker who is willing to sit down with interests on all sides and see if there is a path towards consensus. I’m one of those targets, where if you want to talk about immigration, social security, infrastructure or violence against women, I get a phone call. I get colleagues that say, “Hey, do you want to have a discussion?” because I’ve built that kind of a reputation. It keeps me busy, but it also keeps me in the mix in terms of being able to influence things. And I think that’s what Alaskans sent me to Washington to do: To try to influence some things.
I’m willing to be there and if it looks like things are going in a direction that I can’t support, I say, “Thank you very much, good luck, but I can’t be there.” There are some things that the Democrats have purposefully chosen to go it alone and that is their prerogative. They have the majority, and I don’t think I should have to remind them that their majority is a 50-50 split. They have the majority because they have the White House and the vice president can break a tie. That’s not a very compelling majority and yet they’re acting and behaving as though they don’t need Republican support. They don’t need help and so they can do it alone, that’s what they did with Build Back Better. There was not one effort to try to get me or any other Republican to try to give them a safety. Not even an effort and the same was true with election reform.
Even though for three Congresses now, I’ve been the only Republican that has been in on a voting reform bill, the (John Lewis) Voting Rights Act. … If there was anybody that they could’ve picked up the phone and said, “Hey, we’re going to do something on voting rights, do you want to join us?” No, they’ve made a purposeful decision to say this is going to be a conference priority and we don’t want to have to “dilute it” by working with Republicans, even one Republican. And so, when you choose to go it alone and then you can’t get all 50 of your Democrats. You should’ve thought that one through yourself.
I strongly and firmly believe that we as Americans should be doing our darnedest to make sure elections are fair, are accessible and absolutely free of any corruption or abuse. I feel very strongly about full access to elections. For me, it was important to be out front even when the rest of my colleagues were not willing to join me on Voting Rights Act reforms. It is just something that I believe as an Alaskan and as an American. I want to try to see if there is a path forward, but right now what you’re seeing is the Democrats are viewing this as a messaging issue that has greater value to them than actually solving the problem and that’s unfortunate. I do believe that we’re seeing some states that are making it more difficult for all to vote rather than making it more accessible. I want to try to solve some of the problems here. I’m not interested in messaging; I want to try to solve something.
Right now, the political interests are such that there’s more value to this on the other side of the aisle of using this as a messaging tool to say that the Republicans want to deny voting reforms and want to deny access. Maybe it’s even a little inconvenient that I’ve lent an air of bipartisanship that I’ve joined other colleagues on the John Lewis voting rights bill.
What are you looking forward to in 2022?
I am generally a very optimistic and upbeat person. I think I’d have to be or else I wouldn’t want to get up out of bed in the morning. I’m going to look at 2022 as the year of positives and where we can put our shoulder into these efforts. I know I get criticized for trying to work with the Biden administration, but four years is too long to hold our breath and hope that the Biden administration moves out and we have somebody that better understands a resource state.
We have to work with those that are in place now, sometimes our job is to throw the grenade, if you will, and stop things and other times we have to figure out how we’re making the lemonade and that requires sitting down with people we may disagree with but trying to figure out if we can advance some of the priorities that are important to our state. I’m going to continue to do that and I’m going to probably going to be criticized by people who think that we should just hold our breath and wait this out. Alaska can’t wait. We’ve got to figure out how we work through some of these obstacles and we’re working to build some relationships and willing to at least sit in the same room and have these discussions. It’s going to be an interesting year and I’m ready for it.
What were some of your favorite things from 2021?
On the work side, is through the infrastructure bill I got to spend a lot of quality time with nine other senators and three folks from the White House team and we spent a lot of late evenings and lots of late meetings and dinners. Some really good and some really bad, but we got to know one another. Republicans and Democrats, senators and people from the White House and we worked through some hard things and I think that it’s probably fair to say that for most of us we found out we really liked working with one another. I think that’s good because if you can work through some really hard things, then maybe you can work through some other hard things. we’re starting those conversations on some other subjects
A good thing on the personal side is my son got married. I’ve never had a daughter before and now I’ve got a daughter-in-law and there were two baby girls and one baby boy that are in my family nucleus. I haven’t been around babies in a long, long, long time and I find that they have been an extraordinarily delightful diversion.