At Stake In Alaska: Murkowski's Seniority
The Alaska Senate race between Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) and attorney Joe Miller (R) is limping on this week, with a hearing in Juneau on Miller's lawsuit scheduled for Wednesday. Although Miller has successfully delayed certification of the race -- which was originally slated to happen on Nov. 29 -- consensus seems to be that he has nothing to gain by continuing the fight at this point. Even former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who contested his 2008 race against Sen. Al Franken (D) for eight months before giving in, said "It should be time to move on."
So with it seemingly all over but the court case, it can be hard to stay riveted on the back-and-forth in Alaska. But Murkowski recently supplied a new reason to keep following the proceedings. Murkowski attorney Scott Kendall warned, in their campaign's motion to intervene in the lawsuit, that Murkowski would have a gap in service if she's not seated on time and she could, as a result, lose her seniority.
"There are numerous critical issues facing our nation and Alaskans deserve to have full representation in the United States Senate," Kendall wrote. "She would go from her current rank of 43rd to 100th."
Soon after the new Senate is sworn in on Jan. 3, Kendall said, the senators will organize committees and select the chairs and ranking members. If the case is still pending, he argued, Murkowski might not be eligible for re-election as the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee or an Appropriations subcommittee.
"The effect on Alaska from the loss of these positions would be very harmful and could be long-lasting," Kendall argued.
Murkowski's Senate seniority and ranking member position on the energy committee were key arguments she made during her campaign. If a trial that went on beyond the Senate swearing-in on Jan. 3 actually affected her seniority, it would be a serious blow. But how likely is such an outcome?
During Coleman-Franken, the most recent prolonged Senate race, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) put "placeholders" on Coleman's committee assignments so that Coleman could return to them if he eventually won reelection. McConnell spokesperson Don Stewart declined to comment on the possibility of doing the same for Murkowski, noting that it's still over a month off.
Before 2008, the last race that went far beyond Election Day was in 1996, when Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) narrowly defeated Woody Jenkins (R). The state certified the election results, but Jenkins challenged them, claiming "widespread vote tampering." Though the case was still pending when the next Senate convened, Landrieu was seated "without prejudice." But in that case, there was precedent of the Senate recognizing a senator if the election has been certified by the state, and in Alaska the results won't be certified until the court proceedings wrap up.
The previous contested Senate results were back in 1974, when Sen. Henry Bellmon's (R-Okla.) victory over Rep. Edmond Edmondson (D) was challenged. In this case, too, the election had been certified despite a challenge, and the Senate seated Bellmon without prejudice. While the history of contested elections is long and colorful -- in a contested West Virginia Senate race in 1946 there were allegations of a precinct in which drunken polling officials intimidated voters with firearms -- Senate Historian Don Ritchie couldn't think of any instance of a senator losing seniority due to a drawn out election challenge.
"I don't see anything exactly parallel to that," said Ritchie. "There's a certain degree of collegiality that's maintained."
And while there's no precedent in Senate history of a senator losing their seniority for these reasons, there is precedent in this campaign of the Senate Republican Conference acting collegially toward Murkowski. After Murkowski lost the primary and re-entered the race as a write-in candidate, the Senate GOP caucus voted to allow Murkowski to retain her committee assignments. It seems likely, if this lawsuit drags on to January, that the conference would act in a similar manner again.