Alaska state officials are still counting write-in ballots, but Sen. Lisa Murkowski is very much back in the Senate, liberated by her likely win, and staking a claim as a tough new independent voice who survived a tea party onslaught.
“When it’s all said and done, and I believe that I will be returned here in the United States Senate, it will be not because I came as my party’s nominee, but because a very, very wide-range of all political stripes have stepped up and said, ‘You are the person that we want to represent us.’”
Murkowski now leads the vote count, with state election officials likely to declare her a winner as soon as this week after completing the count today. Her likely win has also allowed her the chance to portray herself as a tougher, more serious politician than another famous political heavyweight from Alaska, former Gov. Sarah Palin, who led the apparently unsuccessful campaign to unseat her.
Murkowski, who is in Washington this week for the lame-duck session, on Monday told CBS that Palin lacks “those leadership qualities, that intellectual curiosity, that allows for building good and great policies.”
The shot was the latest in a long running feud that dates to Palin’s defeat of Murkowski’s father, former Sen. Frank Murkowski in a 2006 gubernatorial race, and includes Lisa Murkowski’s criticism of Palin’s decision to quit as Alaska governor before the end of her term and Palin’s backing of tea party favorite Joe Miller in a GOP primary against Murkowski.
But Murkowski’s criticism Monday took on a more confrontational tone that signals a new willingess to break from the party line. Her write-in win over the party nominee was based on her ability to quickly and effectively build an independent base outside the GOP, and that has given her new freedom to separate herself from the party.
“Lisa has proved herself to be Jack-the-Giant-Killer,” said a smiling Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, who like Murkowski failed to win his state's GOP Senate nomination last year because of tea party opposition. “She is going to come in here in the next Congress with tremendous credibility. She has demonstrated how powerful she is in Alaska, and that will be very helpful,” Bennett said of Murkowski’s ability to operate independently.
Carl Shepro, a political science professor at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, said Murkowki’s write-in bid relied on “non-GOP resources” including many independents and Democrats “with expectations that are much different from those of not only the tea party and Sarah Palin but also of the Republican leadership in the Senate.”
That new base will force her to “take a more middle-range position,” Shepro said.
Murkowski, who defied Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other senior Republicans in launching a write-in run, is now challenging Republicans on more than just Palin, bucking part or most of her party on earmarks and in her bid to keep her Energy and Natural Resources ranking membership. “I have always been known to speak my mind, you can talk to my family about that, but there is a difference, Murkowski said Tuesday
Murkowski, who remains a Republican, could prove a voice for a quiet but large group of senior Senate Republicans, who if not exactly moderate, are pragmatists interested in passing legislation that helps their constituents, and who share a mutual distrust with an enlarged and noisy tea party wing of their conference personified by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.
Moderate Republicans like Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe may regard Murkowski as a sometime ally similarly targeted by GOP ideologues like Palin and the Club for Growth. But Murkowski's voting record puts her closer to Republican appropriators like the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens and members like Bennett, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Appropriations ranking member Thad Cochran.
That group of GOP Senate insiders is arguably growing. Many Senate Republicans, aides and members alike, argue that while new members like Sen.-elect Rand Paul, R-Ky. and Sen.-elect Mike Lee, R-Utah, has given the incoming GOP Senate class a right-wing reputation, other newcomers like former Reps. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, could make the new Senate GOP more pragmatic than ideological.
“There are a lot of freshmen who are not tea party types and we’ll just have to wait and see how it works out,” Bennett said.
Murkowski gave voice to the views of some of those more circumspect Republican appropriators when she called the GOP Conference’s pending adoption of a resolution renouncing earmarks in the next Congress a “messaging statement” intended to give a false impression of attacking the deficit.
Murkowski also explicitly took a position Cochran appears likely to adopt when she said flatly she would not comply with the nonbinding ban. Cochran said he would review what other options are available for winning funding for local projects.
Murkowski was forced to give up job as Senate Republican Conference Vice Chair as a result of her write-in run. But she is fighting to keep her Energy Committee post in the face of opposition by some members, including DeMint and Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who want to deny her the position in retaliation for her write-in run.
Murkowski previously won backing in that fight from Hutchinson, retiring Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and other Republicans. Murkowski said she expects most conference members, including McConnell, will accept her view that her seniority should give her the job, though the issue, decided by a vote of panel Republicans, depends in part of the three new members named to committee.
“I remain the most senior member on the Energy Committee,” Murkowski said.
Murkowski on Tuesday declined to fault the National Republican Senatorial Committee for spending money in support of Miller, including funding of legal challenges to GOP write-in votes
“I knew that by running as a write-in candidate I would not be my party’s nominee,” she said. “I could not expect that same level of support that other party nominees would have. That is a simple reality of it.”
Ben Terris contributed contributed to this article.