Murkowski outpolls Tshibaka in primary race to retain Senate seat

As election day results came in late night Aug. 16 and into early the next morning, Alaska’s senior U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s slight lead over Trump-backed Republican challenger Kelly Tshibaka widened. By the afternoon of Aug. 17, with 395 of 402 precincts reporting, the trend continued and Murkowski was ahead 68,800 to 61,994.

Democratic Party-endorsed candidate Patricia Chesbro held the third spot with just over 6% of the votes, at 9,620, and self-proclaimed “hard right” Republican Buzz Kelley rounded out the final four with 2.22%, or 3,450 votes.

The top four will advance to the Nov. 8 general election.

Wrangell voters cast 230 ballots for Tshibaka versus 205 for Murkowski, a reversal of the Southern Southeast state House district that voted for the incumbent senator 1,535 to Tshibaka’s 1,278.

The Democrat, Chesbro, received 15 votes in Wrangell.

This was the first time Alaska voters participated in an open and nonpartisan contest for the primary. Instead of primaries based on party or affiliation, every single candidate, regardless of party or affiliation, was on a pick-one ballot.

This new primary is part of the ranked-choice system narrowly approved by voters in 2020. Instead of one candidate emerging from each primary contest for each political party, the top four overall vote-getters advance to the general election in November. In the case of Alaska’s 2022 U.S. Senate primary race, that likely means three Republicans and one Democrat.

“Alaskans made it clear they want a senator who puts Alaska first, always. Seniority matters. Honesty matters and understanding the needs of Alaskans and being able to deliver on those needs matters,” Murkowski said in a statement Aug. 17.

University of Alaska Southeast political science professor Glenn Wright said the 2020 ballot measure was designed in part to reduce the incentives for politicians to “move to the wings of their respective parties.” A moderate Republican like Murkowski, he said, didn’t have to worry about being bumped in the closed-party primary by a more conservative Republican, like Trump-backed Tshibaka.

“The basic intuition is that the old primary system and the general election system as well created a series of incentives that made it challenging for moderates to successfully run for office, especially moderate incumbents,” Wright said.

Murkowski was first appointed to U.S. Senate in 2002 by her father, Frank Murkowski, who was serving as Alaska’s governor at the time. She won a partisan primary in 2004, then beat out Democrat Tony Knowles in the general election. In 2010, Murkowski lost in the Republican primary to Joe Miller, only to defeat him in a successful write-in campaign during the general election. In 2016, she again won the Republican primary, and then beat Miller again, who ran as a Libertarian, in the general election.

Since then, with her vote to impeach then-President Donald Trump and her support for abortion rights, Murkowski has arguably emerged as more moderate.

While Alaska is a red state, most Alaskan voters are in fact “quite moderate,” Wright said.

“You would think that given Alaska’s sort of center-right political culture, that we would have a lot of center-right politicians but, of course, over the last decade here, just like at the national level, incentives created by the party primary system tended to push politicians to the fringes,” Wright said.

Alaska’s new top-four voting system, which begins with the nonpartisan open primary, eliminates that incentive.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that politicians can’t be conservative Republicans or liberal Democrats. But it does mean that if you’re a moderate, especially in a state like Alaska, which is relatively moderate, that you know, you don’t have to worry about the extremist primary challenge as much,” Wright said.

A post on Tshibaka’s campaign website Aug. 16 said described the candidate as heading “to the general election with momentum and in prime position to defeat 21-year incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski.” She added, “I am also thankful for the strong and unwavering support President Trump has shown Alaska. I look forward to the next three months of conversations with Alaskans, and to a great victory on November 8!”

Third-place finisher Chesbro, the lone Democrat in the Senate race, said she wished she had received more votes, but she’s not quitting the race. She hopes, by November, to convince people to vote their values, as opposed to voting for someone who doesn’t align with their values for fear of a more extreme candidate winning.

“I think there are a lot of people in Alaska who share my values,” Chesbro said. She listed Roe v. Wade, the environment, curbing gun violence and addressing firearm-related suicide as some of those values.


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