Alaska GOP senator most at risk of losing seat

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, right, waves at passing traffic as she and a group of volunteers campaign in Anchorage, Alaska.Al Grillo / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Opposed by a popular former governor and beset by nepotism charges, freshman Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is the Republican most in danger of losing her seat in the U.S. Senate, one she inherited from her father.

No single race in the GOP's effort to hold its 51-49 majority in the Senate is more tenuous than the one in Alaska, where Republicans outnumber Democrats almost 3 to 2 but represent only one-fourth of the state's 469,042 voters, who tend to register as independents or nonpartisans.

Many voters believe Murkowski, 47, didn't earn her seat, a point of view expressed in offices and coffee shops across the state and on bumper stickers that say: "Yo, Lisa! Who's yer daddy?"

In the final days before the election she is in a statistical dead heat with Democrat Tony Knowles, a two-term former governor, according to polls by both campaigns.

But if Knowles, 61, wins, he would be the first Democrat to hold an Alaska Senate seat in 24 years.

Some voters critical of appointment
"I hope Lisa Murkowski loses, honestly, because of the way she got her job," said Mike Rowlett, an Anchorage retail worker. "People should have decided, not her daddy. I feel like she's riding on her dad's coattails and that's a big thing for me. Public officials should be elected, not appointed."

Gov. Frank Murkowski had held the Senate seat for more than two decades. Upon being elected governor in 2002, he gave up the seat and then appointed his daughter to it. That same year the Legislature had changed the law to let a newly elected governor fill Senate vacancies, rather than the one leaving office, who was Knowles at the time.

In this year's Republican primary, Lisa Murkowski's challengers hammered on the nepotism issue and she ended up with only 58 percent of the vote. That an incumbent lost so many votes in the primary was a red flag, political analysts say.

Murkowski's appointment to the seat has been a substantial drag on her campaign, said Carl Shepro, an associate professor of political science at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Another strike against her is the perception among some in the GOP that she isn't conservative enough, Shepro said.

"In the state Legislature she was considered to be fairly moderate, well, even liberal," he said. "As soon as she went to Congress, she swung decidedly to the right and, of course, faced the possibility of alienating her moderate base, while not completely satisfying the right."

Knowles, meanwhile, has an advantage most challengers lack, said Stephen Medvic, an assistant government professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

"You've got a former governor running, a candidate who's well known right off the bat," Medvic said. "And here's this sitting incumbent who hasn't been sitting there long enough to build a name as in a normal incumbency. The nepotism thing doesn't help, either."

More than 50,000 Alaska voters signed a petition for an initiative that also will be on the Nov. 2 ballot to abolish Senate vacancy appointments entirely and require that they be filled through special elections.

In some quarters, the Senate race could end up a referendum on Murkowski's father, whose performance as governor has alienated many voters.

Murkowski supporters believe she can win the election on her own, particularly after Congress just passed financial incentives for building a long-awaited natural gas pipeline in Alaska.

"I don't think anyone is surprised that this race is as close as it has been," said Elliott Bundy, a Murkowski campaign spokesman. "We feel very good. We feel the momentum is on our side."

Republicans have trotted out some of the party's heavy hitters — including Vice President Dick Cheney — to campaign for Murkowski.

In recent weeks, a barrage of ads have hailed her as a crucial member of Alaska's congressional delegation, often showing Murkowski flanked by photos of her veteran Republican colleagues, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens and House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young.

"If Democrats win control of the U.S. Senate, our great team will get sidelined," reads one ad. "Don't let them do it!"

Both candidates promise to get Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge opened to oil and gas exploration, which is also President Bush's top energy priority. Murkowski says her GOP roots put her in the better position to do it.

Knowles promises to bridge party lines and rally enough support to open up ANWR, a goal strongly opposed by Democratic presidential challenger John Kerry. To deal with Kerry's unpopularity in the state, Knowles bills himself as an independent voice representing all Alaskans on issues they care about.

He criticizes Murkowski as catering too much to special interests who tend to vote with the Republican majority, even though she's broken with Bush and GOP leaders on some votes.

"I'm not addressing how she got her job, but what she's done with it," Knowles said.

Each has raised about $4.5 million for the race even though officials of oil companies vital to state's economy have poured most of their money into her campaign.