The first major GOP rift in the post-Trump era centers on Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the maverick Republican who has the strong backing of GOP leaders in Washington but has been targeted for defeat by former President Donald Trump and his closest confidantes over her vote to convict him for inciting the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.
Nearly a dozen years after overcoming a Tea Party-inspired challenge from the right, Murkowski again is facing a Republican seeking to claim the mantle as the most aggressive version of today’s GOP – or in this case, the Trumpiest.
Republican Kelly Tshibaka, a former Alaska Department of Administration commissioner, has offered herself as a vessel for the supporters of the former President, who won the state twice, as she lambasts Murkowski for her penchant for deal-cutting and breaking with Trump.
The race is the first proxy battle between Trump, whose top political advisers have joined Tshibaka’s campaign, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is backing the nearly 20-year incumbent. And it’s put Republican senators – including the National Republican Senatorial Committee – in an awkward position as they remain divided about the former President’s role in the party, and try to unify ahead of the 2022 midterms with control of Congress at stake.
In an interview, Tshibaka noted that the Alaska Republican Party has censured Murkowski for voting to convict the former President for inciting the insurrection at the Capitol, and claimed Alaskans were concerned about “the needless fight that she picked with Donald Trump.”
She then aligned herself with the former President on perhaps his top issue.
“We don’t know the outcome of the 2020 election,” Tshibaka responded when asked whether she agreed with Trump that he won the 2020 election.
“In the 2020 election, there were questions raised in several states, and we’re not allowed to look into the questions of those allegations to see what actually happened,” she said. “I still have questions, and I think millions of other Americans do too.”
There was no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election, which President Joe Biden won resoundingly with 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232. And Trump and his allies’ many lawsuits contesting the election were roundly rejected in court, including before conservative judges and the US Supreme Court.
But Tshibaka’s willingness to cast doubt over the legitimacy of the election illustrates how those eager to win over the former President must adopt his baseless claims.
‘I’m not afraid of hard’
In an interview with CNN, Murkowski recalled her campaign from 2010, when she lost in the GOP primary to Tea Party candidate Joe Miller, but later waged a rarely successful write-in campaign in the general election.
“You’ve got to remember – I’m a crazy person,” Murkowski said when asked if she is bracing for a difficult race. “I had a write-in campaign with a name like Murkowski. I’m not afraid of hard.”
Yet she’s also keenly aware that this time it might be different.
“We’ll see how much is invested in the sense of time and energy and resources by those that think that I should have been a more loyal Trump supporter,” Murkowski said.
Murkowski filed a statement of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission on March 9 but has not officially announced her reelection bid and has been somewhat coy about her 2022 intentions. She told CNN that she is taking steps toward a run but is waiting to make an official announcement.
If she does run, as expected, Murkowski could very well benefit from a new system where candidates run together in a nonpartisan primary, and the top four finishers advance to the general election, when voters rank their preferences.
“I think this is something that I have not kind of wasted any of my time or energy on given the new construct we’re going to have in 2022,” Murkowski said when asked about her challenger. “I’m anticipating that there’s gonna be lots of folks that are going to be looking at this and saying, ‘Hey, well this is a new process. All I need to do is file, pay my filing fee, and I can run for the United States Senate.’”
Murkowski, who has only met Tshibaka once and said she knew little about her, added: “I’m not going to get too excited about anybody right now.”
Even Tshibaka acknowledged that the way in which Alaskans will vote “definitely complicates things and makes this a more difficult race.”
But she still projected confidence that the state would rally behind her, charging that “Lisa Murkowski is out of touch with Alaskan voters.”
Rift puts GOP senators in an awkward spot
Republican leaders in Washington say they are steadfastly behind Murkowski, with McConnell’s big-spending super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, as well as the NRSC, backing the long-time incumbent.
But McConnell has been in a cold war with Trump after blaming the President for causing the insurrection. Last weekend, the former President insulted the GOP leader as a “dumb son of a b*tch” before a crowd of donors.
After Trump’s comments about McConnell came to light, the NRSC put out a press release showing its chairman, Florida Sen. Rick Scott, presenting Trump with a bowl – the first ever “Champion For Freedom award.” Scott then tweeted that Trump’s reported comments about the Senate GOP leader were “not true.”
“He’s a very smart SOB,” said Scott.
Senate Minority Whip John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, told CNN presenting the award to Trump then was “probably not the best timing.”
Scott defended the award, noting it was for Trump’s policies, but also said he disagrees with his attacks on McConnell and backs Murkowski – all the while arguing the party needs to unify to win back the Senate.
Scott said it was still too early to know if the NRSC would spend money in Alaska to help Murkowski. “My goal is to raise enough money that we can make sure we can help all our incumbents,” he said.
But Scott declined to raise any objections to Trump’s actions. “He’s going to want to engage,” he said when asked about the former President’s efforts to target Murkowski.
The NRSC put out an unsigned statement endorsing Murkowski before Easter Sunday – around the same time as an email was sent to supporters asking for them to sign a card wishing Trump and former first lady Melania a happy Easter.
When asked about the timing of the statement, Scott said he wasn’t involved in putting it together. “They would have decided without me,” he said, referring to his staff. A spokesman said it was sent out when it was ready.
Some Republicans say there’s little they can do to force Trump to back off Murkowski.
“Yeah I’ve talked to him, but that’s a relationship that’s probably beyond repair,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican and close confidant of Trump. “My hope is that we will focus on out-of-control Democrats. But we are where we are.”
Murkowski and Tshibaka differ on Trump’s blame for January 6
Murkowski, first appointed to her seat in 2002 by her father, former Gov. Frank Murkowski, is one of the few Republican senators to break from her party on various key issues during the Trump presidency. She has said she did not vote for Trump in 2020 and wrote in someone else who lost.
And in a defining moment, Murkowksi in February joined six of her GOP Senate colleagues in voting to hold him responsible and convict him for inciting the deadly riot based on the lie that the election was stolen from him.
“If months of lies, organizing a rally of supporters in an effort to thwart the work of Congress, encouraging a crowd to march on the Capitol, and then taking no meaningful action to stop the violence once it began is not worthy of impeachment, conviction, and disqualification from holding office in the United States, I cannot imagine what is,” Murkowski said in January.
Tshibaka told CNN that it was the mob who was responsible for attacking the Capitol on January 6 – not Trump.
“There were a couple hundred people who entered the Capitol and engaged in acts of violence and destruction of property. What they did was horrible, and they absolutely need to be held responsible for what they did,” she said.
Tshibaka added: “I think the American values are: you’re responsible for your own conduct – and we’re independent free-thinking people. I don’t think we get a pass to be able to blame other people for our conduct.”
Before joining Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration, Tshibaka worked in the offices of the inspector general for the US Postal Service, Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice. She’s trying to cast Murkowski’s experience in the Senate as a hindrance, saying that Alaskans “feel forgotten” by the senator while positioning herself as an outsider.
Tshibaka is also taking Murkowski to task over the economy and energy interests in her state, criticizing the senator for supporting Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve in a president’s Cabinet, and for voting to confirm Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen even though she supported a carbon tax.
“She’s fighting with the Biden administration against us,” said Tshibaka.
But Tshibaka is still a neophyte when it comes to running for office. When asked whether she supported the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan passed by Democrats in Congress to address the coronavirus pandemic, she told CNN, “I’d have to think on that a little bit further.”
After the interview, Tshabika’s campaign sent a statement from the candidate saying she would have opposed the bill.
As she tries to exploit a Trump-inspired backlash against Murkowski, she has hired National Public Affairs – a political consulting firm run by Trump’s top 2020 strategists, including campaign manager Bill Stepien – and Line Drive Public Affairs’ Tim Murtaugh, Trump’s former campaign communications director. Alaska operative Mary Ann Pruitt, who worked on the 2016 Murkowski campaign, is also advising Tshibaka’s bid.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, the junior Alaska GOP senator who has stayed aligned with Trump, says he supports Murkowski’s bid. But he did offer praise to the woman trying to defeat his colleague.
“I know Kelly Tshibaka – she’s a good candidate and a good person,” Sullivan told CNN.