You can’t fully appreciate how tight Trump’s hold on the GOP is without taking a moment to marvel at this story. Consider all the reasons why a political party normally wouldn’t dare consider alienating a politician like Lisa Murkowski.
1. She’s not just an incumbent, she’s an incumbent who’s been elected statewide three times — once on a write-in vote, such is her brand.
2. The Murkowskis are a political dynasty in Alaska. Her father Frank served as governor for four years and as senator for more than 20.
3. She was chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the last Congress, wielding huge influence on behalf of her state’s most important industry.
4. We have a 50/50 Senate right now, one which could become a 51/49 Republican majority at any moment if a surprise Democratic vacancy opens up in the right state. Every vote is crucial for the party.
5. Alaska recently moved to a ranked-choice jungle-primary system, making it easier for Murkowski to dodge a challenge from the right.
In other words, the state GOP has a candidate who’s likely to be reelected, who’s in position to deliver for her state on committees, and who wields outsized leverage over legislation in the Senate because it’s evenly divided, and … they want to toss her away because, among other things, she voted to impeach Trump last month. And they’re doing it knowing full well that this might encourage her to switch parties, thereby giving Schumer and the Democrats a 51/49 cushion.
That’s a lot of loyalty to an ex-president.
“The party does not want Lisa Murkowski to be a Republican candidate,” said Tuckerman Babcock, immediate past chairman of the state party.
The vote to censure Murkowski was 53-17 at a Saturday meeting in Anchorage, he said. The decision has not been publicly announced by the party.
“It went further than censure, which was strong,” Babcock said. “But it also directed the party officials to recruit an opponent in the election and to the extent legally permissible, prevent Lisa Murkowski from running as a Republican in any election,” he said…
“The committee decided that they need to speak up early in order to encourage a candidate to come forward,” Babcock said.
They censured her for other things too — being pro-choice, not supporting Brett Kavanaugh, voting against ObamaCare repeal — but her criticism of Trump is the sticking point, obviously. At least 17 local Republican parties in Alaska had already censured her after she voted to impeach. One activist addressed the state GOP before its vote and reportedly compared it to a “battered woman. She [Murkowski] beats the devil out of us. We just say it’s ok, it was not your fault, it was my fault.”
Jonathan Last counters with a simple question today. Why is Lisa Murkowski still a Republican? It’s not just a matter of her state party’s leadership detesting her so much that they don’t want her in the party. It’s a matter of her not being in sync with her party on the issue that defines Republicanism in 2021.
Political parties build their ideologies around a pyramid of ideas and on the defining idea of the Republican party—Trump—Murkowski is not onboard. Any other pieces of policy alignment are incidental.
And as for the idea that Murkowski wouldn’t be helped electorally by leaving the party, that’s a procedural argument that concerns nothing more than the maintenance of power. It has nothing to do with the actual nature of things.
The bigger question, I think, is whether the rest of the country is better off with Murkowski continuing to deny reality.
Murkowski’s a special case even among the pro-impeachment Republicans of the Senate because she’s the most liberal of the bunch policy-wise. It would be awkward for a Ben Sasse or Mitt Romney to declare themselves independents and caucus with the Democrats since they’re still broadly conservative in their legislative goals and they’d be a great disadvantage in their home states trying to get reelected without party support. Murkowski is different. She’s proved that she can win statewide, on a write-in campaign no less, even without her party’s endorsement. And her moderation on policy means she wouldn’t be positioned that much differently from Joe Manchin as a Democratic-aligned independent. In fact, Trump won Murkowski’s state by just 10 points last year but won Manchin’s by 40, putting a lot more partisan pressure on the latter to cross the aisle and vote with Republicans than the former.
Murkowski’s never been more valuable to Democrats than she is right now, in a 50/50 Senate with Manchin consistently a thorn in Schumer’s side. She could name her price to defect. And yet here’s her own state party all but telling her, “Go on, shoo. We don’t want you anymore.” It’d be one thing if they had a top-tier conservative challenger lined up whom they’re convinced can win the general, but it sounds like they don’t. They’re just flipping Murkowski the bird and telling her they’d rather have a player to be named later as their senator. Have they really thought this through?