Murkowski’s bal­anc­ing act

Se­na­tor who helped scut­tle Oba­macare re­peal has alien­ated her party in the past.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Kyle Hop­kins Hop­kins is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent.

Alaska Repub­li­can who re­jected Oba­macare re­peal has de­fied her party be­fore.

AN­CHOR­AGE — Be­fore the “no” votes and the Trump tweet and the bare-knuckle threats from her Wash­ing­ton col­leagues, there was a time when Sen. Lisa Murkowski struck many Alaskans as overly cau­tious.

“Her first term [in the U.S. Se­nate], I think she tended to mi­grate closer to­ward the Repub­li­can lead­er­ship,” said An­drew Hal­cro, an old friend who served with Murkowski in the Alaska Leg­is­la­ture. “That did frus­trate a lot of us more mod­er­ate Repub­li­cans that were used to see­ing her take a more mid­dle ground.”

That was then. Af­ter an un­likely path to the Se­nate and sur­viv­ing her own party’s at­tempt to de­feat her in a gen­eral elec­tion, Murkowski has grown bolder.

The chair­man of the Alaska Repub­li­can Party says phones at the state GOP of­fice have been ring­ing off the hook with Repub­li­cans an­gry or con­fused by Murkowski’s votes.

To some mod­er­ates, in­de­pen­dents and Democrats, she is a folk hero. Sup­port­ers planned a “Stay Strong Lisa” rally on Sat­ur­day in An­chor­age.

But long­time friends and col­leagues say they aren’t sur­prised by Murkowski’s piv­otal role in op­pos­ing the GOP push to roll back the Af­ford­able Care Act, known as Oba­macare. This new Murkowski mak­ing head­lines and draw­ing fire from Pres­i­dent Trump? This is the “old Lisa” they knew in Alaska gov­ern­ment.

“Lisa is like this el­e­ment that when she knows she’s do­ing some­thing right, and po­lit­i­cal peo­ple around her try to pres­sure her to do the op­po­site, her re­solve gets so much stronger. She just turns into a piece of metal,” Hal­cro said.

He met Murkowski in 1998 when the two were cam­paign­ing for state House seats in An­chor­age. Then — like now — Alaska was grap­pling with rock-bot­tom oil prices and fac­ing a bud­get deficit.

Murkowski, Hal­cro and other law­mak­ers worked in a bi­par­ti­san Fis­cal Pol­icy Cau­cus that con­sid­ered re­duc­ing the size of the an­nual Per­ma­nent Fund div­i­dend check that every el­i­gi­ble Alaskan re­ceives for liv­ing in the oil-rich state, and re­in­stat­ing an in­come tax. It was blas­phemy to many Alaska Repub­li­cans, who con­sid­ered the div­i­dend checks, in par­tic­u­lar, po­lit­i­cally un­touch­able.

Fore­shad­ow­ing her sup­port of Planned Par­ent­hood in the U.S. Se­nate, Murkowski voted in the state House in 2002 against a pro­posal to re­strict Med­i­caid-funded abor­tions con­sid­ered med­i­cally nec­es­sary.

“I may have a very short­lived po­lit­i­cal fu­ture here,” Murkowski said on the House floor. “But you know, I’ve got great kids, and a great hus­band, and I’m go­ing to have a good heart, and I’m go­ing to stand up for the Con­sti­tu­tion, and I’m go­ing to stand up for the women of the state of Alaska.”

In 2002, a GOP chal­lenger came within 56 votes of de­feat­ing Murkowski in the state pri­mary.

“She had the same kind of prob­lems that she has now,” said Charles Wohlforth, a for­mer An­chor­age as­sem­bly­man who has praised Murkowski’s health­care votes as a colum­nist for Alaska Dis­patch News. “She was a mod­er­ate and the party was mov­ing to the right.”

In the big state/small town of Alaska pol­i­tics, Wohlforth at­tended the same PTA meet­ings as Murkowski. Her hus­band, a for­mer chef, catered Wohlforth’s wed­ding.

Wohlforth re­mem­bers think­ing Murkowski — a Ge­orge­town grad­u­ate and at­tor­ney — didn’t strike him as some­one who would want to be a politi­cian. Her fa­ther, Frank Murkowski, was a 22year U.S. se­na­tor, so name recog­ni­tion wasn’t a prob­lem. But Lisa Murkowski seemed quiet, even shy, Wohlforth said.

Yet when the el­der Murkowski was elected gov­er­nor of Alaska in 2002 and had to ap­point his re­place­ment to rep­re­sent the state in the U.S. Se­nate, he turned to his daugh­ter.

De­spite com­plaints of nepo­tism, in 2004 Lisa Murkowski de­feated for­mer Gov. Tony Knowles, a Demo­crat, to re­tain the seat for a full six-year term.

As her power and inf lu­ence with GOP lead­er­ship grew, her ten­dency to be thought­ful and an­a­lyt­i­cal some­times made her ap­pear “wishy-washy” to lib­er­als and mod­er­ates who wanted her to vote more in­de­pen­dently, Wohlforth said.

Hal­cro re­calls a meet­ing with Murkowski’s friends and sup­port­ers in early 2010 as Murkowski pre­pared to run for re­elec­tion. Friends told Murkowski that they were wor­ried she was “be­com­ing less Lisa and more D.C.,” Hal­cro said. He re­mem­bers her nod­ding as she lis­tened.

Later that year, tea party chal­lenger Joe Miller shocked Murkowski by de­feat­ing her in the GOP pri­mary. Af­ter be­ing told she wasn’t mod­er­ate enough, she had been knocked off the bal­lot by a far-right con­ser­va­tive.

Murkowski re­grouped to run an im­plau­si­ble write-in cam­paign. In many ways, it was the mid­dle ground that saved her. Even as for­mer Gov. Sarah Palin backed Miller, Murkowski surged to a come­back win with the help of ru­ral Alaska Na­tive vot­ers and Miller’s cam­paign mis­steps.

Her write-in vic­tory was the first for a Se­nate can­di­date since 1954.

“That’s when she started to dis­tance her­self from lead­er­ship,” Hal­cro said.

Murkowski sailed to re­elec­tion in 2016 and does not have to run again un­til 2022. With that peace of mind, she en­tered the health­care de­bate this year.

In her an­nual speech to the state Leg­is­la­ture in Fe­bru­ary, Murkowski said she would vote against leg­is­la­tion to re­peal Oba­macare if the pro­pos­als sought to de­fund Planned Par­ent­hood or roll back Med­i­caid ex­pan­sion, pro­vided the Leg­is­la­ture wanted to keep the ex­pan­sion.

About 1 in 4 Alaskans is cov­ered by Med­i­caid, ac­cord­ing to a June re­port pre­pared for the state health depart­ment. Un­der the House-passed health­care bill, Alaska was ex­pected to lose $2.8 bil­lion in fed­eral Med­i­caid funds be­tween 2020 and 2026.

When the Se­nate on Tues­day ad­vanced the Repub­li­can lead­er­ship’s plan to re­peal and re­place Oba­macare, Murkowski voted no. Along with Sens. John McCain of Ari­zona and Su­san Collins of Maine, Murkowski also voted against a GOP “skinny re­peal” of the Af­ford­able Care Act early Fri­day.

Trump fired off a tweet: “Se­na­tor @lisamurkowski of the Great State of Alaska re­ally let the Repub­li­cans, and our coun­try, down yes­ter­day. Too bad!”

Murkowski and Sen. Daniel Sul­li­van (R-Alaska) each re­ceived a call from In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke warn­ing that Murkowski’s vote had put Alaska projects and pri­or­i­ties in dan­ger, Alaska Dis­patch News re­ported.

On the same day Zinke reached out to Alaska’s sen­a­tors, a com­mit­tee led by Murkowski post­poned votes on six Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion nom­i­nees.

Asked about the po­ten­tial elec­toral threat from Trump, Murkowski told NBC on Wed­nes­day that her next elec­tion was a long way off.

“Every day shouldn’t be about win­ning elec­tions,” she said. “How about just do­ing a lit­tle gov­ern­ing around here? That’s what I’m here for.”

Alaska state GOP Chair­man Tuck­er­man Bab­cock said Repub­li­cans were “unan­i­mous” in their dis­plea­sure with Murkowski’s votes. Re­peal of Oba­macare was a core GOP agenda item, and Murkowski did not sig­nal that she would break with the party on the is­sue dur­ing her most re­cent cam­paign, he said.

“I don’t know what she’s go­ing to do next to re­pair the re­la­tion­ship with Repub­li­can vot­ers in Alaska,” Bab­cock said.

Murkowski has won with­out the party’s back­ing be­fore. As for threats from Trump and Wash­ing­ton col­leagues, they were sure to back­fire, Murkowski’s sup­port­ers said.

“We don’t stand for be­ing bossed by Wash­ing­ton,” Wohlforth said. “That’s part of the whole Alaska ethos. Lisa Murkowski was raised on that.”

Ron Sachs CNP/Sipa

“EVERY DAY shouldn’t be about win­ning elec­tions,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski says of pres­sure from Repub­li­cans at home and in Wash­ing­ton.

Chris Miller As­so­ci­ated Press

MURKOWSKI won a write-in cam­paign in 2010 af­ter los­ing the GOP pri­mary to a tea party chal­lenger.

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