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Will the GOP Get Baked in Alaska?

Control of the Senate could come down to nepotism, ANWR, and the Alaskan Senate fight.

12:00 AM, Aug 30, 2004 • By RACHEL DICARLO
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"It comes down to one seat," Alaska's senior senator Ted Stevens said at a press conference on August 18. "That seat is key to the control of the Senate." Stevens's conclusion about Alaska's Senate race this year might not be an exaggeration.

Alaska seems like an unlikely battleground in the fight for control of Senate--Alaskans have not sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1974--but this year's contest for the nation's upper house could be among the most competitive in the country.

Incumbent GOP senator Lisa Murkowski won her primary last Tuesday, defeating challenger Mike Miller, but the returns suggest that she'll have a bumpy ride to November. Murkowski took 58 percent of the vote, but outspent Miller 11-1. What's more, the pre-primary polls proved generous to Murkowski after Miller captured almost 10 points more than the 29 percent of the vote polls indicated he'd garner.

Murkowski's problem is that she's burdened with significant political baggage. Her father is former senator Frank Murkowski, who left the Senate after being elected governor in 2002. Winning the governorship gave him authority to name his successor and after a few weeks, he chose his daughter Lisa, then a state legislator. The appointment raised eyebrows, both in Alaska and nationally. Miller says that besides Murkowski's lack of conservative credentials--he's criticized her for supporting gun control, abortion rights, and higher taxes--one of the major reasons he ran was in objection to her appointment by her father.

Murkowski has confronted the appointment aggressively, telling voters that they should judge her record in the Senate, not how she got there. "Her focus in the race," according to the National Journal's Hotline, is "to put some distance between her work in the Senate and her father's actions as governor."

Nepotism isn't the only thing hurting Murkowski's reelection bid. She also suffers guilt by association. Governor Murkowski's popularity has suffered in the past two years, sinking to almost half of the 70 percent approval rating he held in the Senate, after he reneged on several campaign promises, cut $138 million from the state budget in 2003, and eliminated a bonus program for some of Alaska's senior citizens. In turn, his daughter's popularity has tanked as well. Over the last three months her disapproval rating has gone from 37 percent to 43 percent, Alaska pollster Ivan Moore told the Anchorage Daily News.

National Democrats are targeting the seat and have recruited the best possible candidate in popular former governor Tony Knowles. Knowles started campaigning over a year ago, emphasizing his record as governor and the need for Alaska to have a Democratic voice in its congressional delegation. He has said that he won't campaign on the nepotism issue, but he won't have to. An initiative that would bar the governor from making that kind of appointment again will be on the ballot in November and its sponsors--mostly Democrats--will surely keep the issue front and center.

The wrench in Knowles's machine is that, like Murkowski, he supports drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a measure a heavy majority of Alaskans support, but one that presidential nominee John Kerry ardently opposes. Meantime, Kerry will be lucky to carry a third of the presidential vote in one of the country's reddest states. If Knowles loses in November, he can chalk at least part of it up to the unpopularity of his party's national ticket.

Rachel DiCarlo is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.