Five takeaways from the Alaska Senate debate

Incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) faced off with her two challengers, Trump-backed Republican Kelly Tshibaka and Democrat Pat Chesbro, in Thursday night’s Alaska Senate debate less than two weeks ahead of the midterms.  

The three candidates touched on issues like abortion, inflation and election security in the hourlong debate, which was moderated by Alaska Public Media news director Lori Townsend and Alaska’s News Source managing editor Mike Ross. 

Murkowski and Tshibaka emerged as frontrunners in the state’s nonpartisan primary earlier this year, but Chesbro is still in the ring. The fourth candidate on the ballot, Buzz Kelley, suspended his campaign last month. 

Alaska’s elections now use a ranked choice voting system, in which voters rank their candidates by preference. The new setup, approved by Alaskan voters in 2020, allows both Murkowski and Tshibaka to be on the November ballot, even though they hail from the same party. 

Here are five takeaways from the Alaska Senate debate.  

Trump gets only a passing mention 

Former President Trump made Murkowski a top target after she and six other Republican senators broke rank with their party leader and voted to convict him on charges of “incitement of insurrection” over the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Trump endorsed Tshibaka’s bid last year and has slammed the 20-year Republican senator as “worse than a Democrat.”  

But despite the former president’s concerted and high-profile efforts to influence the race and oust Murkowski, he got only a passing mention in Thursday’s debate.  

Asked by moderators whether Trump should testify before the House select committee investigating Jan. 6 in compliance with the panel’s recent subpoena, Murkowski said the former president should answer the summons. 

“When a subpoena is issued to a former president it is not done lightly. I think this needs to be taken seriously. I think that he should accept and testify under subpoena. I doubt that he will,” Murkowski said. 

Tshibaka sidestepped the question, saying the legality of the subpoena is to be judged by the court system and arguing that the matter hasn’t been a core topic in her conversations with Alaskan voters. 

“The people who engaged in illegal activity that day were the ones who entered the Capitol and broke the laws and they should be held accountable,” Tshibaka said, declining to mention Trump by name in her response.  

Murkowski defends her record 

The incumbent senator underscored her bipartisan record across her two decades in the upper chamber, highlighting work with both Republicans and Democrats.  

She touted her work on the bipartisan infrastructure law, an effort championed by Democrats, and underscored her work with a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by “very conservative Republican” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) on the Safer Communities Act.

On the subject of election security, she also noted her work on the bipartisan Electoral Count Act and said she has been “the only Republican that has, over the years, come forward” to support the John Lewis Voting Rights Act as a template for safer election laws. 

Murkowski also emphasized her moderate stance on the contentious issue of abortion. “The bipartisan effort that I have introduced in the United States Senate is one that, again, codifies Roe, but does so in ensuring that there are limitations,” she said.

Murkowski bucked her own party earlier this week to say she’d rank Democrat Rep. Mary Peltola first on her ballot in the state’s House race. 

Tshibaka paints opponent as extreme 

Though Murkowski owned her bipartisan policy choices, Trump-backed Tshibaka repeatedly sought to paint Murkowski as the extreme candidate, emphasizing the incumbent’s support for some Biden administration policies. 

Tshibaka accused Murkowski of confirming “radical environmentalist nominees” in the state in conformity with the Biden administration’s environmental approach and hit at her positions on abortion as “extreme.” She referred to Murkowski throughout the debate as “the incumbent.”  

Murkowski in turn took a stab at Tshibaka for her absence from Alaska in recent years. 

“Frankly, she’s been gone from the state for 28 years, and she’s out of touch with Alaskans and what Alaskans expect and want. Alaskans want results. They don’t want partisan political rhetoric,” Murkowski said.  

Alaska v. The Swamp 

Tshibaka more than once tried to tie Murkowski to dark money groups and donors affiliated with the Beltway, arguing that the incumbent is “beholden” to those groups.

“Unlike others, I haven’t accepted dark money from large, lower-48 commercial trawlers,” Tshibaka said. 

“Why are you beholden to lower-48 and D.C. dark money that doesn’t care about our Alaska future?” she asked Murkowski. 

The incumbent senator acknowledged that she received funding from outside of Alaska but insisted that Tshibaka “couldn’t be further from the truth” in her allegations of being beholden to those donors. 

“We recognize that there are outside groups that are weighing in, they’re weighing in on my campaign. They’re weighing in on your campaign… They’re weighing in on a host of different campaigns… But as a candidate, we know we can’t control that,” Murkowski said. 

“There is no Lisa Murkowski being beholden to any outside interests,” she added. 

A low-key affair

Ultimately, while the race between Tshibaka and Murkowski has drawn national attention as Trump and others wade in, Thursday’s debate didn’t provide any major fireworks and probably won’t significantly impact the outcome.

Still, as sedate as the debate was, there are still questions as to how the race will play out, thanks to the state’s new voting system. With ranked-choice voting, a candidate needs more than 50 percent of the vote to clinch the win outright.  

If no candidate secures that share in the first round, the candidate with the fewest votes is dropped off the ballot — and those who ranked that candidate first will then have their votes shifted to their second choice. 

The system may end up being a boost for Murkowski, as she’ll likely snap up some support from Democrats who rank the moderate Republican as their second choice.