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28 April 2021updated 22 Jul 2021 1:59pm

Why Lisa Murkowski broke ranks with the Republicans – and what it means

The senator is partly empowered by Alaska's unique political make-up, which suggests local politics might offer a route back from partisanship.

By Emily Tamkin

On 21 April Lisa Murkowski, a senator from Alaska, did something rarely seen among Republicans in Washington these days: she broke with the party. Murkowski voted to confirm Vanita Gupta as associate attorney general. Gupta is the first woman of colour to serve in the role, the third most powerful in the Department of Justice. Republicans had for weeks tried to characterise Gupta as a radical who would defund the police if given the chance, on the basis of her time as the president and CEO of the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights.

Murkowski was moved, she said, by both Gupta’s passion and her work. “I felt that I was speaking to a woman who had not only committed her professional life to try to get [to] the base of these injustices, to try to not just direct a little bit of money, put a programme in place, and walk away and call it a day, but to try to truly make a difference,” Murkowski said on the Senate floor.

Murkowski, who is 63, was controversially appointed to the Senate in 2002 by her father to fill the seat he had vacated to become governor of Alaska, and won a full six-year term in 2004. After losing to a Tea Party candidate in the 2010 primaries, she ran as a “write-in” candidate – a candidate whose name does not appear on the ballot but seeks election by asking voters to literally write their name – and defeated both the Tea Party challenger and the Democratic candidate. She was elected to her third term in 2016, the same year as Donald Trump won the White House.

While in office Trump lambasted Murkowski, and it wasn’t hard to figure out why: unlike almost every other Republican in the Senate, she broke ranks with him. She voted against moving ahead with the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for a lifetime Supreme Court seat, and voted to convict Trump during his second impeachment trial. She knew, she said, that the decision might have consequences. “But I can’t be afraid of that,” she told reporters. And Murkowski’s support for Gupta isn’t the only controversial vote she has cast under Biden so far. She was also the only Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to approve Deb Haaland to be Secretary of the Interior, the first Native American to hold the position.

Part of the explanation for Murkowski’s independent-minded voting is that she is from Alaska, a state with a unique political make-up. States are often referred to as “red” or “blue” in the context of elections, but in reality no state is all Republican or all Democratic. Still, though Alaska went for Trump in 2020, the state’s politics are particularly contradictory and idiosyncratic.

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As the political scientist Lee Drutman wrote in 2015, “the politics of Alaska are a study in contrasts”. At the time Drutman was writing, one in three people in Alaska worked in a job that had some connection to the federal government, but there’s also a strong libertarian streak running through the state’s politics. Drutman noted that Alaska’s voters take seriously the right to privacy and that many are Evangelical Christians, who, as Drutman puts it, “consider a broad range of supposedly private vices to be a public matter”. Although the state is extremely sparsely populated, roughly 40 per cent of its population lives in the city of Anchorage.

About 20 per cent of the state is Alaska Native. Alaska’s demographic mix helps explain Murkowski’s recent deviations from the GOP party line: she was urged by Alaska’s Native population – which strongly supported her in the 2016 election – to confirm Haaland, while ahead of voting for Gupta, Murkowski and Gupta discussed the matter of domestic violence and sexual assault, particularly against Native women. Alaska’s unique politics aren’t the only reason Murkowski voted the way she did – the other Alaskan senator, Republican Dan Sullivan, was not similarly moved – but they are nevertheless factors that helped move her out of lockstep with her party.

Alaska, one of a kind though it is, is not the only state where local and state-level politics can override national partisan politics. Whereas Republicans who spoke out against Trump were censured by the Republican Party in their home states, in Utah an effort to censure Senator Mitt Romney – an outspoken critic of Trump, who, like Murkowski, voted to remove him from office at his second impeachment trial – was slapped down. For a mix of reasons, including the Mormon influence on the state’s politics, the former president was less popular in Utah, and Romney thus avoided the kind of condemnation meted out to, for example, Senator Ben Sasse in Nebraska, who was “rebuked” by the state’s Republican Party.

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Personal integrity has a role to play in dissipating the hyper-partisan atmosphere that continues to blight US politics and obstruct democracy: to point to the more unusual political circumstances of Murkowski and Romney in their respective states as an explanation for their occasionally crossing the aisle is not to exculpate their colleagues for their undeviating obeisance to Republican orthodoxy. But Murkowski’s case nevertheless suggests that the way back from hyper-partisanship in Washington may start not in the halls of Congress, but in the idiosyncrasies of state and local politics.