As a bipartisan group of senators craft legislation to respond to mass shootings, one Republican to watch is Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).
Murkowski has carved out a position in the Senate as a bipartisan dealmaker who is also willing to buck her party — especially if she believes it is right for her state.
She helped usher through the infrastructure bill that delivered billions of dollars to Alaska and helped to break the stalemate on pandemic relief funding in late 2020, which resulted in a $900 billion bill that included stimulus checks. She voted for President Biden’s Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson and opposed one of Donald Trump’s high court nominees — Brett M. Kavanaugh.
But she is not part of the bipartisan group of Senate negotiators led by Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) who are writing legislation on enhanced background checks for people under 21 as well as funding for mental health programs and other measures in response to the recent mass shootings.
And she is heading into a potentially tough August primary against Kelly Tshibaka, who is running to her right and whom Trump endorsed. Tshibaka made clear this week she is eager to attack Murkowski on guns even before the senator announces how she’ll vote.
“This can’t be understated: Leftists are coming for our guns and after more than 20 years in the Senate, Lisa Murkowski has pledged to help them,” Tshibaka said in a statement.
A complicated political calculus
Murkowski has been a strong supporter of gun rights in the past, representing a state where rural and indigenous residents rely on their guns for survival.
“Guns are such a fundamental part of Alaska, and that’s reflected in her Second Amendment positions,” said Edward Hild, a former Murkowski chief of staff.
But Murkowski indicated this week that she is open to backing the emerging plan, tweeting that the bipartisan framework “appears to be fairly reasonable.” In a chance run-in with David Hogg, a Parkland, Fla., school shooting survivor and founder of March for Our Lives, she told him “we owe some steps here.”
If Murkowski backs the deal, should a final agreement be reached, it would seal her position as a bipartisan lawmaker who doesn’t adhere to party orthodoxy, but it would also fuel Tshibaka’s argument that she isn’t conservative enough.
Some in Alaska said supporting the modest gun framework could be the safer place for her politically.
Murkowski is not relying on the right-flank of the party to win reelection, but on more moderate Republicans, independents and Democrats — all of whom can vote in Alaska’s nonpartisan primary system — to defeat Tshibaka.
Longtime Alaska pollster Ivan Moore said it’s going to be a difficult decision for Murkowski, but added it is more politically damaging for her to turn off Democrats and independents than the faction of Republicans who already don’t support her.
“The consequences would be more damaging to her support if she came out against gun control measures,” he told The Early.
It would also mark a break with her voting record.
Murkowski has sided with the majority of her party on guns in the past. She opposed background check legislation written by Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) in 2013 and again in 2015. (Mark Begich, the Democratic senator from Alaska at the time, also voted against the bill in 2013.) She was endorsed by the National Rifle Association in 2016 when she ran for reelection.
- Her website boasts that she “steadfastly opposed” the Manchin-Toomey measure and that she also “opposed the Feinstein gun ban amendment, opposed the Lautenberg amendment to restrict the size of magazines, and opposed all efforts to create a national gun registry” — referencing past gun control proposals in the Senate.
But Murkowski is also a different legislator than she once was and has developed a reputation for working across the aisle on issues big and small.
Are guns an issue where Alaskans will embrace a bipartisan approach that includes new restrictions, even modest ones?
Alaska has a different relationship with guns than other states.
The state has endured only two mass shootings: one in 1997 at a school in Bethel, when a student killed two people and injured two others, and one in Wasilla in 2020, when a teenager killed four members of his family, according to the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.
A.L. Lovecraft, a political science professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, noted that hunting is prevalent and a means for survival outside the cities.
“It’s a relatively normalized thing to know that people are going to have guns around,” she said.