Republicans are working hard in Alaska to keep control of a U.S. Senate seat the party has held since 1980 by campaigning on behalf of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, whose appointment by her governor father has rankled Democrats.
Though the conservative state voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush in 2000, Mrs. Murkowski, a first-term senator, is battling former Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, in a race most polls show is statistically dead-even.
Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, has been in Alaska campaigning for Mrs. Murkowski this week, and Sen. Ted Stevens, the popular longtime Republican senator from Alaska, is lending his voice to the campaign.
Jerry McBeath, a political science professor at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, said Mrs. Murkowski is facing a tight race partly because her father, Gov. Frank H. Murkowski, appointed her to fill the Senate seat that he left for the governor’s mansion in 2002.
Critics call that nepotism, and the governor’s popularity is lukewarm. Mrs. Murkowski has been campaigning as “Lisa,” with “Murkowski” in small print, Mr. McBeath said.
Mrs. Murkowski had 45 percent support and Mr. Knowles had 48 percent in the latest poll, released the week of Oct. 4 for TV station KTUU by Ivan Moore Research, a Democratic polling firm. The margin of error was 4.4 percent.
But Mr. Knowles has a tough task as well.
The former governor is attempting to be the first Democrat sent to Congress from Alaska since 1980, and his party leadership — including Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota — differs from Alaskans on key issues, such as opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil exploration.
The vast majority of Alaskans support oil exploration in ANWR because it will create jobs. Both Mr. Knowles and Mrs. Murkowski support that.
“Knowles is certainly distancing himself from Kerry and the national Democratic Party,” said Mr. McBeath. “His strategy has been to de-emphasize that linkage.”
Knowles spokesman Matt McKenna said his boss is simply showing that he can go against his party when needed, for the good of the state.
“Alaskans have an independent streak that is fierce and wide,” he said. “And Knowles, with a history of taking on his own party, has a broad appeal.”
Mr. Knowles is running a television ad touting the fact that as governor he sued President Clinton to defend Alaska’s fishermen and to protect the state’s access to public lands.
The two candidates will begin a series of debates today. So far, campaign issues have ranged from education and veterans’ health care to ANWR.
Mrs. Murkowski has stressed that the Republican Party is simply more in touch with Alaskans, citing Republicans’ support for oil exploration in ANWR and stimulating small business, said campaign spokesman Elliott Bundy.
“Alaska’s agenda is supported by the Republican Party,” he said. “Tony Knowles never mentions in his ads that he’s a Democrat.”
Mrs. Murkowski’s campaign increasingly has touted maintaining the Republicans’ razor-thin control of the Senate as a reason to elect her and Mr. Stevens — who chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, bringing money home for the state.
Mr. Bundy said to “expect an increase” in this argument in the coming weeks.
Most Alaskans are registered as independents or nonpartisans, but Mr. Bundy pointed out that Republican registration is ahead of Democrat registration by a 2-1 margin in the state.