Murkowski, Tshibaka, Chesbro meet in first U.S. Senate debate
By Sean Maguire, Iris Samuels
In their first time sharing a debate stage, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and her Trump-backed challenger Kelly Tshibaka presented their visions for representing Alaska as Republicans. And the differences were just as pronounced in style as they were in policy.
Murkowski highlighted her 20-year tenure as a moderate dedicated to advancing resource development while maximizing federal funding for Alaska. For Tshibaka, it was a vision of resisting the Biden administration’s energy policies and federal largesse, epitomized by the infrastructure bill that Murkowski helped author.
Democratic candidate Pat Chesbro, the third and often odd candidate out in a race largely seen as a referendum on former President Donald Trump’s hold on the Republican Party, emphasized the risks of climate change and the need to wean the world off fossil fuels.
The 90-minute Alaska Oil and Gas Association conference debate, the first of several planned Senate candidate forums, was held in front of oil and gas industry heavyweights, state legislators and lobbyists at the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage. It came after primary election results showed Murkowski leading the race with 45% of the vote, followed by Tshibaka with 39%. Chesbro was in third with 7% and Buzz Kelley, a virtually unknown Republican, is set to round out the top four on the general election ballot with 2%. Event organizers said that Kelley didn’t respond to an invitation to participate.
There was little to distinguish Murkowski and Tshibaka in terms of resource development goals. Both want to reform and speed up the federal permitting process for oil and gas projects, and both want to secure long-anticipated projects like the pending Willow project and to build the King Cove road, which is tied up in federal court. But with differing views on bringing federal infrastructure dollars to the state and working across the aisle to deliver policy wins, the two spoke about starkly different visions.
Chesbro struck an entirely different tone, saying she supports oil and gas, but with caveats: She believed the industry should develop its unused federal oil and gas leases before necessarily acquiring new ones. She indicated past support for levying higher taxes on the industry, and she said that it should pivot to investing more in renewables.
“I think we could be a laboratory for renewable energy in Alaska,” she said. “And I don’t think we’ve taken enough opportunity to do that.”
Tshibaka was repeatedly scornful of Murkowski for not doing enough to push back against “Team Biden” and for confirming the Democratic president’s “radical nominees” who have “declared war on our energy industry.” She was particularly critical of Murkowski’s vote to confirm Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, but she also extended that criticism to U.S. Rep. Don Young, who supported Haaland’s nomination, and U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, who voted to confirm Haaland too.
“We should have gotten something else out of that deal,” Tshibaka said. “And our delegation could have done something better.”
Murkowski, who highlighted her record and ignored Tshibaka’s barbs, declined to say if she regretted voting for Haaland. But she noted that hers wasn’t the tie-breaking vote to advance Haaland from a legislative committee, as Tshibaka has previously alleged, and she argued that Haaland would have been confirmed with or without her support. The important point now, she said, was building a productive relationship with Haaland and the Interior Department to develop Alaska’s resources.
Tara Sweeney, a Republican who worked in the Interior Department under Trump and who was running for U.S. House before she withdrew last month, was in the audience. A Murkowski supporter, Sweeney was scathing of Tshibaka, arguing that she is either misrepresenting Murkowski’s vote or that she doesn’t understand the confirmation process.
“And that’s concerning, if you don’t understand the basics,” Sweeney said after the debate had ended. “Why should we send somebody like her to Washington, D.C., to represent Alaska when we need somebody who understands the minutiae of Senate procedure?”
Debate moderator Kati Capozzi, president and CEO of the Alaska Chamber of Commerce, asked how much seniority matters in the Senate. Murkowski, currently the 18th most senior U.S. senator, said her long tenure in the Senate has allowed her to build productive relationships.
“It’s not just the years that matter,” Murkowski said. “It’s what you have done with it. And that’s what Alaskans are looking for. They’re looking for the value of that investment.”
Tshibaka countered that Murkowski had “squandered” her seniority by not blocking the president’s appropriations or his nominees, adding: “I don’t know if it matters, if your seniority is being used to help Joe Biden.”
Last week, Politico reported that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s super PAC has scaled back its planned advertising in support of Murkowski after the primary election results showed her more comfortably ahead than earlier expected. Murkowski has millions of her own in her campaign account and a separate super PAC working to get her re-elected.
Tshibaka said during the debate that the senator she respects most is Utah Republican Mike Lee because of his role as a watchdog, “holding government insiders accountable.”
Lee has donated $10,000 to Murkowski’s reelection bid, reflecting her establishment support.
But Trump, who came to Alaska in July to campaign against Murkowski and in support of Tshibaka, continues to cast a shadow over the race. After the debate ended, state House member Tom McKay, R-Anchorage, noted that Murkowski had championed how she had built relationships. Referencing her vote to impeach Trump, McKay asked, if Trump runs and is reelected: “How are you going to deal with that relationship?”
Alaska’s congressional delegation will soon have three members again, with a new Democrat joining the two sitting Republicans. Responding to Mary Peltola’s apparent victory in the special U.S. House race to fill out the remainder of Young’s term, Murkowski said she was “celebrating” Peltola’s victory. She added that Peltola is a fisheries expert and that they had worked together well in the Alaska Capitol together when they were both state legislators.
“I will work with her as a partner. I know that there’s some processes in Washington that are going to be a little bit overwhelming. And I’m there to help her every step of the way, whether it is helping to facilitate staff or just navigating,” she said. “But she has a wealth of information and Alaska knowledge that she brings to the table already.”
Tshibaka said Peltola could be a good “messaging partner” to get more resource development investment in Alaska while Chesbro said simply that she liked her fellow Democrat.