In Alaska primary, Murkowski and Palin show the deepening fissures in the Republican Party

·6 min read

WASHINGTON–The almost continual daylight in Alaska this month is revealing more than the state's sweeping mountains and shorelines. It's also showing the deep fissures in the Republican Party.

Two candidates on the ballot for two different offices – Sen. Lisa Murkowski and former Gov. Sarah Palin – represent a growing divide in the GOP that is largely decided by a candidate's allegiance to former President Donald Trump. Murkowski is fighting off a Trump challenger. Palin is fighting as a Trump challenger.

Murkowski is a moderate Republican who has crossed the aisle to vote with Democrats on some big issues. In February 2021, she was one of seven Senate Republicans to vote in favor of convicting Trump during his second impeachment, drawing ire from the former president and others in her party. She is the only one of the seven on the ballot this year.

Palin, once John McCain's running mate in 2008, leans to the far right. She has been in lock step with Trump and joined him and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell last month at a "Save America" rally in Anchorage. After the FBI search last week of the former president's Florida residence, she called the country's top law enforcement agencies "dangerous thugs."

Murkowski is running for her fourth full Senate term. Palin is running for her first House term. Other than both vying for seats in the U.S. Capitol, they couldn't be further apart, analysts said.

"One is competent and one is not, and there's a chance both of them will win," said Republican strategist Susan Del Percio.

Fighting off a Trump challenger

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) speaks during a news conference about high gas prices at the U.S. Capitol on May 18, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) speaks during a news conference about high gas prices at the U.S. Capitol on May 18, 2022 in Washington, DC.

Murkowski, like others who voted to impeach the former president after the insurrection, faces a Trump-backed opponent in State Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka. She is the only incumbent Republican senator Trump has endorsed against.

But Alaska's new voting system, which allows voters to choose their top four in the primary and cast a nonpartisan, ranked-choice in November, could benefit Murkowski, analysts say.

"Murkowski’s overall image in the state remains positive — while Tshibaka is slightly underwater among those who do know her — according to private polling, and she’s the most popular politician in Alaska," said Jessica Taylor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

The senator has always attracted support from a broad base of constituents, including independents, libertarians and even Democrats, Taylor said. That coalition helped  Murkowski win a write-in general election victory in 2010 against Tea Party candidate Joe Miller, when she lost her party's nomination but then ran for the seat anyway.

Murkowski has also greatly outraised her challenger, with $5.3 million in the bank compared to Tshibaka's $808,000.

If Murkowski advances to the general election, Taylor predicts the Republican would hold the seat in November.

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Fighting as a Trump challenger

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin makes a joke about the size of the state of Texas compared to Alaska during her appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin makes a joke about the size of the state of Texas compared to Alaska during her appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022.

The special election to succeed late Rep. Don Young, who died in March, is most contentious on the Republican side, where Palin and software executive Nick Begich III are locked in a close race and could be headed to a runoff against Democrat Mary Peltola.

Begich has campaigned with Palin's former in-laws and has run ads that say to "vote smart. Not Sarah." She responded in an Anchorage Daily News op-ed calling Begich a "namby-pamby establishment Republican-in-name-only."

While Alaska's new voting system could help Murkowski, it might hurt Palin.

"Alaska's new election format handicaps the polarizing Palin, who has a high floor of support but a low ceiling," according to Dave Wasserman of Cook Political Report. "Begich might be the ever-so-slight frontrunner, but the vagaries of ranked-choice mean an upset can't be ruled out."

Palin, like most Trump-backed Republicans running for office, has spent much of her candidacy defending the former president and his allies. She recently shared a photo of her and Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., who said his cellphone was seized by the FBI last week, and expressed her support for him and condemnation of the FBI and Department of Justice.

Perry has been linked to Trump's efforts to overturn the presidential election in Georgia and asked for a presidential pardon, according to Jan. 6 testimony. The congressman has denied asking for a pardon.

Palin called Perry "a good and decent man and great leader in Congress."

"This is the kind of abuse that reminds us that the thugs in power must be stopped at the ballot box this fall," Palin said. "Once that's done, I will stand with Scott Perry and the GOP leadership to investigate and dismantle the Biden regime's abuse of power, starting with corruption in the DOJ and FBI. Their leaders' days in office are numbered."

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A fractured GOP

Former President Donald Trump departs Trump Tower on Aug. 10, 2022, in New York City.
Former President Donald Trump departs Trump Tower on Aug. 10, 2022, in New York City.

The intraparty primaries featuring Murkowski and Palin amplify the fault line in the GOP, where members are fighting for control and the direction of the party.

Former Congressman Joe Walsh was once a Tea Party guy before Trumpism prompted him to leave the Republican Party. He was elected in Illinois during the 2010 Tea Party wave and lost two years later in a redrawn district to then-Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat who is now a senator.

He said the Tea Party "no doubt" helped lead to Trump. But what started out as a base of voters that felt like the establishment had been ignoring it for years turned into an angrier base that Trump tapped into in 2016, Walsh said.

"The base has become radicalized. They no longer believe in truth. They no longer believe in democracy. They want a strongman to bring back their 1950s America," he said. "It really is a cult."

The Trump-centered division in the party has played out elsewhere during the midterms, as well. In the Georgia Republican primaries, for example, the former president endorsed David Perdue to take on incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp, who himself was backed by Trump's former vice president, Mike Pence.

The breach has even hit once-minor positions. Secretary of state positions, once-obscure roles largely charged with election administration, have become a new battleground between those who back Trump's falsehoods on election fraud and those who see an existential peril for democracy.

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When Trump addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas on Aug. 6, he described his party as he has before – one with patriots on the front lines. Patriots is the name he uses for his most ardent supporters.

"You are the loyal defenders of our heritage, our liberty, our culture, our Constitution, and our God-given rights. You never stop fighting for America, and I will never, ever stop fighting for you," he said.

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Candy Woodall is a Congress reporter for USA TODAY. She can be reached at cwoodall@usatoday.com or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: In Alaska primary, Murkowski and Palin show deepening GOP fissures