Alaskans set stakes on Senator Murkowski for U.S. Supreme Court nomination

Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski (Republican), seen here on Capitol Hill May 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Lisa Murkowski isn’t ready to say yet how she’ll vote on President Trump’s latest Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. The senator who might cast the decisive vote on this lifetime appointment says she’s reading Kavanaugh’s decisions and wants to hear from her constituents.

On Monday night, only one side weighed in.

The Senate schedule will keep Murkowski in D.C. most of August, so she experimented with a new way to reach her constituents: an online and telephonic town hall. Hundreds of people took part. A dozen got to ask questions. And a funny thing happened: Alaska may be a red state, but not one person asked her to vote for Kavanaugh.

Murkowski told them she heard their concerns.

“And know that I, too, do not want to turn back the clock when it comes to women’s reproductive rights,” Murkowski said. “I do not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned.”

A representative sample?

There’s no reason to believe this was a representative sample of Alaskans. The pool was a self-selected group that chose to spend an hour on the line with their U.S. senator.

But the Alaskans who got to ask questions were chosen more or less randomly from that pool. They were not screened by subject matter. At the Capitol on Tuesday, Murkowski said the listeners probably held a range of views, but it was puzzling to her that most – if not all – of the dozen who asked questions were opposed to the president’s agenda. They spoke about tariffs, the separation of families at the border, election security, abortion rights and climate change. And on Kavanaugh, the callers said they were concerned about his position on voting rights, executive power and, of course, Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion case.

“I don’t know why” no one asked pro-Trump questions, Murkowski said. “Perhaps if you are worried or concerned about something you are more apt to weigh in publicly.”

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh speaks after US President Donald Trump announced his nomination in the East Room of the White House on July 9, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

What Murkowski thinks of Kavanaugh matters. She’s one of the few moderate Republicans who sometimes bucks her party. If she and all the Democrats vote no, it would sink the nomination.

So the stakes are high.

Conservatives not worried

Still, Alaska conservatives aren’t too worried. So says conservative talk-show host Dave Stieren, whose show is on KFQD (radio station in Anchorage, Alaska). Stieren said most of his conservative callers voted for Trump because of his potential Supreme Court picks, but Murkowski’s lack of an announced position isn’t ruffling their feathers.

“I have not gotten 20 callers in row, saying ‘Lisa Murkowski better vote for Kavanaugh,” Stieren said. “I don’t think they have the sense that she’s terribly opposed to him.”

As Stieren sees it, Murkowski supports the causes of her Democratic constituents so often, she could easily vote to confirm Kavanaugh without paying any political price for it.

“They need her more than she needs them. ‘So you’re angry at me. Boo-hoo. If I wanted to run and win again, I would run and win again. Where are you going to go?’” Stieren said, channeling an imaginary Murkowski reaction.

Alaska Republican Party Chairman Tuckerman Babcock said he’s not hearing a ton of concern about Murkowski’s vote on Kavanaugh either. He believes Alaska Republicans think she’ll come around to confirm the nominee, even if it takes a while.

“This is very much how she conducts herself. Not a surprise,” Babcock said. “She’s very deliberative about these nominations, and she’s being very deliberative about this one.”

But Babcock said if Murkowski votes against Kavanaugh on philosophical grounds, to try to preserve Roe v. Wade, the political cost to her would be dramatic. He said Murkowski has been clear that she supports Roe, and Alaska Republicans know that and have re-elected her anyway.

“But if she turns down a nominee solely because of one political issue, I think that would be very difficult for most Republicans to accept,” Babcock said.

Does support from women’s rights advocates hinge on this vote?

Alaska Democratic Party Chair Casey Steinau said Alaska women who support reproductive rights will hold Murkowski to account if she doesn’t reject the nominee.

The United States Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., pictured here on June 18th. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“If she goes ahead and supports Kavanaugh … I think she’s just throwing the support of women – Democrats, Republicans and Independents, all across the board – just throwing their support in the garbage and saying ‘I don’t care what you think anymore and I’ve changed my mind,’” Steinau said. “I think it’s a very strong signal.”

Murkowski said she’s reading up on Brett Kavanaugh to prepare for her meeting with him, so she can form her own opinion.

Her impressions so far? Murkowski said he’s a learned man and a good writer.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Ignoring Indigenous women’s traditional knowledge hurts Arctic science, G7 summit hears, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Finnish President blasts Foreign Minister for attending anti-abortion rally in Canada, YLE News

Sweden: Free birth control halves number of abortions carried out in northern Sweden, Radio Sweden

United States: Supreme Court’s rehearing of hovercraft hunter case could test Alaska’s sovereignty, Alaska Public Media

Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media

For more news from Alaska visit Alaska Public Media.

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