In any other election year, Alaska's conservative electorate could be expected to chill Democratic hopes of taking over a United States Senate seat held by a Republican incumbent. Republicans hold every statewide elected office, enjoying a powerful base of support from the dominant energy, fishery and development industries, as well as an ideological advantage among the state's many gun-toting libertarians and fundamentalist Christians.
But this year is not like any other election year in Alaska, principally because of what may well turn out to be a fateful mistake by Gov. Frank Murkowski when he ascended to his current office from the Senate two years ago. In an act of hubris that outraged critics across the political spectrum, the new governor appointed his daughter Lisa Murkowski to succeed him in the Senate.
The blatant nepotism behind her appointment -- her father had staged an elaborate charade of "considering" other possible candidates -- inflicted serious damage on the governor's own approval ratings as well as hers. Rumbles of discontent have scarcely diminished during the past two years, leaving Sen. Murkowski vulnerable to a strong challenge by Tony Knowles, the former Democratic governor who has maintained a small but consistent lead in most polls.
The expected Bush landslide in Alaska still could sweep Knowles away, of course. Should he win, however, the Democrats will be far more likely to regain control of the Senate. Hovering around three points ahead in the latest polls, Knowles is within reach of that victory. A Yale graduate, Vietnam veteran, former businessman and onetime oil-rig roughneck, Knowles breaks with Democratic orthodoxy on energy development and gun control, while opposing Social Security privatization and supporting expanded healthcare.
The challenger's positive ratings have cruised steadily in the upper 50s since August, while negative ratings for Murkowski in the low 40s have also persisted. Her positive ratings have yet to break 50 percent -- a sign of peril for any incumbent, particularly in her first term. The most recent independent survey by KTUU-TV in Anchorage on Oct. 5 showed Knowles with a positive rating nearly 10 points higher than Murkowksi's -- the largest gap since the poll began last November.
Those worrisome numbers explain why Murkowski's race is among the top priorities for national Republican leaders, with Vice President Dick Cheney and Treasury Secretary John Snow hauling out to the remote tundra to offer their support. It's also a major priority for oil industry chieftains, who have sponsored lucrative fundraisers for Murkowski.
In the Murkowski political clan, the father has become the daughter's weighty albatross, and vice versa. For the past several months, the governor and the senator have assiduously (and somewhat oddly) avoided public appearances together. For obvious reasons they would prefer not to remind anybody that they're related, at least not until after Election Day. Amazingly, the official biography on her Web site neglects to mention the existence of her father, the governor.
But the most generous donors to Murkowski's Senate campaign seem well aware of her filial relationship to Alaska's most powerful public official. Major corporations and other special interests needing favors from the governor have poured money into his daughter's war chest. And perhaps not surprisingly, their generosity has coincided with favorable action by the governor.
Perhaps the most blatant of these favors to industry was Gov. Murkowski's decision in July 2003 to permit seafood processors, located at sea or in remote areas, to deduct room-and-board charges from their workers' paychecks. In some cases, those deductions would drive the take-home pay of those laborers, working under arduous and often dangerous conditions, below the statutory minimum. Murkowski enforced the wage cut by regulatory fiat, without legislative approval. By doing so, he overturned a veto of identical legislation by his predecessor Knowles in 2002. As Knowles pointed out in his veto message, "Docking the cost of room and board from a worker's pay is a practice that has been banned since Alaska became a state."
Harmful as this regressive practice is to working families, the governor's ruling certainly helped his daughter. During the months after her father's action, Sen. Murkowski was no doubt pleased, if not surprised, to see checks from the seafood processors deposited into her campaign accounts. Executives of Alyeska Seafoods donated $5,000; executives of Trident Seafoods gave $7,000; and officials from other seafood firms and their lobbyists kicked in tens of thousands more, for a total of more than $60,000 so far.
But for Lisa Murkowski, the truly big money has flowed in from Veco Corp., a major Anchorage construction firm. Veco is not only the largest single donor to the Republican senator but is regarded by many Alaskans as the most powerful company in their state. While its interests are broad and varied, from the oil industries to local construction, the Halliburton-like firm has an important potential stake in one of the state's most controversial projects: a private prison in the port town of Whittier that could ultimately cost the state more than $1 billion.
Alaska currently rents space for more than 700 state prisoners at a privately run correctional facility in Arizona, under an arrangement that harms convicts' families, while draining money from the state. Pressure to ameliorate this situation has been growing. For several years, Cornell Companies of Texas, a major corporate prison operator, has proposed building a new privatized prison in Alaska. Their fortunes began to improve after they teamed up with Veco in 2002.
Facing opposition from state correction officials, unions and local communities, Frank Murkowski declared his firm opposition to any private prison construction when he ran for governor in 2002. Since taking office, however, the senior Murkowski has gradually backed away from that position over the past year.
Although Gov. Murkowski's aides said he still opposed the Veco-Cornell prison plan in the spring of 2003, he then turned around and told legislators that the issue still required "further study." This was a substantial victory for Veco and Cornell, whose executives insist their plan would be cheaper than building and operating new public prison space. By last April, Murkowski's aides were floating plans for a "compromise" that would allow construction of the privatized prison, financed by state bonds, if it met certain conditions imposed by state authorities.
What caused the governor to change his strongly stated opposition to privatized prisons? He hasn't explained his shift yet. But in May 2003, a prominent Anchorage architect named Mark Pfeffer met with his aides to promote the Veco-Cornell prison project. Pfeffer had recently joined the prison consortium, and he had also signed on as treasurer for Lisa Murkowski's reelection campaign. Around that time, her father began to back away from his pledge to oppose private prisons, issuing a vague announcement that his administration would take a "fresh look" at the Veco-Cornell prison plan.
Meanwhile, money from Veco and its lobbyists has flowed into Lisa Murkowski's campaign. The first $2,000 check from Veco chairman Bill Allen showed up on May 13, 2003, only days after the Anchorage Daily News reported the governor's shift on his project. Allen, who registered as a lobbyist in Anchorage to push the project, has given regularly and generously -- as have other Veco executives, whose total of $43,750 is Murkowski's largest single donation. Lobbyists from Patton Boggs, which represents Veco in promoting the prison deal, have given her an additional $12,000.
The pattern appears plain enough. While the Murkowskis pretend not to know each other, the special interests that know them both have invested heavily in her campaign while awaiting his nod.