Frank Murkowski and the Power of Inertia


Former three-term Senator and one-term governor Frank Murkowski got an ignominious boot out the door by Alaska Republicans yesterday, losing his gubernatorial reelection bid in the GOP primary – the latest incumbent to bite the dust this election season. For the 73-year-old Murkowski it was the likely end to a political career that started in 1980, when the Fairbanks banker was first elected senator.

I remember that first election quite well, even though I was outside Alaska at the time. (I spent 15 years in Alaska, much of it as a journalist covering politics.)

In fact, I was at the American embassy in Bangkok, Thailand for Election Night 1980. (It was actually late in the morning Bangkok time.) I was in the middle of a year-and-a-half low-budget trip around the world and I’d traveled down-country from Chiang Mai not for the charms of Bangkok (there are few), but because I’d heard the U.S. embassy was setting up as election central for expat Americans who wanted to follow the returns.

They set aside a big, open room for the event, and while there was no live television, they did broadcast a network radio feed and set up a pair of old-fashioned wire service teletypes that clacked out the latest returns.

I was there, like most of the others, mainly to see if Ronald Reagan was going to become president, as everyone suspected. But something else was going on that night that few people in the room were aware of – the Reagan landslide was also toppling Senate Democrats all across the country. So much so that when the returns came in showing Murkowski winning in Alaska, it was enough to shift the balance of power in the Senate to the GOP.

I knew that, because I had a homemade scorecard and was keeping track. But the news hadn’t yet been announced over the radio. As it happened, when the Alaska decision came across the wire, the person standing next to me was the US ambassador, who’d wandered over for a look. When I told him the Democrats had lost both the presidency and the Senate, it only seemed to deepen the funk he was already in. (A Carter appointee, his days as ambassador were numbered.)

Like most politicians who make it to Washington, Frank Murkowski endured like a force of nature. Inertia, I have long realized, is the strongest force in politics. Once you’re in, it’s awfully hard to lose your seat unless you either screw up big time or – as in 1980 – the political world shifts under your feet.

Murkowski was never anything more than a back-bencher in Washington, even though he served 22 years in the Senate. Even in Alaska, he was always deeply in the shadow of the state’s senior senator, Sen. Ted Stevens. Stevens, who first joined the Senate in 1968, is a serious force in Washington and a living legend in Alaska. Not so Murkowski.

Yet he kept winning, through three Senate elections. In 2002 he ran for governor, leaving his Senate seat after he was safely elected. At that point he dropped the biggest political bombshell of his career: to fill his vacant Senate seat, he appointed his own daughter, Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

While Lisa was elected in her own right in 2004, shaking off the cloud of nepotism, it never really left her father. But what really did him in in the end were other issues that rankled Alaskan voters – including his decision last year to lease a state jet for his gubernatorial travel after the legislature turned him down. The fact that he used the jet to fly around the state during his reelection campaign also didn’t help.

In the end, Murkowski’s defeat could hardly have been more humiliating. The incumbent governor came in third place in the Republican primary, capturing only 19% of the vote.

All of which helps illustrate that while mediocrity seems never to be a political liability, arrogant behavior can be, at least if it’s perceived that way by the folks back home. Alaskans may be more sensitive to political arrogance than voters elsewhere, but I think there’s a wider lesson in these Alaska returns: The voters’ mood this year is exceptionally sour. Politicians who get on the wrong side of it – even if they’ve been around for years – may not be able to count on good old inertia to pull them out this time.

AFTERTHOUGHT: For the truly cynical, there may be an alternative lesson here as well: If you’ve made it to Washington as a politician, stay there. Political inertia works best when the politician is physically removed from the state or district they represent. Closer proximity may be hazardous to your political health.