Murkowski, up for reelection in 2010, is nervously awaiting word on whether John McCain’s former running mate will run against her in the GOP primary. But she says Palin is the one who should be nervous.
“I can guarantee it would be a very tough election,” Murkowski said in an interview.
Palin is also up for reelection in 2010. She could run for a second term as governor, but the Senate holds some obvious attractions: a national platform, and with it the chance to beef up a thin résumé and rebuild damaged credibility on foreign policy and other issues.
But Murkowski says a run against her would be fraught with risk. If Palin lost, her stock would drop just ahead of a potential 2012 presidential run. And if she won, she’d be a backbencher in a chamber that is dominated by seniority — and would have to begin her presidential campaign as soon as she took office.
“If she wants to be president, I don’t think the way to the presidency is a short stop in the United States Senate,” Murkowski said.
Asked Monday to respond to Murkowski’s comments, Palin’s communications coordinator, Kate Morgan, said only, “The governor has never stated her intention or desire to run for that office.”
As Murkowski’s tense talk suggests, the politics between the two women is personal. Palin won the governor’s race in 2006 by defeating Frank Murkowski, the senator’s father. On the presidential campaign trail this year, Palin crowed about upending the “old boys network” in Alaska.
When asked this summer about Palin’s suggestion that her father was one of those “old boys,” Murkowski bristled and cut an interview short.
Democratic pollster Ivan Moore and other Alaska analysts say Murkowski is poised to skate to a second full term unless she loses in the Republican primary. The most credible Democratic challenger, Ethan Berkowitz, will likely mount a rematch against Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) for the state’s lone House seat in 2010, Moore and other analysts said.
But everything changes if Palin gets in.
Even though Palin’s popularity dipped after she took on a partisan role as the GOP’s vice presidential candidate and stumbled in televised interviews, she maintains high approval ratings back home, including about 80 percent support among Republican voters. Murkowski enjoys similarly high numbers.
A head-to-head fight between the two Republicans “would be a titanic struggle,” Moore said.
David Dittman, a Republican pollster in Alaska, said some right-wing talk show hosts have given Murkowski the nickname “Liberal Lisa,” a label that could stick in a Republican primary fight.
But like Murkowski, Dittman said Palin would be better served by staying in Juneau, where she still would have a huge profile and could maintain political star power in GOP circles — a celebrity status she showed off in Georgia this week as she campaigned for Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss.
With Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in Senate history, having just lost his seat, Dittman said GOP primary voters in Alaska would be wary of losing more Senate seniority by replacing Murkowski with Palin.
“My feeling is that Alaskans wouldn’t respond to that very well, especially Republicans, if she takes on Lisa and she starts seniority all over again,” Dittman said. “I think it would be tough for Sarah to do that and justify it.”
That argument is not lost on Murkowski, who points to her rising seniority in the Senate and her ascension to the top Republican spot on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, replacing retiring Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.).
“One thing that Alaskans clearly appreciate is seniority,” said Murkowski, who was appointed to the Senate in 2002 by her father, who had just won the governor’s race. “If she were to kind of move me over, if you will, to run for national office again at the expense at this seniority that’s been built, I don’t know if Alaskans would look too favorably on that.
“I think they view the job that we have here in the Senate as a very, very critical one in a state like Alaska, where we always are battling the feds,” Murkowski said. “You need to have this position being filled full time. And I think that’s what Alaskans will be looking to.”
Murkowski said she had not spoken with Palin about whether she will run and said the talk of her running may be “more media-generated than what actually might be the thought process in Juneau right now.”
But Moore, the Democratic pollster, said Palin will do whatever she believes will position herself best.
“Sarah is interested in what is best for Sarah, and she is not necessarily going to get sidetracked by party loyalties,” Moore said.