Lisa Murkowski did not waste time, and she did not mince words. Just two days after former President Donald Trump provoked an insurrectionist mob to storm the Capitol on January 6, Alaska’s senior senator told her local newspaper: “I want him to resign. I want him out.”
Murkowski was the first GOP senator to demand Trump’s exit after the deadly riot. The speed and bluntness with which she spoke out against the former president surprised her allies, who saw in her words the first reverberations of how Alaska voted in November. Murkowski wasn’t on the 2020 ballot, but in passing a ballot measure to change the way the state elects its leaders, Alaskans effectively gave their long-serving senator a fresh infusion of political freedom: She no longer needs to worry nearly so much about a conservative primary foe defeating her next year. “I think we’ve seen the result of it already,” former Alaska Governor Bill Walker told me.
The ballot measure that Alaska adopted by a narrow margin last fall represents the farthest-reaching changes to any state’s election laws in recent memory, giving a boost to political reformers who are trying to increase voter participation while reducing the incentives for partisanship across the country. Its advocates hope the reforms will be a model for other states, leading to a shift in how both Congress and state legislatures function in the years ahead. And for the next two years, they will have their eye on Murkowski.
The referendum scraps party primaries in favor of a single nonpartisan primary, a move that might help Murkowski more directly than any other politician in Alaska. In 2010, Murkowski was defeated in a Republican primary and secured her second full term only after mounting an unlikely write-in campaign in the general election. She’s up for reelection next year, and before Alaska passed its ballot measure, Murkowski was seen as once again vulnerable to a primary challenge because of her votes against her party, whether in rejecting the GOP’s attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act or opposing Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
As recently as September, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was teasing a possible primary challenge to Murkowski. But as remarkable as Murkowski’s immediate denunciation of Trump was, equally notable was the silence among her peers that followed. Palin said nothing, and Trump loyalists made no serious move to rebuke, censure, or oust Murkowski even though they have threatened other Republicans, such as Representative Liz Cheney, who faces a primary challenge in Wyoming and an effort to remove her as chair of the House GOP conference in Washington after voting to impeach the president.
The absence of a backlash to Murkowski’s move against Trump is more evidence that the new laws have altered Alaska politics, supporters argue. The idea isn’t to push Murkowski, a lifelong Republican, to the left—she’s already ruled out switching parties—but to allow her to keep voting independently when she sees fit, whether that’s to break with Trump or to work across the aisle on areas of common ground with President Joe Biden.
Opponents of the Alaska ballot measure have sued to stop its implementation. But if it survives a legal challenge, the state will hold a nonpartisan primary for all statewide and federal offices beginning this year. The top four candidates will advance to the general election, where Alaskans will use ranked-choice voting to determine a winner. The referendum also significantly boosts disclosure requirements for campaign financing in an effort to crack down on so-called dark money pouring into state elections.