Feature: How Lisa Murkowski Mastered Trump’s Washington


On the plane, Willoughby took the opportunity to ask Murkowski what everyone wanted to know: “Have you decided which way you are going to vote on the health care bill?” Murkowski told Willoughby that the last bill she saw was “unpassable,” adding, “We have to get this right.”

Willoughby left the flight feeling hopeful that Murkowski would not vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Three weeks later, Murkowski did, in fact, cast one of the three decisive votes that killed the bill. One of Willoughby’s fellow ReSisters, Julie Nielsen, a fisheries biologist with a side passion for health care reform, was so happy that she put a bright pink sign in the window of her office overlooking one of the main shopping streets in Juneau. “Thank you Lisa!!” read the sign. In the middle of the “O” in “you,” she had drawn a big heart.

At a celebration rally in Anchorage a few days later, 200 people, many wearing pussy-hat pink, showed their appreciation. Over and over, the organizer screamed, “Thank you!” and the ralliers screamed back, “Lisa!” Barely known outside her own state before the Trump era, Murkowski, to moderates and liberals across the country, became an improbable hero, a symbol of resistance and integrity; hundreds of grateful phone calls poured in, as well as calls from the press and from governors wanting to collaborate with her on rethinking health care policy. Murkowski, a Slate headline read, had “stood up for womankind over the threats of men”; Bustle, a website for women, instructed readers on how to write letters to Murkowski that would make sure she knew they cared.

The love-in lasted barely four months. Then came the tax bill. Liberals railed against its breaks for the rich; environmentalists bemoaned a provision allowing for drilling in Alaska. Murkowski stayed silent but ultimately announced a few days before the bill came to the floor that she would support it. The responses to her anodyne Twitter feed, which generally features photos of ribbon-cutting-type ceremonies or Alaska’s many waterways, turned almost entirely venomous (“Sell Out!!! Shame on you!!” read a typical one). Murkowski’s vote should hardly have come as a surprise; there is no more core value to Republicans than cutting taxes and no dream more dear to most Alaskans than ever more oil drilling.

Nonetheless, it was a blow to those who had recently come to hold her in such high regard. “It was a tough loss from our end, because we really did think we could get her,” says Angel Padilla, the national policy director for the Indivisible Project, a liberal activist group that had helped coordinate protests against the bill in Murkowski’s offices. Nielsen, the biologist, said this spring that she was disillusioned with Murkowski. The pink sign? “I felt like ripping it up,” she told me.

When I met with Murkowski at her Washington office in February, she could evaluate those episodes with some distance. We talked in a small, windowless meeting room inside the Hart Senate Office Building. Murkowski, like the room itself, was notably unadorned (although Murkowski, unlike the room, is photogenic); in Alaska, accessibility trumps formality. “Everyone in Alaska just calls her Lisa,” Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, a state legislator, told me. “She’s a mononym, like Charo.”

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Murkowski talking with a reporter and her communications director in Washington.

Credit
Erik Madigan Heck for The New York Times

Liberals’ disappointment with Murkowski had not escaped her. “You know,” Murkowski said, “one minute you’re the darling of the world. We’ve come together, and we’ve stood up against the administration. And then when you vote for something the administration supports, everyone says, ‘What happened?’ It’s like, ‘Well, what did you expect me to do?’ ” Murkowski looked almost baffled. “I’m still a Republican.”

On Aug. 16, about three weeks after the health care vote, Murkowski, along with a few staff members, sat in a rental car outside a hotel in Bethel, a town in western Alaska. They were waiting for someone named Ephraim, a staff member specializing in fisheries, so they could all head to dinner. “Ephraim,” Murkowski said. “He’s a great guy. From Juneau. He’s my fish guy. Great guy.” She peered out the window. “But very late.”

While we waited, Murkowski talked about her family: The five brothers and sisters, the husband, Verne, who encouraged her to start her career in state politics while he looked after their two sons (now 25 and 26). The arrangement worked well, but lately even her marriage was feeling the strains of her political life. “It’s gotten harder,” she said, staring straight ahead through the windshield, “with the strangeness of politics right now. Because he’s got his opinions, too. And I just sometimes — well, not sometimes, most times — when I come home, I am just, I don’t really want to talk about politics. I want to talk about the flooring that you laid in the living room today.”

It had been a grueling eight months for Murkowski, peaking with the Affordable Care Act repeal vote. She was clearly as appalled as anyone by the combative culture of the Trump White House, the peculiar barrage of gratuitously insulting tweets. In June, Trump tweeted that he had seen Mika Brzezinski at Mar-a-Lago and that she was “bleeding from a face-lift.” “Stop it!” Murkowski tweeted back. “The Presidential platform should be used for more than bringing people down.”

“I had my mom voice on that day,” Murkowski would tell me later. “Karina knows.” She looked at Karina Petersen, her communications director. “I wanted it all in caps with three exclamation points.” Petersen laughed. “We talked her down to one exclamation point,” Petersen said.

Murkowski is one of only a handful of Republican senators who have shown some degree of independence from Trump. The Republican dissenters fall into a few categories. There are the critics, the most vociferous of whom are Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, both senators who are not running for re-election. There are the strayers, among them Murkowski and Collins, who have criticized Trump and also voted against him on major legislation. Rand Paul, the staunch libertarian, votes with Trump less often than any other Republican senator, but he has also gone out of his way to defend him. Lindsey Graham votes with the president slightly more often than Murkowski and Collins, but he joins them in yet another category: the pragmatists. Those senators have staked out the now-controversial position that they would rather get something done than nothing, even if it means compromising with Democrats. Murkowski, who has exercised her independence in all three ways, has nonetheless managed to bring back to her state its most long-desired spoils — more opportunities for drilling and more opportunities for building in previously protected wilderness.

Murkowski landed in the Senate essentially by fiat: In 2002, her father, Frank Murkowski, then a senator, was elected governor of Alaska and had to choose a successor. He publicly considered an up-and-coming mayor from Wasilla, Sarah Palin, then rejected her. Instead, he appointed his daughter Lisa, who had been a state legislator for all of four years. The blatant act of nepotism dogged Frank Murkowski, who went on in 2006 to face Palin in a primary challenge for governor, which she easily won.

That history still seemed fresh in 2010, when Palin backed another Republican, Joe Miller, a friend of Palin’s husband and a Tea Party favorite, in his challenge to Lisa Murkowski in the Republican Senate primary. “I think she’s out for her own self-interest,” Murkowski said of Palin on the evening of the election. To the surprise of many Alaskans, Miller won. “Do you believe in miracles?” Palin tweeted to her followers.

From the moment the result was announced, friends and supporters began texting Murkowski to urge her to run in the general election as a write-in candidate. “Leadership told her not to do it, that she was going to jeopardize the seat and have a Democrat win,” says Andrew Halcro, a former Democratic state legislator and a friend who served with Murkowski. “I think at that point, Lisa recognized, ‘I don’t have any friends.’ ” Murkowski decided to mount the write-in campaign.

She ran as a Republican, but in both Alaska and Washington, the party seemed comfortable moving on without her. The National Republican Senatorial Committee spent more than $1 million funding Miller, with the Tea Party Express adding $600,000. Not long after she started the campaign, Murkowski learned, while she was in Alaska, that Senate Republicans were considering voting the next day to remove her from her position as the ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “I have basically been written off by the senatorial committee,” she said, recalling her state of mind in a memoir by Arlen Specter, the moderate former senator from Pennsylvania, “and I’m not going back begging and pleading. My relationships will either stand on their own or not.” In the end, she held on to her post.

Murkowski, whom Palin had tried to cast as part of the entrenched establishment, suddenly became the underdog, a shift that galvanized her campaign. Her team passed out plastic bracelets that said, “fill it in, write it in,” with the correct spelling of her name. Murkowski defeated Miller, with the help of traditional Democratic constituencies like women and Alaska Natives. “It was an unusual coalition for a Republican,” said Mark Begich, at the time Alaska’s other senator and a Democrat.

Murkowski quickly established that she had returned to the Senate, as she told a reporter from The Hill, with a “stiffer, straighter” spine. A month after her election, she voted with Democrats to repeal the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. She publicly criticized remarks that Mitch McConnell, the new Republican Senate majority leader, made about the party’s priorities. The Hill headline called Murkowski “A Thorn in McConnell’s Side.” “I’m sure she would have liked that,” Begich said. “It was no secret. She was not a happy camper.”

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Murkowski at a meeting in Washington.

Credit
Erik Madigan Heck for The New York Times

Some of Murkowski’s best friends — and donors — are Republicans. But among her closest confidantes are a crew of female extended family members whose politics range from liberal to staunchly conservative, professional women with whom she regularly texts, drinks sauvignon blanc and exchanges family gossip. In the weeks before the vote on the Affordable Care Act repeal, she was on the receiving end of several group texts from those women, many of whom seemed to be encouraging her to vote against the bill.

In mid-July, Murkowski sent the group a text with a photo showing her bare, pedicured feet and a thick pile of paper on her lap. “Sunday morning with the health care bill,” she wrote. A cousin wrote back: “People I run into are telling me that they are worried about you and the pressure you must feel. Like I tell Jack” — the cousin’s son — “go be a leader today. I’ve got your back.” Another added: “We are tough, and you will be the voice of reason on this. I can feel it.”

Murkowski went to college on the East Coast at Georgetown and then went to Willamette University Law School. She has long supported abortion rights and has a strong network of frankly feminist friends, many of whom shared her outrage during the presidential election when the “Access Hollywood” tape became public. The day after it aired, she told Alaskan reporters that the tape, in which Trump bragged about grabbing women’s vaginas, showed Trump’s “true character.” She did not sleep the night the news broke, she said, because she was worrying about what it all meant for the country’s leadership. “I cannot and will not support Donald Trump for President,” she tweeted.

Then he was elected. “This is good for Alaska,” she assured her constituents in an interview. Trump had made it clear during his campaign that he supported drilling for fossil fuel, and Alaska’s economy is built, to a crippling degree, on oil revenues. Decreasing production and dropping oil prices have created a fiscal crisis in the state, which has only amplified the desire among many Alaskans to drill in long-protected regions, specifically on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, which serves as a home to polar bears, caribou and hundreds of bird species. A Republican president could finally make that possible. But Murkowski also knew that the administration was set on repealing the Affordable Care Act, and many of her constituents had come to depend on it, especially its expansion of Medicaid.

Murkowski made it clear where she stood on certain issues that would come up in the repeal bill. She announced to the State Legislature that she was concerned about possible rollbacks of the Medicaid expansion and said in no uncertain terms that she would not support a repeal bill that defunded Planned Parenthood, which Alaskans also depend on for community health care. And yet, in subsequent months, the bill — written by 13 male Republicans — kept turning up, in revision after revision, with significant cuts to the nonprofit organization’s funding.

By early summer, the young staff members answering the phone in Murkowski’s office were subject to scores of aggressive calls from citizens on both sides of the debate. Within the office, there was tension among high-ranking staff members about what she should do. Throngs of health care reporters chased Murkowski down Senate halls, a stress she did not always handle well. “Hey,” Murkowski snapped at CNN’s Manu Raju when he followed her down a Senate hallway to try to get a comment on what she thought of the House health care repeal bill. “Would you please be respectful?” she asked, her own tone harsh.

Finally, in late July, she voted against a procedural motion that would have allowed the repeal bill to come to the Senate floor. Dan Sullivan, Alaska’s other senator and a fellow Republican, told the press that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had called with a threatening message. Sullivan was concerned, he said, that some of the administration’s pro-energy policies “are going to stop.” It was a brazen threat to a member of another branch of government, as if Trump had shown up on the Senate floor to shake a fist in Murkowski’s face.

In those tense days leading up to the votes, Patty Murray, a Democratic senator from Washington State, occasionally called Murkowski and Collins, who she knew were under considerable pressure, to offer support — and see if anything had changed. On the issue of Planned Parenthood, Murray told me, “this is something they have run on, fought for, worked with all of us on for many years.”

To the extent that there is any remaining spirit of bipartisanship in the Senate, Murray believes it is fostered at monthly dinners that the female senators try to have together. They are sometimes held in the Capitol’s Strom Thurmond Room (“ironically,” says Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat; Murray has said that Thurmond once tried to fondle her in an elevator). “We play some music; we drink a little wine,” says Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democratic senator from New York. Once, the group went bowling, complete with shirts embroidered with nicknames. Murray believes that the conversation was different among female senators than among male ones. “Men, when you hear Chuck Schumer” — the Democratic minority leader in the Senate — “and I don’t want to frame it just about Chuck, they share information so they can get information to get things,” Murray says. “We listen to each other to see why we believe. You can go to a gym and find out if the Republicans are having a vote at 4 and feel you’ve got some power. We actually want to understand each other.”

The day of the final vote, Collins joined Murkowski, who was talking to McCain on the Senate floor, to provide moral support and find out if he was with them or not. “You two are right,” he told them. When Pence turned up to try to persuade McCain to vote for the repeal, Collins left to give them some privacy. Collins walked past Murray’s seat, and the senators exchanged glances.

At the first Republican caucus lunch held after the health care repeal failed, Senator David Perdue of Georgia lashed out at the dissenting senators; later, in a news release, he called for more accountability for committee leaders who voted against the party, implying that he thought they should lose their senior posts. “Suffice it to say, it was a harsh lunch with some heavy criticism,” Collins told me. “It was uncomfortable, definitely, but I was more annoyed. And I did not go to lunch the next day. To try to send a little message of my own.”

Murkowski did go; she knew she had already weathered worse from her Republican Senate colleagues. “I would much rather have that airing and be there,” she said, “than find out later that there was another gathering and that they talked about us.”

In August, when I flew to Alaska to meet with Murkowski, I shared a taxi from the airport in Bethel with a woman who had flown in from a nearby island village with her toddler son to see a doctor. She gave the driver a voucher instead of money: Medicaid paid for both her flight and her cab ride.

Later that day, I joined 30 or so people in the backyard of a community health center that was hosting a barbecue in Murkowski’s honor. The guests, mostly employees of the center and their families, stood in line for hamburgers and Alaskan ice cream (Crisco, sugar, blueberries) and waited for her to arrive. Once she appeared — she wore a kuspuk, a longish hooded shirt with a large pocket in front — she made the rounds, introducing herself, thanking the staff members for the work they did and giving a brief speech, her voice just audible over the crackling sound of a partygoer’s hand riffling through a bag of Fritos. A third grader, perhaps the one soul there struck by Murkowski’s celebrity, buried his head in his mother’s bosom as she handed over a jar of home-preserved salmon.

One woman at the barbecue — the only one wearing a suit — had flown from Washington to present Murkowski with a plaque from the National Association of Community Health Centers. She thanked Murkowski formally; many others expressed their appreciation for her vote against the repeal bill — and for her resolve. “I just really want to thank you for standing up to him,” said one of the community health center’s social workers, a longtime transplant from New Jersey.

Back in Murkowski’s Washington office, her staff debated how to manage her newly heightened profile. Murkowski had no interest in becoming the face of an anti-Trump movement. For months she wanted to operate discreetly under the radar, as she strategized to find a way to get Congress to agree to open ANWR for drilling. In January, shortly after Trump’s inauguration, she approached McConnell to propose that they attach the ANWR provision to a bill that could not be filibustered, and thus would require only 50 votes to pass. McConnell agreed, and soon after “was when we really got things going, but we did it quietly,” she told a newsletter that covers the energy industry. She wanted to avoid environmentalists’ typical attempts to “erode and undercut” those efforts, she said.

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Murkowski in her Washington office in March.

Credit
Erik Madigan Heck for The New York Times

When details of the Senate tax bill started to emerge in the fall, it became clear that many Republicans hoped the ultimate bill would contain a provision that opened up a portion of ANWR for drilling, as well as language that would eliminate the individual mandate for health insurance, which most economists argue would gut the Affordable Care Act. Nonprofit organizations like the Center for Popular Democracy tried to rally grass-roots activists in Anchorage and raised money to fly a handful of Alaskans to Washington to show up at Murkowski’s office. “I thought she would realize she could not maintain her political success, and her popularity, if she was to repeal any part of Obamacare,” says Jennifer Flynn Walker, the director of mobilization for the organization.

But in Alaska, most residents knew that she would vote for the tax bill. “You have to understand, ANWR is like the holy grail for Alaskan politicians for the past 40 years,” Halcro says. For just as long, environmentalists have fought — and in the past, recruited Republicans like McCain and Collins to their side — to protect ANWR. But in the end, every Republican senator present, including Murkowski, voted for the tax bill, and for the opening up of the refuge.

Murkowski’s approval rating in Alaska, which soared among progressives after the health care bill, dropped lower than it had in at least seven years. On MSNBC, Representative Joseph Crowley, a New York Democrat, attacked Murkowski for supporting the tax bill. “She got what she wants,” he said, “and that was her price — to sell out the Affordable Care Act and the American people.”

Whatever the polls said, Murkowski clearly considered passing legislation opening ANWR an unmitigated success. At a celebration for the tax bill, Murkowski beamed alongside Trump. “This is a bright day for America, so we thank you for that!” she told him. In January, she tweeted her support for his State of the Union address. That month, she also posted a photograph of a Washington Post article that the president had sent her about a wilderness region where she hoped to build a road. “Lisa — We will get it done,” Trump had written on the clip.

When I went to see her in Washington in February, Murkowski made some of her typically plucky, but not exactly blistering, critiques. Trump, she said, should not be using degrading and foul language. She brought up Trump’s characterization of Democratic senators who did not vigorously applaud his State of the Union address. “In my view,” she said, “to suggest that a duly elected member of Congress who fails to applaud you is somehow treasonous, these statements are not only unnecessary; they are wrong.” She glared a little. “I continue to believe that some of the statements, some of what the president sets out there is really not helpful to where we are as a country.”

The day I visited the community health center with Murkowski back in Bethel was the same day Trump tweeted that “two sides” shared blame for the violence that occurred at a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. Murkowski had not minced words then: “What the president said yesterday was wrong,” she tweeted. She could not just stand by and say nothing, she told me, “where there is evil, where there is hatred.” That week in August was a strange time of upheaval, with Trump swinging wildly, attacking even his own party members.

I could not help asking in Bethel: Did Murkowski worry, as some psychiatrists were suggesting publicly, that Trump was mentally unfit to be president? She was wearing sunglasses, so I could not read her expression. She paused. “I don’t really know him,” she said. “I don’t know what to make of it.”

In her office in Washington, Murkowski was again talking about Trump when an aide poked her head in to say that Mitch McConnell was on the line. Murkowski, who was in midthought, did not move but looked at the aide steadily for a moment, as if to say: And? The aide looked nervous — McConnell had asked to pull her out, she emphasized, at which point Murkowski got up to take the call. When she came back to the office a few moments later, she looked upbeat. They had been discussing something about funding for wildfire relief, and McConnell was apparently taking her opinion under close advisement. “It’s nice to be loved,” she said. “Again.” She thought for a moment. “It’s important to know that people know, Don’t forget to check in with Murkowski.”

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