Alaska's Murkowski faces conflicting pressures at home in Kavanaugh debate

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - As a final vote nears on U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, key undecided Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski is under growing pressure from diverse groups in her home state of Alaska.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh meets with Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., August 23, 2018. REUTERS/Chris Wattie/File Photo

Murkowski is one of a handful of U.S. senators who will decide the outcome of the extremely close confirmation battle over Kavanaugh. The nominee angrily denied allegations of sexual misconduct in a hearing last Thursday before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.

Liberal and women’s rights groups have clogged Capitol Hill hallways and filled Alaskan airwaves with advertisements to crank up the pressure on Murkowski, while Alaska Native groups have rallied outside her home-state offices.

While she has mostly been tight-lipped about her thinking as the partisan war on Kavanaugh’s nomination rages, Murkowski on Wednesday described as “inappropriate” comments by President Donald Trump on Tuesday mocking university professor Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were high school students in 1982.

In making her decision, “I am taking everything into account,” Murkowski told reporters.

Trump’s fellow Republicans control the Senate by a 51-49 margin. That means if all the Democrats vote against Kavanaugh, Trump could not afford to have more than one Republican oppose his nominee, with Vice President Mike Pence casting a tiebreaking vote.

Alaska’s complicated politics will certainly be a factor in Murkowski’s decision. Trump carried Alaska by 15 percentage points in 2016 and polls show Republicans strongly back Kavanaugh’s nomination. A Reuters/Ipsos poll of U.S. adults released on Wednesday found that 70 percent of Republicans supported Kavanaugh.

On the other hand, the Alaska Federation of Natives, the state’s largest indigenous organization and one of Murkowski’s most powerful supporters, condemned the nomination. Alaska Natives, who make up about 15 percent of the state’s population, have expressed concern that Kavanaugh’s court decisions reflect a willingness to erode indigenous and tribal rights.

Alaska Governor Bill Walker, an independent, and Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott, a Democrat, have also called for Kavanaugh to be rejected, criticizing him on Alaska Native rights, healthcare and other issues.

Local activists have held regular protests outside Murkowski’s offices in Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks. Last week, someone projected a message on a prominent downtown Anchorage hotel: “YO LISA, FIND ANOTHER JUDGE.”

The Alaska Native groups also fear Kavanaugh would endanger Obamacare, a vital part of the tribes’ healthcare coverage, and undermine crucial environmental protections.

“Alaska Natives have a long and proud history of defending this land and its resources. We have no intention of staying silent now,” Richard Peterson, president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, said in a letter to Murkowski.


A variety of national outside groups have also targeted Murkowski, along with other moderate Republican senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

The groups hope to find a receptive audience in Murkowski, who has a reputation for thinking independently and not voting strictly on partisan lines.

She is one of the few Senate Republicans who supports abortion rights and was one of three Senate Republicans who joined Democrats last year to defeat a Republican bill repealing the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare. In 2010, she won re-election by waging a write-in campaign after losing in the Republican nominating contest to a candidate from the conservative Tea Party movement.

Pro-Kavanaugh forces in Alaska have not been as visible as the Kavanaugh opponents, although the National Rifle Association gun rights lobby ran television advertisements on his behalf in Alaska and other groups have paid for grassroots organizing.

Murkowski told public radio in Alaska on Tuesday she was getting an “unprecedented” number of calls and emails about the nomination from both sides.

“We’ve hired additional staff to do nothing more than to sort through the volume of calls that have come in overnight,” she said.

The Alaska Grassroots Alliance, a liberal state activist group, has been holding anti-Kavanaugh rallies and appealing to Murkowski’s reputation for independence.

“I’m asking her to show up for us, not for her party as a rubber stamp, but for Alaskans with real concerns about the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh,” Jeff King, a four-time champion of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, told a recent rally outside Murkowski’s Anchorage office.

Reporting by Yereth Rosen; Additional reporting by David Morgan and Richard Cowan in Washington; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Sue Horton and and Peter Cooney