Dems Could Win Big in … Alaska!

by Jeff Fleischer

(Mother Jones, August 10, 2004)
Tony Knowles

Tony Knowles

John Kerry’s odds of winning Alaska this November are almost nonexistent, and the state hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1974. But Democrats are looking at the “Last Frontier” to deliver a key seat this year as the party tries to regain the Senate.

Democratic hopes there ride on former Gov. Tony Knowles, who was elected governor twice despite Alaska’s overall conservatism. Knowles, a Vietnam veteran with a degree in economics from Yale, moved to Alaska after college to work on oil rigs. He opened a number of restaurants in the state before getting elected mayor of Anchorage, and won his first gubernatorial term in 1994.

As for Knowles’ positions, he supports rolling back the Bush tax cuts for the upper class (while keeping the middle-class cuts), believes the Patriot Act is undermining civil liberties, supports importing prescription drugs from Canada and opposes privatization of Social Security and Medicare. But he has also been careful to distance himself from the national ticket, skipping the Democratic National Convention and stressing his differences with Kerry on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, banning logging in protected wilderness, and gun control (Knowles opposes the assault-weapon ban and closing the gun-show loophole).

So far, that appears to be working, and polls have consistently shown Knowles with a narrow lead against incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski (both have to win primaries Aug. 24, but have overwhelming leads). But as Tuesday’s Washington Post reports, Knowles is also benefiting from Murkowski’s baggage – namely, her father.

When Frank Murkowski defeated Fran Ulmer to succeed the term-limited Knowles in 2002, he appointed his daughter to fill out the last two years of his Senate term. That sparked immediate charges of nepotism, and Lisa Murkowski knows her father’s already-unpopular governorship could prove problematic for her:

“It is something I have to deal with. I have never once asked Alaskans to like how I got this job…In some people’s mind, the father-daughter connection is a liability. I am working very hard to let people know that I am not a clone of Frank Murkowski.”

Frank Murkowski’s approval ratings have fallen dramatically since he left the Senate to take over Alaska – due in large part to the cuts he’s made in the state budget – and July polls show his approval rating topping out in the low 40s. That ranks him among the state’s most unpopular governors of all-time, and seems like a factor in Lisa Murkowski’s approval rating dropping 7-8 percent from June to August.

That certainly hasn’t hurt Knowles’ chances, and Democrats are doing what they can to help him secure victory. Wesley Clark will campaign for him later this month, following an Alaska visit by former Sen. Max Cleland. Knowles has raised more money than Murkowski for three straight fundraising quarters, helped along by Internet groups requesting donations on his behalf.

Knowles has maintained his narrow lead for about nine months now. If he can keep those numbers steady, Democrats will have reason to toast Alaska this fall, even if Kerry loses there by double digits.

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