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What It Will Take For Lisa Murkowski To Win Reelection In Alaska

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If anyone could be called a political survivor, it’s Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. She’s held office for three-plus terms while never winning a majority of the vote in a general election. She even overcame a primary defeat with a write-in campaign in 2010. And despite anger from some in the state’s GOP, she has operated as one of the more independent-minded members of the U.S. Senate since she was appointed in December 2002.

Now seeking her fourth full term in 2022, Murkowski faces a fresh challenge: Defeating a fellow Republican in Alaska’s new electoral system that combines the nation’s first top-four primary with ranked choice voting in the general election. Helpfully, recent polling has given us some insight into how Murkowski might defeat her GOP challenger, former commissioner of Alaska’s Department of Administration Kelly Tshibaka, whom former President Donald Trump has endorsed. With support from Democrats, independents and possibly just enough Republicans, Murkowski could still be in the Senate come 2023.

First, Murkowski’s approval rating has improved more than almost any other senator since President Biden took office. New survey data from Morning Consult found that 46 percent of Alaska registered voters approved of Murkowski in the second quarter of 2022, while 39 percent disapproved. This marked the first time Morning Consult had found Murkowski in net-positive territory during Biden’s presidency. The data also showed how Murkowski is an atypical politician: She had better ratings among those who identify with the opposing party than among her own. The survey found that 62 percent of Democrats approved of her, while 23 percent disapproved. By comparison, 41 percent of Republicans approved of her versus 46 percent who disapproved (she ran about even among independents). However, Murkowski still needs some GOP support in red-leaning Alaska to win, and she might be able to retain it: Those numbers among Republicans were much better than in the first quarter of 2021, when 76 percent of them disapproved of her.

Still, it’s not hard to see why Democrats now have a better opinion of Murkowski than Republicans do. Murkowski supports abortion rights, and she’s tallied a number of conservative apostasies in recent years, including her 2017 vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act and her vote to convict Trump in the impeachment trial following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. The latter vote even led the Alaska GOP to censure her. Going back to 2010, her tea party-backed primary challenger, Joe Miller, cast her as a RINO — “Republican in name only” — and narrowly defeated her for renomination. But Murkowski bucked her party to mount a write-in campaign and, remarkably, won that November. (She also beat Miller in 2016, when he ran as a Libertarian.) So she’s overcome a stern intraparty challenge before, although it took an extraordinarily unusual campaign.

Murkowski very well could have faced another defeat in a traditional party primary this year if not for the 2020 voter initiative that altered Alaska’s electoral system. But instead, all 19 Senate candidates will run on the same ballot in the state’s Aug. 16 primary, and the top-four vote-getters will then advance to the November election, where ranked choice voting will determine the winner. (Perhaps not coincidentally, her allies promoted this change.) Murkowski is all but guaranteed a spot in the general election as an incumbent with near-universal name recognition. Tshibaka, whose campaign has spent millions of dollars, will presumably also advance. It’s hard to say who exactly will join them, as the only semi-notable Democrats in the race are former Seward Mayor Edgar Blatchford and Patricia Chesbro, a member of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Planning Commission.

Given the lack of a high-profile Democrat, the ranked choice voting process seems likely to set up a contest between the two leading Republicans. And in early July, Alaska Survey Research released a poll that looked at how a hypothetical general election could play out if it involved Murkowski, Tshibaka, Chesbro and Dustin Darden, a candidate of the Alaskan Independence Party. As the table below shows, Tshibaka led in rounds one and two, but once the ranked choice votes were reallocated in the third and final round, Murkowski won by 4 percentage points, although that gap was inside the margin of error.

Ranked choice voting might boost Murkowski in November

Ranked choice voting rounds in survey of hypothetical matchup in Alaska’s U.S. Senate race, conducted by Alaska Survey Research in early July 2022

Candidate Party Round 1 Round 2 Round 3
Lisa Murkowski* R 35% 36% 52%
Kelly Tshibaka R 43 45 48
Patricia Chesbro D 17 20
Dustin Darden AKIP† 5

*Incumbent

†Alaskan Independence Party

Columns may add up to more than 100% due to rounding. In ranked choice voting, the candidate with the lowest percentage is dropped and the voters who back that candidate are shifted to their next-preferred candidate. This process repeats until one candidate has a majority.

Poll conducted July 2-5, 2022, of 1,201 likely voters with a margin of error of ±2.9%.

Source: Alaska Survey Research

But how support shifted under ranked choice voting lays out a path that Murkowski likely has to follow to win. Initially, Murkowski attracted 43 percent of registered Democrats, who made up 17 percent of voters in the ASR poll, and 44 percent among the 52 percent of the sample who weren’t affiliated with either major party. But she won only 17 percent among registered Republicans, who made up 31 percent of voters, while Tshibaka won nearly all remaining GOP support. Things didn’t shift much in the second round after dropping the last-place candidate, Darden, and reallocating his votes. Then, after dropping Chesbro for the third round, Murkowski jumped ahead by gaining almost all the outstanding support of Democrats — about 97 percent of them — and 60 percent of independents. This was just enough to outdistance Tshibaka, who ended up with slightly over 80 percent of Republican voters and 40 percent of independents.

For both Murkowski and Tshibaka, this poll offered hope and a warning. Murkowski clearly has a path to victory and FiveThirtyEight’s Senate forecast currently gives her an 85 in 100 shot at winning.1 But given the overall margin, the survey suggests she can’t afford to lose much more Republican support if she wants to come out on top. Moreover, because of how ranked choice voting works, Murkowski needs to ensure that Democratic voters who back a Democrat in the first round actually name Murkowski as their second choice. In top-two primary states, we’ve seen that races between two candidates from the same party can often produce a fair amount of ballot roll-off — that is, not casting a vote for a race — among voters from the party not represented. So if many Democrats don’t list a second preference this November, it could spell doom for Murkowski.

Tshibaka, meanwhile, may look to win over more Trump voters to defeat Murkowski. After all, the poll’s final round found the incumbent still received support from almost 1 in 5 Trump voters in a state where Trump won 53 percent in 2020. So it’s no wonder that Trump held a rally in Anchorage on July 9 in support of Tshibaka, after the ASR poll was in the field. Tshibaka could also seek to make more significant inroads with rural Alaskans, who backed Murkowski at around 70 percent in the survey. That group includes many Alaska Natives, who make up about 15 percent of the population and have traditionally been big supporters of Murkowski — however, Tshibaka is making a concerted effort to win over Alaska Natives by making campaign stops far afield in the vast state.

Of course, this is just one election poll, so don’t take it as gospel. An earlier poll from ASR in April found Murkowski ahead by 10 points, 55 percent to 45 percent, so Tshibaka may have already gained ground. We have limited data to work with in Alaska. Still, the recent surveys from ASR and Morning Consult give us a window into not only how Democrats and independents will be a critical part of Murkowski’s reelection hopes but also why she can’t afford to alienate the remaining few Republicans who back her.

Other polling bites

  • Following the last Jan. 6 congressional hearing, 44 percent of Americans believe Trump’s actions around the insurrection were illegal, according to YouGov/The Economist polling conducted July 23-26. Unsurprisingly, that stance varies greatly by party: 79 percent of Democrats consider the then-president’s involvement illegal, compared with only 12 percent of Republicans. These figures haven’t wavered much in a month, as YouGov has conducted similar polling every week since July 2. 
  • Twenty-one percent of Americans reported taking on extra work in light of inflation, per a July 19-20 survey from Civic Science. That share jumps to almost half among 18- to 24-year-olds: 29 percent say they’ve changed jobs or taken on additional work to increase their income, while 18 percent say they formerly did not work but have sought employment to offset the rising cost of living. This trend is especially prominent among those who live with their parents; 16 percent of that group have taken on a new job, and 22 percent have added work or changed jobs.  
  • Ownership of cryptocurrency is plateauing, perhaps even decreasing, nationally, according to research from Morning Consult published July 26. Seventeen percent of American adults said they own it in some form, a figure that has remained roughly stagnant month over month in 2022. Generation Z’s stake in this market is specifically on the decline: 28 percent of Gen Z reported owning cryptocurrency in January, compared with 22 percent this month. Americans still invested continue to hold out their positivity: Asked in January what they expected the price of bitcoin to be in July, cryptocurrency owners estimated it at around $50,000. In reality, the value has hovered in the low $20,000s this month.
  • About two-thirds (65 percent) of Americans believe voters should be mandated to prove their citizenship status to vote, per a July 16-19 YouGov/The Economist survey. This includes about half of Democrats (48 percent) and a sweeping majority of Republicans (88 percent). Sixty-one percent of Republicans also say that voter fraud is a more widespread issue nationally than barriers preventing eligible voters from casting their ballots, while 60 percent of Democrats say the latter is a bigger concern. 

Biden approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker,2 39.3 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, while 55.7 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -16.4 points). At this time last week, 37.5 percent approved and 57.2 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of -19.7 points). One month ago, Biden had an approval rating of 39.6 percent and a disapproval rating of 55.6 percent, for a net approval rating of -16.0 points.

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot,3 Republicans currently lead by 0.2 points (44.1 percent to 43.9 percent). A week ago, Republicans led Democrats by 1.1 points (44.3 percent to 43.2 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Republicans by 1.9 points (44.6 percent to 42.7 percent).

Footnotes

  1. As of 5 p.m. Eastern on Thursday.

  2. As of 5 p.m. Eastern on Thursday.

  3. As of 5 p.m. Eastern on Thursday.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Zoha Qamar is an ABC News fellow.

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