When Donald Trump endorsed right-wing extremist Kelly Tshibaka Friday as his choice for Alaska senator in 2022, most observers focused on how he was exacting vengeance on Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Tshibaka's incumbent opponent.
But they might have missed a bigger story: Trump's support could open a door for the Democrats to flip Alaska's Senate seat.
Here's the reason: Alaska will be introducing a new ranked-choice voting system in 2022, one that's unlike any other in the nation. It provides first for a nonpartisan open primary in August from which the top four vote-getters move onto to the November general election, regardless of party affiliation.
If one of the candidates then receives more than 50 percent (+1) of the vote in that four-way race, the election is over. But here's the innovative part: If no candidate wins the simple majority, it sets off an electronic battle for others' second-place votes.
This is how it works: If there's no 50 percent (+1) winner, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes would be eliminated. People who voted for that candidate as their first choice would have their votes redistributed to the person they selected as their second choice.
If that doesn't produce a majority winner, the process is repeated with the 3rd-place finisher having their second-place votes redistributed. At that point, whichever of the two remaining candidates has the most votes would be declared the winner, with no runoff election.
In the past traditional system, Tshibaka would have been the odds-on favorite to win a Republican primary over Murkowski and then to breeze to victory. The state Republican Party censured Murkowski in March for, among other things, voting for Trump's second impeachment and for voting to certify President Joe Biden's election. She'd have had no chance in a GOP primary.
But the advent of the "top four" open primary spared Murkowski of having to run one-on-one against Tshibaka among Alaska Republicans. And that changed everything.
Now, Tshibaka will likely need to face off against Murkowski, a top Democrat, and an Independent in a November 2022 general election. If she cannot win a simple majority in such a 4-way race, she'll need to hope that some supporters of her rivals made her their second-place choice.
That's a heavy lift. Here's an early snapshot of the race, based on a Change Research survey of likely Alaskan voters taken less than a month ago:
- Tshibaka: 39%
- Al Gross: 25%
- Murkowski 19%
- John Howe 4%
Gross (who hasn't announced a 2022 candidacy yet) received 41.2% of the 2020 Senate vote as the Democratic challenger, losing to Sen. Daniel Sullivan. Howe, the Alaskan Independence Party nominee, received 4.7% in that race.
Using these poll numbers as a hypothetical, Tshibaka is outpolled 48-to-39 percent by her collective rivals. And her number only goes up if supporters of the 3rd and 4th place finishers listed her as their second choice.
A big question facing Tshibaka is how many Gross, Murkowski and Howe voters would be willing to cast a second-choice vote for a homophobic extremist. And Tshibaka certainly fits that description, as reported April 27 at RawStory.com:
Tshibaka "has written in favor of the discredited "conversion therapy" and blamed homosexuality on childhood sexual abuse…A CNN KFile investigation turned up her past writings urging gay individuals to use Christianity to "work through the process of coming out of homosexuality" and denouncing the "Twilight" book and movie series as "evil.
"Some say this book is harmless, that it promotes Christian values, and that it does not promote anything wicked at all. But Satan does not usually look repulsive, horrific, and evil on the outside," she wrote in an October 2009 blog post. "Make no mistake: 'Twilight' is a perfect example of how the enemy twists, perverts, and ridicules the things of God. This is his m.o. This is how he works."
More recently, there was this from CNN in April:
"We don't know the outcome of the 2020 election," Tshibaka responded when asked whether she agreed with Trump that he won the 2020 election. "I still have questions, and I think millions of other Americans do too."
None of that weirdness is likely to persuade Democrats, independents and RINOs to enter "Tshibaka" on the second-place line. And if they don't, she'd need to figure a way to get a huge Republican-base turnout in a state known for its independence of traditional politics.
It's uncertain how much Trump helps. He did win Alaska twice, but the 52.8% majority he won in 2020 was his fourth-lowest total among red states. That's in part because Alaska had the nation's highest percentage of independent votes cast for president.
That's not an ideal setting for Trump's demagoguery. Calling Murkowski "the failed candidate…(who) represents her state badly and her country even worse" -- as he did according to Politico last month -- isn't a great strategy for recruiting second-choice votes for Tshibaka among Murkowski fans.
Nor is Trump's promise to travel 5,000 miles to campaign against Murkowski. Nor is what he said Friday, as reported by the New York Times.
"Lisa Murkowski is bad for Alaska," Mr. Trump said in a statement, criticizing her vote to confirm Deb Haaland as secretary of the Interior Department. "Murkowski has got to go!"
For her part, Murkowski is not to be underestimated. She has won three full Senate terms since her controversial appointment to the seat in 2002 by her father, then-Gov. Frank Murkowski. She has never won 50 percent of the vote in winning her elections, but she even succeeded as an independent when beaten in the 2010 Republican primary after a Tea Party uprising.
This time might be different. She wasn't then facing a competitive challenger on the Democratic side like Gross, a center-right, pro-gun politically independent doctor who raised a staggering $19 million for his first electoral foray in 2020.
The Change Research poll found Murkowski with a 59-to-26 percent negative overall approval rating among Alaskans, including an astonishing 84-to-6 negative standing in her own Republican Party. It's an uphill battle at best.
Still, if Gross doesn't run and the Democrats don't field a strong contender in his place, Murkowski could eke out a triumph in the end even after finishing well behind Tshibaka in the initial round. That is, if she can hold Tshibaka far enough below 50 percent in round one.
It's a scenario anticipated by the reformers who put ranked voting on the 2020 ballot: A divisive candidate can no longer leverage a narrow primary victory to breeze to office through electoral math. And the more a candidate alienates rivals, the harder it is to grow one's vote totals as those rivals get eliminated in the ranked-choice process.
Trump's negative attacks could conceivably backfire and help rescue Murkowski, which would be his worst nightmare. But for now, the more plausible prospect is that Alaska could turn blue -- for at least this one Senate seat -- thanks to ranked voting.
Obviously, it's far too early to know, but not too early to understand how the new process works. For a state that prides itself as America's "last great wilderness," the 2022 election may live up to that claim.