Republican U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski spoke with Sitkans on August 7, 2014. (KCAW photo/Rachel Waldholz)

Republican U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski spoke with Sitkans on August 7, 2014. (KCAW photo/Rachel Waldholz)

Senator Lisa Murkowski visited Sitka last week (8-7-14), and spoke to a packed house at the Chamber of Commerce. Murkowski is one of the few elected officials not running for office this fall — she is next up for reelection in 2016.

At the Chamber and in an interview afterwards, Murkowski spoke about gridlock in congress, reproductive rights, and her work with the women of the Senate.

And while she wouldn’t say who she’s supporting in the Republican Senate primary, it was pretty clear who she won’t be voting for.

During a question and answer session after her talk at the Chamber, Murkowski fielded the inevitable question. It came from Sitka City Attorney Robin Koutchak (KO-chak).

Koutchak: Begich or Sullivan – are you willing to say anything?

Murkowski: Robin, how could you do this to me? [laughter]

Beigich or Sullivan – that would be Democratic Senator Mark Begich or former attorney general Dan Sullivan, who is currently locked in a primary race for the Republican nomination to run against Begich this fall.

Murkowski said she she’s staying out of the Republican primary.

“And I tell anybody who asks that I think we have two very qualified candidates,” she said.

Those two candidates are Sullivan and Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell. Murkowski called them both “close, personal friends,” and said either would be a strong contender in November.

But, of course, there’s a third man in the race: Fairbanks lawyer Joe Miller. Miller beat Murkowski in the Republican primary in 2010, but Murkowski came back to win the general election in a write-in campaign.

Asked whether she had considered the prospect of working with Miller in the Senate, Murkowski said, “Everything that I can tell indicates that he will not be the Republican nominee, so we’ll just see where it goes from there.”

If she was unwilling to take sides in the primary, there was one thing Murkowski was very clear on: she said she’s appalled by the unprecedented influx of outside money coming in to this Senate race.

“When there is over $30-million spent on the airwaves, in advertising, in Alaska, on these political races – and that’s what we’re talking about — that’s wrong,” she said. “That is just wrong.”

Despite her support for a Treadwell or Sullivan candidacy, Murkowski has some clear differences with the men running for Senate — in part on reproductive rights.

All three Republican primary candidates support the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision, allowing employers to drop contraceptives from their health plans on religious grounds.

Murkowski was one of three Senate Republicans who supported a bill that would have reversed the Supreme Court’s decision. She said she’s no fan of the Affordable Care Act but she worries that the Hobby Lobby ruling would restrict women’s access to contraception — a longtime issue for her.

KCAW: Is it frustrating to hold the position that you do within the party?

Murkowski: I am frustrated that an issue that I thought most of us had resolved decades ago, apparently is no longer resolved, or is still in question by many. Again, I feel pretty strongly that if you don’t like abortion, as I do not like abortion, then one way to reduce the number of abortions is to provide for that affordable, accessible contraceptive coverage. And it does seem that we are losing ground instead of gaining ground when it comes to women and their reproductive rights.  

Meanwhile, on the subject of Congress itself, Murkowski sounded exasperated.

“We do little more than seemingly kick the can to the other side of an election,” she said. “Fact of the matter is, folks, we have elections every two years.”

One bright spot, she said, is the women of the Senate, who meet regularly to try to build relationships across the partisan divide. The twenty women – 16 Democrats and four Republicans – meet every month or so for dinner, with just three rules, Murkowski said: no notes, no staff, and no leaks.

That allows for frank conversations on hot button issues.

“I will bring up the thing that as a Republican in a state like Alaska you can’t talk about: gun control,” she said. “I’ve had some amazing conversations with some of my female colleagues who come from urban areas, who can’t imagine hunting to feed your family, who can’t understand why you would ever feel safe around a gun. And so for me to be able to share my experiences as an Alaskan, coming from a hunting family, and what it means to me…”

Of course, Murkowski said, that doesn’t mean the women of the Senate end up voting together…

“Because we are all very independent in our views — I know you would be surprised to hear that,” she said to laughter. “But I think it really does make the Senate a better place when we can have relationships and better understand what one another brings to the table.”