This evening, Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska both face their primaries.
The two women’s political situations are strikingly similar. Both represent largely rural Republican states, and both hold seats once occupied by their fathers: Murkowski’s father Frank Murkowski selected her to replace him when he became governor, while Cheney was preceded by her father Dick, former House minority whip and later vice president, who occupied the seat throughout the 1980s.
Both have earned Donald Trump’s ire with their criticisms of him, too. Cheney was one of ten House Republicans who voted to convict Trump for his role in the January 6 riot, while Murkowski joined six other Republican senators to convict him.
But the parallels only go so far. Where Cheney will likely see her career in elected office come to an end, Murkowski is all but guaranteed to advance to the general election, despite the fact she has a Trump-backed primary challenger.
On the surface, that may look puzzling. Cheney was a member of House Republican leadership and has a staunchly conservative record, voting with Trump 93 per cent of the time; Murkowski, by contrast, crossed Trump far more times during his presidency. She even voted against the repeal of Obamacare in 2017 – drawing a threat from Trump’s interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, that her opposition jeopardized Alaska’s future. Murkowski also opposed Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court in 2018, though she voted to confirm Justices Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett.
What matters is that the two women are fighting in completely different political environments. For one, Alaska only voted for Trump by 10 points, whereas 70 per cent of Wyoming voters supported him in 2020. Quite simply, that means that more people like Trump in the Cowboy State and there aren’t as many Trump fanatics in Alaska.
On top of that, the two face different types of primaries. Cheney is running in a conventional primary where registered Republicans pick their nominee, meaning that she is facing many voters who voted for and still like Trump. Conversely, Murkowski is running in a new top-four ranked-choice primary system under which the four candidates who win the most votes advance to the general election.
That gives Murkowski an opening appeal to more voters beyond the MAGA faithful – including some Democrats, who might like her support for abortion rights and same-sex marriage, as well as her opposition to Trump. The former president, for his part, has criticized the system, which he fears could blunt the momentum of his preferred candidate, Kelly Tshibaka.
But the other big difference that might define the two women’s diverging fates is the nature of the two chambers of Congress they occupy.
The Senate has largely moved on from the impeachment trial, and many of the Republicans who at first contested the election result – as well as Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, who even opposed it after the riot – have been welcomed back into the fold. The same goes for Murkowski and her fellow “yes” voters on impeachment: Mitt Romney, Pat Toomey, Richard Burr, Ben Sasse, Susan Collins and Bill Cassidy.
Things are very different in the House. Even after the January 6 insurrection, 147 House Republicans – far more than a majority of the caucus – voted to object to the election results. And after the Senate’s ensuing impeachment trial, in which Trump was acquitted, the House grew only more acrimonious; the tension has only increased since, and members still have to pass through metal detectors before entering the floor.
With her vociferous support for impeaching the ex-president and her leading role in the January 6 select committee, Cheney has incurred the wrath of House Republicans, who ejected her from her ranking as the third-most-senior member of their caucus. No less than Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is supporting the attempt to boot her from House leadership. He has taken the unprecedented step of supporting her primary challenger, Harriet Hageman.
Conversely, even as Murkowski continues to work with Democrats and occasionally voted with the Biden administration, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell hasn’t exacted any punishments on her. While he did not vote to convict Trump over the riot, McConnell does nothing to hide his disdain. He memorably called the former president’s actions (and inaction) on the day of the attack “a disgraceful dereliction of duty”.
In fact, the one time McConnell did remove Murkowski for Senate leadership, it wasn’t for crossing party ideology; it was when she failed to win her Senate primary in 2010 against Joe Miller, thus committing the one sin McConnell cannot tolerate: losing. Undeterred, Murkowski responded by defeating Miller with a write-in campaign.