2022 midterms

What’s the Point of Manchin and Murkowski Endorsing Each Other?

Two friends in the Senate. Photo: Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

On a Sunday-show appearance designed to reinforce the old-school idea of a powerful bipartisan centrist bloc in the U.S. Senate, sorta-Democrat Joe Manchin and sorta-Republican Lisa Murkowski endorsed each other’s reelection bids (hers in 2022, his in 2024, if he chooses to run for another term). It’s not the first time Manchin has given Murkowski the nod: He said the same thing last spring well before the Alaskan announced she would indeed run for a fourth full term. And the gesture will remind some observers of the West Virginian’s endorsement of Maine Republican Susan Collins prior to her tough (but successful) reelection campaign in 2020.

Having said that, it’s unclear Manchin’s support will help Murkowski significantly. In 2020, Collins was in a straight Republican-vs.-Democrat fight against Sara Gideon, with the added wrinkle that the state had deployed ranked-choice voting, which meant any second-choice support from Democrats might have mattered in the end (it actually didn’t, since Collins won a majority of first-choice votes). Certainly Manchin’s endorsement helped Collins project an image of independence from her party at a time when she was under attack from progressives for supporting Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation.

Murkowski is in a different situation, though. In a 2020 ballot initiative, Alaska voters adopted a new voting system more unusual than Maine’s (or really any other state’s): a nonpartisan primary in which the top four finishers proceed to a general election in which ranked-choice voting will be utilized. The abolition of party primaries arrived in the nick of time for Murkowski, who has long infuriated conservatives with her pro-choice views on abortion and periodic independence on party-line votes in the Senate. Her vote for Trump’s removal from office in his second impeachment trial intensified his already announced determination to oppose her 2022 reelection. He quickly endorsed Republican rival Kelly Tshibaka, a former appointed state-government department head, with the Alaska Republican State Central Committee following suit (for now, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which invariably backs incumbents, will continue to raise money for Murkowski).

In a Republican primary, Tshibaka would trounce Murkowski. But the incumbent already has shown she can win a general election with a coalition that includes Democrats and independents (in 2010, she defeated her successful primary opponent, Joe Miller, with a rare write-in campaign). So her viability in 2022 will probably depend on the strength or weakness of a Democratic candidate (or of a Democratic-backed independent, like 2020 Senate candidate Al Gross, who could run again).

Some Democratic street cred might well help Murkowski. But it’s unlikely Alaska Democrats are big fans of the West Virginian who has frustrated his party’s legislative goals so very visibly through 2021.

As for Murkowski’s cross-endorsement … well, with that and six bucks Manchin can probably buy a pretty decent cup of coffee. If he does run for reelection, there is no way Republicans nationally or in his state will give him a pass in 2024, particularly if control of the chamber is at stake. Perhaps his relationship with Murkowski (if she’s still around) and with Collins would help him retain some power in the event of a Republican conquest of the Senate this November. But it’s just one small contingency in a host of them affecting Manchin’s status in the Senate, which remains powerful for the rest of this year: so powerful that no one will even blink at his occasional endorsements of Republican colleagues.

Why Did Manchin and Murkowski Endorse Each Other?