Murkowski: A New Voice for Senate Moderates?

It looks like Sen. Lisa Murkowski, having taken a lead over Joe Miller as write-in votes are tabulated, will be returning to the Senate this year. What does this mean for the rest of the GOP caucus?

Murkowski defied her party by mounting a write-in bid and won largely without the help of the Republican Party's campaign apparatus. In other words, she's shown she doesn't need the GOP, even though she will caucus with the party if she does, indeed, win out.

As the GOP tacks to the right, having enjoyed electoral successes on the Tea Party wave, Murkowski finds herself in a unique position: She doesn't have to answer to either the GOP or the Tea Party, having most likely defeated one of the most prominent Tea Party upstarts. She needn't fear Sarah Palin--as evidenced by her criticism of Palin on Monday--or, for that matter, Sen. Jim DeMint.

Consequently, National Journal's Dan Friedman reports, Murkowski could return to the Senate unfettered by many constraints, poised to speak with a louder voice, having already criticized Sarah Palin (which few Republicans dare to do) on Monday:

Murkowski's criticism Monday took on a more confrontational tone that signals a new willingess to break from the party line. Her write-in win over the party nominee was based on her ability to quickly and effectively build an independent base outside the GOP, and that has given her new freedom to separate herself from the party.

"Lisa has proved herself to be Jack-the-Giant-Killer," said a smiling Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, who like Murkowski failed to win his state's GOP Senate nomination last year because of tea party opposition. "She is going to come in here in the next Congress with tremendous credibility. She has demonstrated how powerful she is in Alaska, and that will be very helpful," Bennett said of Murkowski's ability to operate independently.

Carl Shepro, a political science professor at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, said Murkowki's write-in bid relied on "non-GOP resources" including many independents and Democrats "with expectations that are much different from those of not only the tea party and Sarah Palin but also of the Republican leadership in the Senate."

That new base will force her to "take a more middle-range position," Shepro said.

Murkowski, who defied Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other senior Republicans in launching a write-in run, is now challenging Republicans on more than just Palin, bucking part or most of her party on earmarks and in her bid to keep her Energy and Natural Resources ranking membership. "I have always been known to speak my mind, you can talk to my family about that, but there is a difference, Murkowski said Tuesday

Murkowski, who remains a Republican, could prove a voice for a quiet but large group of senior Senate Republicans, who if not exactly moderate, are pragmatists interested in passing legislation that helps their constituents, and who share a mutual distrust with an enlarged and noisy tea party wing of their conference personified by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.

Moderate Republicans like Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe may regard Murkowski as a sometime ally similarly targeted by GOP ideologues like Palin and the Club for Growth. But Murkowski's voting record puts her closer to Republican appropriators like the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens and members like Bennett, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Appropriations ranking member Thad Cochran.

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