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Independence Day

Should Lisa Murkowski leave the GOP?

Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska leaves a meeting with the Senate Republicans at the U.S. Capitol on November 16, 2022. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Say the word “maverick” in any conversation about the U.S. Senate and thoughts will turn to John McCain, not without reason. But for all his independent-mindedness, McCain never left the GOP. To the end, even as the party of Reagan was becoming the party of Trump, he remained a Republican.

For my money, the most maverick-y maverick of the past 20 years was actually Democrat Joe Lieberman, who passed away on Wednesday at age 82.

Lieberman’s status was partly earned and partly forced upon him. He ran for reelection in Connecticut in 2006 as a staunch defender of the Iraq war, making him a terrible fit for a Democratic Party whose base had mobilized in opposition. He ended up losing the primary to upstart Ned Lamont, which would have been the end of any other politician.

But Lieberman had banked lots of goodwill on the right for refusing to run away from the war as so many other liberal hawks had. So he promptly re-registered as an independent (an independent Democrat, he called himself), ran in the general election, and drew enough support from both sides to defeat Lamont and win another term.

And that’s not even his greatest claim to maverick fame.

Joe Lieberman was so singular a politician that he very nearly ended up on the presidential tickets of both parties in the span of less than a decade. He was Al Gore’s choice for vice president in 2000, of course, making him the first Jewish American to ever feature so prominently on a major party’s national ballot. But he and McCain were sufficiently like-minded on foreign policy and personally close as friends that McCain almost chose him as his own running mate in 2008, later expressing regret that he hadn’t.

Lieberman’s last act in politics was advising the group No Labels on mounting a third-party candidacy this fall. No senator of his era can match his maverick credentials.

Which is not to say that some haven’t tried.

Joe Manchin, Mitt Romney, and Kyrsten Sinema each went their own way repeatedly on important votes over the past six years amid intense pressure from their parties to do otherwise, with Sinema even following Lieberman’s lead by making her independence official. All three are also retiring, not coincidentally, having learned the hard way that being a maverick in a hyperpolarized country makes reelection a dicey proposition.

The Senate will have fewer mavericks next year than it does now. But the ones who are left could make things … interesting.

Here’s an interesting moment from just a few days ago. Non-denials don’t get much more glaring than this:

“Murkowski and [Susan] Collins should absolutely become independents,” The Bulwark’s Sarah Longwell tweeted in response to that clip, referring to the two most prominent centrists left in the Senate GOP conference. I’m as much a sucker for Sorkin-esque fantasies of paradigm-shifting bipartisanship in Washington as any Never Trumper, but the prospect of Murkowski leaving the Republican Party requires some thought.

What would she—and we—gain by her doing so, exactly?

Lisa Murkowski will never appear on her party’s national ticket, let alone the other party’s, but in some ways she can match Joe Lieberman beat for beat.

Losing a Senate primary to an ideologue and then roaring back to win the general election? Both managed it—and, as an added degree of difficulty, Murkowski pulled it off via a write-in campaign.

Opposing confirmation of a Supreme Court justice nominated by a president from their own party? Lieberman never did that. Murkowski has.

Voting to convict a president from their own party at a Senate impeachment trial? Lieberman didn’t do that either when given the chance. Murkowski did.

On major policy issues too, each flouted the demands of their base. For Lieberman that issue was Iraq, of course. For Murkowski it’s abortion.

When she boasted to CNN in the clip above that she’s been “very independent-minded” in the Senate, she wasn’t kidding. So why not make it official? Especially since she’s been flirting with the idea for years.

Her office has been touting press clips about her mavericky tendencies since 2019 at least, but her righteous disgust at Trump after January 6 may have added some muscle to her intentions. “I didn’t have any reason to leave my party in 2010,” she said in an interview shortly after the insurrection. “But I will tell you, if the Republican Party has become nothing more than the party of Trump, I sincerely question whether this is the party for me.”

Three years and another presidential primary later, it couldn’t be clearer that the Republican Party has become nothing more than the party of Trump. And if the current general election polling holds, Murkowski will soon confront that reality directly in the Senate when a newly reelected President Trump begins to push his agenda on Congress. Emotionally and intellectually, she has every reason to break away and go independent.

But from the standpoint of hard-nosed politics, it’s hard to see what it would accomplish.

Becoming an independent doesn’t necessarily mean denying your former party a vote in the Senate, after all. It can, like when Jim Jeffords ditched the GOP in 2001 and chose to caucus with Democrats as an independent, handing them control of the chamber. But Joe Lieberman went on caucusing with his old party after he left it in 2006. So did Sinema in 2022. So have Bernie Sanders and Angus King, each Democrats turned independents. So, presumably, would Murkowski.

If that happened, the letter after her name would change but everything else would proceed as it has in the Senate, the same way it did when Sinema un-registered as a Democrat. In which case, who cares? 

The only way that Murkowski going rogue would matter politically is if she agreed to join Chuck Schumer’s conference and that switch ended up handing Democrats a majority of the Senate. But that’s highly unlikely. The math just isn’t there.

Recall that this year’s Senate races favor Republicans overwhelmingly, with Democratic incumbents forced to defend their seats in red strongholds like Ohio and Montana amid massive right-wing turnout with Trump at the top of the ballot. Recall also that the GOP is a lock to flip the seat in West Virginia that Joe Manchin is vacating, ensuring a 50-50 Senate next year even if all Democratic incumbents somehow prevail—which they probably won’t.

If Ohio and Montana flip, Republicans will have 52 seats. And that number could rise with competitive races now brewing for open seats in Michigan, Arizona, and—thanks to former Gov. Larry Hogan—Maryland. If the GOP finishes with 52 or better, Murkowski’s potential alliance with Democrats would become irrelevant. Even if the party finishes with 51, Murkowski would still be irrelevant if Trump is reelected, as his vice president would supply the tiebreaking vote in the 50-50 Senate created by her joining Schumer’s conference.

The only two scenarios in which she matters are if Trump becomes president and the Senate splits exactly 50-50 or Biden becomes president and the Senate splits exactly 51-49 in favor of Republicans. In both cases, her decision to go independent and caucus with Democrats would shift control of the chamber. But both are longshots.

And even if it shakes out that way, Murkowski switching sides wouldn’t be a frictionless matter. To make it worth her while, Schumer would assuredly need to guarantee that she’d retain her seniority on committees. As Politico recently noted, Senate Democrats who are in line behind her won’t like that.

Meanwhile, there’d be a steep political cost potentially to all this maneuvering. Insofar as a formal party switch might end up alienating Alaska’s GOP majority, Murkowski going independent could end up backfiring on anti-Trump conservatives in the long run.

The state’s new ranked-choice voting system is tailor-made to benefit centrists like her, as it inevitably steers Democratic voters toward supporting moderate Republicans on the final ballot. For exactly that reason, conservatives there are pushing to revert to the old primary system. If they succeed, the newly independent Murkowski would face two major-party nominees in the 2028 general election without the structural benefit of a ranked-choice process. Republican voters who stuck with her despite her numerous breaks with the party on key votes might now conclude that they owe no further loyalty to a politician who’s decided she can no longer share a party with them.

Going independent could lead to her being ousted. And if she is, the sort of Republican who replaces her in the Senate will sound a lot more like Donald Trump than like Lisa Murkowski.

So why shouldn’t she keep on keeping on, remaining nominally a Republican but voting her conscience whenever she sees fit? In fact, if you think there should be more space in Trump’s GOP for dissent, arguably you should prefer to see Murkowski stick with the party. She’s creating that space through her actions; once she and the other moderates are gone, Trump will have consolidated his power over the right completely.

It’s settled, then: She should stay put, right?

Well, hold on.

What I said earlier cuts both ways. It’s true that nothing in the Senate will change meaningfully if Murkowski becomes an independent yet goes on caucusing with Republicans. But why should that be an argument against her doing so?

Why isn’t it an argument in favor? Why should she remain a member of a party from which she feels understandably alienated if leaving it won’t actually disrupt her legislative business?

Party identity is a matter of ideological and cultural affinity. Many conservatives who have broken sharply with Trump, like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, have resisted switching their partisan affiliation precisely because they lack that necessary affinity for Democratic politics. They don’t believe in the Democratic policy program, by and large; they don’t sympathize with the cultural passions that animate the progressive base; they don’t identify strongly with liberals’ worldview except on the important question of whether democracy is preferable to autocracy. So they don’t call themselves Democrats.

Why shouldn’t Lisa Murkowski and every other traditional Republican approach the Trumpified GOP the same way?

“She’s creating space for dissent within the party by remaining a member” works as an answer only if you believe that space is likely to grow in the years ahead, with moderates gaining influence while populists lose it. I don’t believe that; what Murkowski is actually doing is inadvertently creating an illusion that that space exists, giving false hope to well-meaning voters that the Republican Party under Trump isn’t as far gone as it appears.

If it were, after all, surely Lisa Murkowski wouldn’t still be part of it.

She plainly no longer feels affinity for a boorish populist authoritarian cult of personality, and good for her. But every day that she remains a Republican anyway, she’s signaling to Americans with the same misgivings that however obnoxious the GOP has become, it’s still not quite so obnoxious that one should question one’s loyalty to it.

That’s not going to stir some nascent revival of center-right politics within the GOP. It’s going to enable Trump by providing a fig leaf of moderation for his project, misleading center-right voters into supporting his party.

Becoming an independent would prevent that and amount to Murkowski saying that the breaking point has finally come. She can and will go on voting for Republican policy initiatives and judicial nominees insofar as they reflect her right-leaning beliefs, but the days of identifying broadly with the party’s vision for the country are over. The affinity is gone, and so she’s gone too.

If she departs, she might find that more people than she expects will sympathize with her and find inspiration in her decision:

As noted elsewhere recently, the universe of well-known Republicans who have spoken up in dire terms about the danger of a second term for Trump is far bigger than Cheney and Kinzinger. There are enough alumni of Trump’s own administration who have done so, in fact, to fill out a long and widely read thread posted by the Biden campaign on The App Formerly Known as Twitter. Look around and you’ll find new examples from conservative luminaries almost every day:

Lisa Murkowski has already joined the effort to persuade wary Republican voters not to support a man who’s plainly unfit for office. But nothing would drive that point home quite like a sitting senator deciding that she can’t associate herself in good conscience any longer with an organization that Trump leads.

There’s also a chance, if a small one, that the example she sets by leaving the GOP would encourage other wary Senate Republicans to follow her lead next year. The most obvious possibility is Hogan, who’d be representing one of the bluest states in the union if he’s elected this fall. It’s always challenging to seek reelection as an independent, but in a state as Democratic as Maryland, Hogan abandoning the GOP could only make the majority of the electorate like him more in 2030.

Collins has potential too. Her home state of Maine has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1992 and already has one self-identified independent, the left-leaning King, in the Senate. She’s popular enough in her home state to have won comfortably there in 2020 despite Trump’s presence at the top of the ballot galvanizing Democratic turnout. If anyone can turn independent and still keep winning, she can.

Political independence is all the rage these days, you know.

Murkowski, Hogan, and Collins joining hands and leaping out of the GOP clown car together would be quite a statement, potentially neutralizing the Republicans’ Senate advantage depending on whether they functioned as a mini-caucus on key votes. Trump and his party would despise them for it, of course, and would vow to defeat all of them in their next runs for office.

But here’s the thing: They’re going to despise them anyway.

That’s where the argument about Murkowski creating electoral headaches for herself in 2028 by going independent breaks down. In a second term Trump will ask the Senate to approve all manner of insane things—confirming Mike Flynn as head of the Department of Homeland Security, maybe, or withdrawing from NATO or expanding the Insurrection Act or doing God knows what to tighten the border. If the few remaining centrists in the conference insist on resisting his worst populist impulses, the fact that they’ve dutifully remained members of the GOP won’t spare them from his and his base’s wrath. Murkowski will suffer those electoral headaches anyway.

The Republican Party has become nothing more than the party of Trump, just as she once feared. If she’s not willing to rubber-stamp his whims, there’s no point in her remaining a member.

Better to head off into the wilderness and try to take as many rule-of-law Republicans with her as she can. She’ll sleep better at night knowing that she’s contributed meaningfully to disentangling a dying political movement with good intentions from a rising movement with bad ones. She might even help seed the ground for a new party, just as the GOP itself once flourished with the help of disaffected Whigs.

She has nothing to lose but her Senate seat. And so long as she can keep that ranked-choice voting system in place in Alaska, she’s unlikely to lose even that.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.