The Alaska Senate debate Thursday evening presented an opportunity for people to hear from U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Kelly Tshibaka, both Republicans, and Democrat Pat Chesbro as the high-stakes election could decide the Senate majority.
The third and final debate kicked off with each of the candidates outlining how they would approach the issue of abortion, following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.
Murkowski, a moderate Republican that often votes with Democrats, said she would support the “codification of Roe v. Wade” with limitations.
“We cannot go back 50 years,” Murkowski said, referencing the 1973 decision. “But abortion should not be without limitation.”
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She also said she would support any bipartisan effort that includes a provision that would allow healthcare workers to object to performing abortions based on their religion or conscience.
Tshibaka, a Trump-endorsed Republican, approached the issue differently and called for a nationwide cap on all abortions during the second trimester, or once an unborn child feels pain.
She called Democrats’ until-birth abortion “extreme” and said legislation surrounding abortion should make birth control more accessible.
Chesbro, the sole Democrat on the stage, said the federal government should have no say in the procedure.
“I really am pro-choice at the discretion of the individual – not anyone else. We need to let people make the decision on their own,” she said.
The candidates were also asked about their faith in voting systems and how to better instill voter confidence in elections.
Tshibaka called for state-based systems that promote “transparency and accountability.” She also said she would oppose any effort to allow for the “federalization of voting systems.”
The Republican challenger specifically said voters would have “more confidence” in elections with signature verification.
Chesbro said she “voted yesterday” and was “impressed with the people at the voter polls.”
“I am wary of things we hear around the country of people intimidating people,” she added. “We need to make sure people have faith in the system.”
Murkowski said elections “must be a cornerstone of what we believe in” and called for them to be “fair, transparent, free and accessible.”
The candidates were asked about the ongoing House Jan. 6 investigation and if former President Donald Trump, who was subpoenaed by the committee, should be forced to testify. They were also asked if they believed Trump committed any crimes.
Chesbro answered first, saying Trump should testify but did not say one way or the other if he broke the law.
“I think he should testify,” she said. “The way to establish your innocence is to testify.”
“I have no idea if he broke the law,” Chesbro added. “The American citizens need to hear from him. Yes, he should testify,” she reiterated.
Murkowski, who voted last year to convict Trump on charges of “incitement of insurrection” over the Jan. 6 riot, said Trump should “accept [the subpoena] and testify.”
“I doubt that he will,” she added. “When a subpoena is issued to a former president, it is not done lightly.”
Despite her previous vote, Murkowski stopped shy of claiming Trump committed a crime.
“I think the process will determine [if he committed a crime],” she said. “I think this is something left unfinished in the minds of so many in this country.”
Tshibaka disagreed, challenging the legality of the subpoena and casting doubt that Trump should be held accountable in the same way as those who stormed the Capitol.
“The legality of the subpoena is being determined in the courts. The people who broke into the capitol should be held accountable,” she said.
Tshibaka also suggested Alaskan voters are not concerned about Trump or the Jan. 6 protests as she has not heard it on the campaign trail.
Regarding climate change and Typhoon Merbok, which devastated areas with high winds and floods in Western Alaska, the candidates agreed that more should be done to protect vulnerable communities.
“I wish there was an easy answer. The damage breaks your heart,” Murkowski responded.
Tshibaka followed up: “Obviously, it’s devastating, and we are at risk of more of this kind of damage.”
Chesbro joined: “I think we have the capacity to develop housing that is more resilient. We have to help people, and we have to move fast to do that.”
At different points of the debate, the candidates were able to ask their opponents a question. After the answer was given, the person who asked was allowed a rebuttal and the third candidate was also invited to weigh in on the issue.
The first question went to Murkowski, who challenged Tshibaka to defend her criticism of infrastructure legislation Biden signed into law.
“How can you deny the benefits of the bill to Alaska?” the incumbent asked.
Tshibaka cited the Wall Street Journal editorial board in calling the law a “bait and switch” and said the Biden administration was continuing to hide money via regulatory hurdles from being used.
“We cant wait any longer for infrastructure developments,” she added.
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Murkowski said the entire Alaska delegation supported the legislation and assured the funding is still coming.
Tshibaka later returned the favor in asking Murkowski why she initially campaigned against “dark money” being used by “outsiders” in the “lower 48” to influence Alaska elections but was now a recipient of such money: “Why are you beholden from dark money from the outside?”
“This could not be further from the truth,” Murkowski interjected. “We recognize there are outside groups weighing in. They are weighing in on my campaign, your campaign and a host of campaigns.”
She added: “As a candidate, we cannot control that. It might be frustrating, but we can’t control that.”
As a rebuttal, Tshibaka claimed the money turns Murkowski’s loyalty away from Alaska voters and towards Washington, D.C.
“I think we all know how D.C. works,” she said. “When they come in and help you keep your Senate seat, you owe them favors.”
“We don’t want a politician, we want a public servant,” she added.
Chesbro responded that campaign money, in general, should be evaluated.
“Nobody owns me. Lots of individuals give me money, but I think money is a problem in races across the country. If you don’t have money, sometimes, you can’t get your voice out there,” she said.
Candidates also fielded questions from people on social media and via video, concerning transgender rights, gun violence, rising gas prices, salmon and snow crab fisheries, the Supreme Court, and climate change.
On gun rights and gun ownership, Chesbro said she would “look at curbing gun violence in a different way.”
“We have a problem with suicide,” she added. “Let’s keep our guns safe and locked up, so people can’t make this decision quickly.”
Murkowski pointed to gun violence in schools and said more funds should go to schools without “turning them into fortresses.”
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Tshibaka instead advocated for “more funding for school counselors.”
“I do not support additional restrictions on law-abiding citizens,” she added.
The candidates were also asked to grade the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Murkowski started: “In terms of how quickly we developed a vaccine, we get an A. I give Alaska a real strong grade to ensure a level of understanding about what we were dealing with for COVID and the importance to getting a vaccination.”
“In terms of the nationwide response, I think we failed there,” she added. “I think we can and must do better.”
Tshibaka highlighted penalties paid by employees who objected to receiving the vaccine, including members of the military, who were fired or forced to take leave.
“We need to honor the constitutional rights of the service members. I want to sponsor a bill that says they get their pay, retirement, and benefits restored,” she said.
The sole Democrat said the country was particularly “ineffective” in how they coordinated schooling for children. She called months of remote schooling “chaotic” as teachers and students were not prepared to teach or learn at a distance.
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Each candidate was asked about U.S. Supreme Court nominees and their confirmation process.
Murkowski called the process “broken” and said her Senate colleagues were not properly vetting the candidates. “We have to go back to actually evaluating the qualifications of these nominees,” she said.
“We are evaluating them on what president appointed them,” she said, calling out both parties of providing an “automatic rubber stamp or roadblock.”
Tshibaka plainly said she would support “constitutionalist nominees to the Supreme Court regardless of who appoints them.”
Later in the debate, Tshibaka and Murkowski said they were definitely against a federal ban on high-powered rifles, while Chesbro said she would support one.
“When we make these guns illegal, criminals will still get them,” Tshibaka said.
Chesbro countered: “I support the ban, there is no purpose in these guns other than killing people. I am against murder.”
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The debate was hosted by Alaska’s News Source, Alaska Public Media, and KTOO.
It was moderated by Alaska Public Media News Director Lori Townsend and Alaska’s News Source Managing Editor Mike Ross.