Murkowski and Tshibaka don’t agree on a ton but both U.S. Senate candidates say they want to protect Arctic Alaska from Russia

two women in blue shirts talk into a microphone
Republican U.S. Senate candidates, incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Kelly Tshibaka, at the Alaska Federation of Natives candidate forum on Saturday. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

With Russian President Vladimir Putin at war with the West in Ukraine, the need to protect Arctic Alaska from foreign aggression was an area of agreement on Saturday among Alaska’s U.S. Senate candidates.

Putin has “one hand on Ukraine, and he’s got the other on the Arctic,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski said at the Alaska Federation of Native candidate forum in Anchorage.

Murkowski said she’d spoken to the two asylum seekers who fled eastern Russia by boat and landed on Alaska’s St. Lawrence Island early this month. She revealed that they are Indigenous Siberians.

“They feared for their lives because Russia, Putin, is targeting minority populations for conscription into service in Ukraine,” she said. “It is very clear to me that these individuals were in fear – so much in fear of their own government that they risked their lives and took a 15-foot skiff across those open waters.”

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski meets with AFN attendees after the candidate forum. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

As for what the federal government is doing to counter the threat, Murkowski recited a long list of items, some of which she helped add to the federal spending bills through her work on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“We’ve got three icebreakers that are on their way. We funded cutter and aviation deployments throughout the Bering Sea and the Northwest Arctic. We’ve got the 11th Airborne at JBER,” she said, referring to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. “We got the Ted Stevens Arctic Security Study Center. We’ve got the port of Nome that is coming our way. We’ve overhauled our federal leadership when it comes to Arctic engagement.”

America’s “secret weapon,” Murkowski said, is Alaska’s Arctic communities and the Alaska National Guard, which she said she’s committed to getting sufficiently equipped and trained.

Her Republican rival, Kelly Tshibaka, spoke about the threat from Russia and China.

U.S. Senate candidate Kelly Tshibaka spoke to reporters at the AFN convention. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

“Rural Alaska is the frontlines of national security and our nation’s future is going to depend on the vitality of our Arctic communities,” she said.

Tshibaka is an attorney who has worked in the inspector general offices of several federal agencies, including the Postal Service, the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission. She also worked in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. 

“I’ve spent over a decade serving as a senior leader in the national security community,” she said at the forum, adding that most of her service was during the Obama administration. “So with that background, I’m the only candidate up here who has a subject matter experience and the relationships in the national security community to successfully advocate for an expanded defense in order to strengthen our readiness and preparedness in the Arctic.”

The U.S. Senate race is mostly between the two Republicans. Tshibaka is endorsed by former President Donald Trump. Murkowski is one of Trump’s biggest targets. The Alaska Republican Party has endorsed Tshibaka and censured Murkowski several times. But the leader of the U.S. Senate Republicans, Mitch McConnell, is backing Murkowski. A committee he’s associated with is funding an ad campaign attacking Tshibaka. She told reporters after the AFN forum that it’s “an absolute desecration of democracy.”

“The Republicans of Alaska said Lisa Murkowski is not our Republican choice. McConnell is coming in with millions and millions of dollars from outside Alaska saying no, she’s the person you’re going to pick, against the will of the people of Alaska,” Tshibaka said. “That is fundamentally un-American.”

U.S. Senate candidates left to right: Democrat Pat Chesbro and Republican Kelly Tshibaka and incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski. (Elyssa Loughlin/ Alaska Public Media)

McConnell isn’t the only one with beef against Tshibaka. After the Senate candidates left the stage, a small Elder in a blue kuspuk and ivory earrings confronted Tshibaka about her association with Trump.

“I think he’s a bigot, and I don’t know why Republicans support him,” she said, her voice hardly more than a whisper. “I don’t know why white people support him. And as an Indigenous woman, I don’t see you as my representative.”

The Elder also said she didn’t like Tshibaka’s opposition to abortion rights.

Tshibaka listened intently, a smile frozen on her face. She said “OK” repeatedly, until the woman turned and left. 

Later Saturday, AFN delegates approved a resolution endorsing Murkowski’s re-election.

RELATED: ‘In Mary’s house’: Peltola is clear crowd favorite at Alaska Federation of Natives candidate forum

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

Previous articleIn Kenai Peninsula wood-stacking contest, you’re supposed to bribe the judge
Next articleAFN delegates say lack of veterinary care is an ‘ongoing public health crisis.’ They’re calling for federal action.