Mama Grizzly Man
Why the candidate of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express is losing in Alaska.
UNALASKA, Alaska—On Tuesday, in her home state, Sarah Palin's favorite will probably get trounced. Joe Miller is widely expected to lose by a large margin to incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary—an embarrassing defeat for the former governor, who has endorsed Miller, but also to Miller's other major backer, the Tea Party Express.
Miller was a virtual unknown when he announced his Senate candidacy in April. But his big political debut came in June when both Palin and the Tea Party Express endorsed him. Miller sounds like he came out of some kind of Tea Party laboratory, with degrees from West Point and the University of Alaska, a Bronze Star from fighting in the Gulf War, and "correct" positions on guns, abortion, God, and big government (for, against, for, and against, respectively). Miller even has the right look: With a long, lean face, and stubble closer to 10 o'clock than 5, he could almost pass for Chuck Norris.
Unfortunately for him, not even Chuck Norris in his most bad-ass role—which is, of course, Chuck Norris in real life—could rescue the Miller campaign. Always a long shot, Miller lags behind Murkowski, the heir to one of Alaska's political dynasties, by double digits.
So Tuesday is likely to be a disappointment to Palin and the Tea Party Express, which has spent more than $400,000 since June on radio and television ads attacking Murkowski. Fresh off its Nevada primary victory with Sharron Angle, the Tea Party Express was looking for both an appealing challenger and a sufficiently complacent incumbent. Murkowksi fit the role in part because of her record with earmarks and her reputation for occasionally working with Democrats. "We just felt that Joe Miller basically lines up better with Alaskan voters and the conservative kind of frontier feeling of Alaska," says Tea Party Express political director Bryan Shroyer.
Many Alaskans don't exactly feel that way. In part because Alaska has weathered the recession better than most states and because even conservative Republicans realize the importance of federal funding in the state, "I don't think the Tea Party movement has much currency in Alaska," says Ivan Moore, an independent pollster based in Anchorage. Moore's poll in July showed Miller down by 32 points, and other polls have come up with similar numbers. "From the very beginning, he has positioned himself so far to the right of the ideological spectrum and attached himself to the Tea Party movement, which even in Alaska is perceived as being a pretty extreme right organization," Moore says.
And Palin's endorsement hasn't helped, Moore adds. According to a Dittman Research poll conducted in April, 52 percent of Alaskans hold a negative opinion of Palin. "When someone with those kinds of numbers endorses someone for public office, believe me, the effect is on the whole negative," says Moore.
Despite this Tea Party skepticism in Alaska, the Miller campaign has stayed mostly with a generic Tea Party script. Miller rails against earmarks, a complaint usually made by people outside of Alaska. His hard-line immigration plan comes straight from Arizona, with no amnesty and limited birthright citizenship. His campaign has repeatedly made statements criticizing Murkowski for not doing enough to repeal health care reform, although she voted against it. He has talked about core constitutional values, but nothing particularly substantive about the state's oil, gas, and fishing industries.
Alexandra Gutierrez is a reporter based in the Aleutian Islands.
Photograph of Joe Miller courtesy Paraserv/Wikipedia. Photograph of Sarah Palin by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.