Why the candidate of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express is losing in Alaska.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Aug. 23 2010 5:54 PM

Mama Grizzly Man

Why the candidate of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express is losing in Alaska.

Joe Miller and Sarah Palin. Click image to expand.
Joe Miller and Sarah Palin

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.

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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.

Says Dave Stieren, a conservative talk-radio host in Anchorage and a player in one of Miller's biggest campaign dramas: "If I'm running Joe Miller, he's a military combat vet. He's a pro-life guy. He's a small government guy. He doesn't have a voting record or contributor record where union interests control him. This is your 98-mile-per-hour-fastball-throwing young star, and it seems that his talents and message kind of got lost."

The Miller campaign has also been plagued by setbacks and embarrassments of its own making. On Aug. 8, with the primary just more than two weeks away, then-campaign manager Paul Bauer went on Facebook and accused a University of Alaska College Republicans chapter of being Murkowski's "uneducated puppets" after discovering that the club had hosted a meet-and-greet for the senator. "We don't take too kindly to that for the work we do in school and outside of school," says Jeremiah Campbell, a University of Alaska senior and the College Republicans' communications director. The group never officially supported Murkowski and has a policy of not endorsing candidates for the primary.

The spat then became talk-radio fodder. Stieren asked aloud on his show who would be idiotic enough to lash out at young people who work for free on Republican campaigns, and Bauer called in to defend himself. The feud culminated in a barroom argument later that week, caught on videotape and (unsurprisingly) posted on YouTube, between Stieren and Bauer's wife in which she threatened to "bury you alive." Within 72 hours, Bauer was off Miller's campaign.

Between his formulaic messaging and constant diversions, Miller hasn't been able to drum up much support. In his hometown of Fairbanks, the mayor and the newspaper have endorsed Murkowski. So have industry groups like the Alaska Forestry Association and United Fishermen of Alaska, along with most of the state legislature. Murkowski has run a low-key and well-bankrolled campaign where she's avoided engaging Miller—not mentioning his name in her reaction to the Palin endorsement, even blowing off one of their few scheduled debates and sending a staffer in her stead.

As far as Miller's supporters go, the most-talked-about ones have been the guys who showed up to the 25th annual Bear Paw festival, a summer fair in greater Anchorage, with what appeared to be assault rifles. Then there are those nine people who showed up at a Tea Party Express-sponsored rally on Aug. 6 for Miller in Juneau, where they were outnumbered by reporters and operatives. And there are the die-hard Palin fans. "There's always going to be that 20 percent lemming group that are going to throw themselves off a cliff for Sarah Palin up here," says Stieren. "But you're not going to win with 20 percent."

Not surprisingly, Steve Wackowski, a campaign spokesman for Murkowski, agrees that backing from Palin and the Tea Party Express is more of a liability for Miller than anything else. "It turns Alaskans off when outside groups from the Lower 48 like this California Tea Party Express come out and try to tell Alaskans how to vote and what they should be doing," says Wackowski. "I'm from here; I grew up here. And whether it's extreme environmentalists telling us that we can't drill in ANWR or that we can't do predator control to manage our game stocks, I think that really rubs Alaskans the wrong way. On Tuesday, you're going to see evidence of that."

Despite the long odds, Miller's team is still feeling optimistic. On Friday Sarah Palin wrote yet another Facebook post extolling his commonsense conservative values, and campaign spokesman Randy DeSoto says internal polls show that the campaign is within one point of Murkowski. The race is "pretty much neck and neck," he says. On Tuesday, we'll find out exactly how close those necks are.

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Alexandra Gutierrez is a reporter based in the Aleutian Islands.

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