How Joe Miller—the Palin-endorsed, Tea Party-supported candidate—surprised everyone in Alaska.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Aug. 25 2010 12:00 PM

Sarah Palin's Tea Party

How Joe Miller—the Palin-endorsed, Tea Party-supported candidate—surprised everyone in Alaska.

Joe Miller. Click image to expand.
Joe Miller

So maybe Joe Miller is Chuck Norris after all. Miller, the lantern-jawed candidate of the Tea Party Express and Sarah Palin, defied a lot of expectations yesterday—including my own. With all but a handful of precincts reporting, Miller appears to have beaten incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski by two points, 51 percent to 49 percent.

Three weeks ago, Murkowski's re-election was all but assured. Miller trailed the moderate senator by 30 points or more in two public polls conducted in July, and through Aug. 4, he had been able to raise only about $283,000 to compete with her total funds of almost $3 million. Micro-scandal after micro-scandal befell the Miller campaign it as it worked to build up his name recognition. Just more than two weeks ago, Miller's campaign manager Paul Bauer got axed when he called a group of University of Alaska-Anchorage College Republicans "puppets" and his wife started a feud with an Anchorage conservative talk radio host. At one of his rallies, only nine people showed up. When I spoke to Bauer on Saturday, even he didn't sound optimistic about Miller's chances.

"We didn't talk more about the Alaska issues, and that's where Lisa focused," said Bauer, adding, "I don't think there's a stronger candidate than Joe Miller in the state of Alaska who can go against Lisa Murkowski in a Republican primary ever again."

So, what happened? The most important factor, as usual, was probably money. Murkowski had more of it, but the Tea Party Express spent enough to make a difference. The group put $600,000 into "Liberal Lisa" radio and television ads, which helped define Miller's opponent. And while Palin did not campaign for Miller, she and former Lt. Gov. Loren Leman recorded effective 11th-hour robocalls for him. (I got one during dinner earlier this week.) Miller's votes may also have been bolstered by the presence of a parental notification initiative on the ballot. The measure, which would require girls under the age of 17 to inform their parents before obtaining an abortion, was winning approval with about 55 percent of the vote, and it brought out the pro-life vote. Murkowski is considered pro-choice, and as Miller told the Anchorage Daily News, "Prop. 2 supporters were our supporters, largely."

Meanwhile, Murkowski's own last-minute advertising strategy failed. On Monday, her campaign finally went negative, airing an ad that featured the voice of popular talk radio host Dan Fagan accusing Joe Miller of lying about Murkowski's record on Obamacare. (She voted against health care reform, but Miller says she didn't ask for repeal soon enough.) Unfortunately, after the ad aired—and just a few hours before the polls opened—Fagan endorsed Miller. (He made his decision, he said, "after further weighing the evidence.") Murkowski's campaign also refrained from airing ads that the late Sen. Ted Stevens had recorded for them before his death.

All that said, the fight's not over yet. There are still 16,000 absentee ballots outstanding, and a lot of those votes were cast when Murkowski still had the edge. It's not likely that she'll get the 2,000 votes she needs to win the primary—but then again, what has been likely about this primary? (Recall that in 2008, then-Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich made up a 3,000-vote deficit to beat Sen. Ted Stevens once some 60,000 absentee and mail-in votes were counted.)

And then there's the big question: Could Murkowski run as an independent or write-in candidate? Her campaign had yet to return calls this morning, but the strategy worked for two-time Gov. Wally Hickel, who lost the Republican nod in 1990 and then won the general after being recruited as a candidate for the Alaska Independence Party. Murkowski may now find herself in a position not unlike that of Charlie Crist in Florida: a moderate who has (take your pick: abandoned/been abandoned by) her party. Center-right and even some liberal voters may find her more appealing than Democratic candidate and Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams.

And if Miller does pull this off? Washington had better be prepared: "What's a 'Beltway traffic jam'? Is that when a caribou herd crosses a road?" he tweeted last night.

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Alexandra Gutierrez is a reporter based in the Aleutian Islands.