Requiem For Lisa Murkowski

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Sept. 1 2010 9:04 AM

Requiem For Lisa Murkowski

So, she lost . If you don't spend much time following intra-Republican politics, you might wonder why conservative voters in Alaska were angry enough to toss out a well-regarded senator who, on paper, voted for everything that the party supported and opposed everything the party opposed.

The post-election gloating over Murkowski's problems revealed the problems conservatives had with her. She voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program in 2008. In October 2009 she said she was "open" to compromise on cap-and-trade legislation if it expanded drilling and nuclear power. She had a moderate record on abortion, siding with liberals on some matters of federal funding for the procedure. And she occasionally spoke dismissively of Sarah Palin. Tell me if I'm missing something, but I think that's it. Just like Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) , Murkowski wasn't so much an unreliable vote, like Arlen Specter used to be, as a Republican in a safe seat who was too often approached for possible compromises by Democrats. And that was unacceptable.

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You really have to admire the strategic chops of tea partyers in taking down Bennett and Murkowski. In both cases, they only had to convince a small number of partisans to oust their incumbents. In both cases, they could smooth the path to victory by adding new people to the electorate -- in Utah that meant getting tea partyers to become Republican delegates, and in Alaska it meant activating some unaffiliated voters who could vote in the GOP primary. In Utah, they only needed to stop Bennett from getting to the final round of voting with around 3,500 delegates. In Alaska, they only needed to get a majority of around 102,000 voters to back Joe Miller. It reminds me of the foresight David Plouffe had in 2007 to make sure the Barack Obama campaign maximized its vote in small state caucuses, where big wins could net lopsided delegate margins.

Two notes.

1) I don't think I'm dismissing Palin when I say that the hype about her ability to get a Republican candidate over the finish line in her home state is a bit much. Barack Obama's punching power is way down, but how many Obama-endorsed incumbents have lost besides Arlen Specter?

2) Two Republican senators have lost because, in large part, of their votes for TARP. It's time to be skeptical that Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) could ever mount a real presidential bid, because he voted for the measure, too, and activists are simply not forgiving of that. And if Palin runs in 2012, how will she get past her own support for TARP?

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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