Joe Miller poised to take Senate seat from Alaska's Lisa Murkowski

Voters headed to the polls Tuesday in five states in the last major primaries of the summer.
By Philip Rucker and Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 25, 2010; 1:40 PM

The 43-year-old bearded Alaskan who shocked the political world overnight by pulling ahead of Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the state's Republican primary fashions himself as a rugged individualist who campaigned on weaning Alaska off its dependence on federal largess.

Results on Wednesday showed Joe Miller holding a slim lead of about 1,900 votes over Murkowski, but a winner might not be declared until election officials count as many as 10,000 absentee ballots, which could take several days.

Nevertheless, early returns suggested a stunning upset, as Miller carried the anti-spending furor of the "tea party" movement to the most unlikely frontier: a state that has benefited far more from pork-barrel spending over the years than any state in the Lower 48.

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Whereas Murkowski continued a long tradition of Alaska politicians touting their ability to steer an outsize proportion of Washington dollars back home, Miller campaigned on his belief that the federal investment there had made Alaska a sort of "federal fiefdom." Miller argued, apparently with some success, that with the government effectively bankrupt, Alaska should assume responsibility for its own destiny.

"He feels like that era is over because the federal government can't afford it," Randy DeSoto, Miller's communications director, said in an interview Wednesday morning. "Joe's basic belief is that the state is somewhat of a 'federal fiefdom.' . . . He would fight to retain more autonomy for Alaska."

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It was an unlikely political appeal, coming on the heels of the death of longtime Republican senator Ted Stevens, whose legacy was bringing home billions of federal dollars to build roads, bridges and airports to modernize Alaska - not only the nation's physically largest state, but also its most isolated and undeveloped.

"It's just time for a change - time that we stand on our own two feet and that the federal government allows us to develop our natural resources and not put so many restraints on us," state Rep. Tammie Wilson (R), who endorsed Miller, said in an interview. "We're going to have to build our own roads and support our own people and put them back to work rather than have them sit at home waiting for a check from the government."

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Miller quietly built momentum with this message of fiscal responsibility and government restraint, first with an endorsement from former governor Sarah Palin and later with the donations and support from tea party activists and backing from such national conservative figures as former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and talk show hosts Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin.

"The tea party movement and the social movement, really kind of the Reagan coalition, being rebuilt here in Alaska is what allowed him to get on top," DeSoto said.

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