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.
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."
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."
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.
Miller pummeled Murkowski on the airwaves in recent days, casting her as "a liberal" who was out of step with the values of Republican primary voters. This seemed to catch Murkowski off guard.
"Joe Miller turned Lisa Murkowski into a Democrat, a Tony Knowles Democrat," said Michael Carey, a longtime political correspondent at the Anchorage Daily News, the state's largest newspaper, referring to the former Democratic governor. "This was either brilliant or dumb luck. He just rolled her up in the most conservative areas of the state. Those voters always - always - look for the most conservative candidate, and they sure found him."
Two months ago, officials at the National Republican Senatorial Committee met with strategists for Murkowski's campaign and urged them to tap her campaign treasury of almost $2 million to begin running ads against Miller. The Murkowski campaign refused, saying that to attack him would merely elevate an opponent whom they didn't consider a serious threat.
Instead, she stuck with her campaign of feel-good ads touting her accomplishments - a message that, in retrospect, seemed to not speak to the angry mood of the electorate.
Miller tried to define Murkowski as part of the "Washington aristocracy," a reference not only to her lineage as a daughter of former Republican governor and senator Frank Murkowski, but also the financial support she had received over the years from corporate interests.
In particular, Miller attacked Murkowski for her votes supporting the 2008 Wall Street bailout and for opposing a repeal of President Obama's health-care overhaul. He also attacked her for supporting a cap-and-trade energy tax (which he opposes) and for supporting abortion rights (which he opposes).
"We felt that the way the race would be won is if people knew where Murkowski stood on the issues and they were comfortable that Joe was qualified and would represent them," DeSoto said. "Most people assumed that since she's a Republican, she's basically a conservative Republican. But when we started pointing out all the times she voted against her party, through television and Joe saying it and social media, that played into the mix."
Miller presented himself as a conservative, small-government Republican, sharing values with former president Ronald Reagan. A Kansas native, Miller is a graduate from West Point, served as an officer in the Army and was awarded the Bronze Star during the first Gulf War.
Miller says he was drawn to Alaska 16 years ago because of his love for the outdoors. After graduating from Yale Law School, he accepted a job at an Anchorage law firm. By age 30, he had been appointed a state magistrate and a superior court master for the 4th Judicial District, and eventually became U.S. Magistrate judge in Fairbanks, according to his biography on his campaign Web site.
Miller resigned from the bench in 2004 to run for state representative, but after winning the Republican primary he narrowly lost in the general election. He has since been a private-practice lawyer in Fairbanks, where he lives with his wife, Kathleen, and their children.
Tuesday night, as returns were coming in with him in the lead, Miller tweeted: "What's the moose hunting like in the Beltway?" He later tweeted, "What's a 'Beltway traffic jam'? Is that when a caribou herd crosses a road?"
"He's just a person," Wilson said. "He represents the hardworking man or woman who's just trying to make ends meet. He's willing to get out there and work hard and stop to talk with anybody who would talk with him."
This year, Miller campaigned in his pickup truck, allies said, knocking on doors to talk with voters. When the campaign took him far from Fairbanks, he traveled by motor home or airplane. His large white campaign signs were frequently sighted along Alaska's highways.
Miller's operation is decidedly homespun. He shunned the political establishment and brought in as his consultants not veteran strategists but longtime and loyal friends. DeSoto, his spokesman, is a writer and former West Point classmate. His campaign manager, Robert Campbell, is a lawyer from Alaska's Matanuska-Susitna Valley. Campbell's brother, Walter Campbell, is also advising Miller, as is Palin and her husband, Todd, who is a longtime friend of Miller's.
"He likes to look at the facts," DeSoto said. "He's principled. If he has an idea, he'll want to see it through, and he won't want to be in any way someone who's thought of as selling out."