How Joe Miller caught Lisa Murkowski by surprise

Voters headed to the polls Tuesday in five states in the last major primaries of the summer.
By Karen Tumulty and Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 25, 2010; 9:42 PM

If there had been any doubt that this is a year when no incumbent can afford to be caught off-guard, it has been put to rest by the ambush of Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska's Republican primary.

Joe Miller, a virtually unknown Fairbanks lawyer whose candidacy had been fueled by the fury of the "tea party" movement and the high-powered endorsement of former governor Sarah Palin, was on the verge Wednesday of toppling Murkowski, a member of the Senate GOP leadership whose last name has reigned in Alaska politics for three decades.

Although it is still possible that she might eke out a victory when the final absentee ballots are counted - a process that could take more than a week - Murkowski was running almost 2,000 votes behind Miller among the nearly 90,000 that had been totaled.

"There is much, much yet to be counted," Murkowski said at a news conference in Anchorage, although Alaska political veterans said privately that they doubt she will find the numbers she needs in the remaining ballots.

Few had expected the race to be close, given the strong lead Murkowski had in polling as recently as three weeks ago, her 20-to-1 cash advantage and her pedigree as the daughter of Frank Murkowski, a former senator and governor.

Miller, a graduate of West Point and Yale Law School who served as an Army officer in the Persian Gulf War, has embraced positions that make him one of the most conservative candidates seeking public office this year.

He has called for phasing out Medicare and Social Security, as well as eliminating the Education Department because it is not mandated in the Constitution. Last month, he told ABC News that he opposes extending unemployment benefits because he does not think they were "constitutionally authorized."

He opposes cap-and-trade legislation for carbon emissions on the grounds that, as his campaign Web site says, "the science supporting man-made climate change is inconclusive."

What has put him on the brink of pulling off the biggest upset in the 2010 campaign season is a combination of the anti-establishment winds that have buffeted contests nationwide this year and the unique political rhythms of a remote state that is both heavily dependent upon and resentful of the federal government.

Although Alaska received more federal stimulus money per capita than any other state, for instance, its residents think of themselves as independent and flinty frontiersmen. Alaskans have resisted since their days as a territory the restrictions that Washington - by far the state's largest landholder - puts on such aspects of daily life as land use and restrictions on fishing and hunting.

Miller's success is also the latest round in a long-standing grudge match between Palin and the Murkowski family, as well as a testament to Palin's enduring clout - at least among that conservative and relatively small slice of voters who participate in Alaska's closed GOP primary.

Palin did relatively little campaigning for Miller, beyond recording robo-calls and posting on Facebook and Twitter. But her endorsement helped unleash waves of enthusiasm and support from the tea party movement. One group, the Tea Party Express, spent more than $150,000 in the past week on radio and television ads on his behalf.

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