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How Joe Miller caught Lisa Murkowski by surprise

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.

The list of grievances between Palin and the Murkowskis is thought to date as far back as 2002, when then-Gov. Murkowski appointed his daughter to succeed him to the Senate; Palin, who had been in the running for the nod, then backed Lisa Murkowski's opponent in the GOP primary.

When Palin won the governorship in 2006, she did it by defeating Frank Murkowski. Although there have been occasional truces, the sniping between the two camps has continued since then. In 2009, Lisa Murkowski accused Palin of abandoning the state by resigning before her term as governor was up.

Meanwhile, Democratic officials were pondering whether the surprise outcome had so upended politics in Alaska that it might create an opening that merited more resources for the party's candidate, who Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse had been unable to name during an appearance Wednesday on ABC News's "Top Line" program.

The nominee, Scott McAdams, is a former commercial fisherman and currently the mayor of Sitka, a town of about 9,000 on the Pacific Ocean. He is not well known statewide but says he is trying to win over moderate voters who are disenchanted with Miller's conservative agenda.

Murkowski's campaign strategy was in many ways the mirror image of the one that, on the same night, Sen. John McCain used to crush the once-threatening candidacy of GOP challenger J.D. Hayworth in Arizona.

Where McCain spent heavily on negative ads against his opponent, Murkowski had run in the tradition of a long line of Alaska politicians who touted their ability to bring an outsize proportion of Washington money to the state.

Miller used the same argument against her - portraying her as the consummate insider, a liberal and an accessory to keeping the state a ward of the government.

In particular, Miller criticized Murkowski's support of the 2008 Wall Street bailout, for opposing a repeal of President Obama's health-care overhaul, for backing a cap-and-trade energy tax and for supporting abortion rights.

Their difference on abortion may have carried more weight in Alaska than in it would have other states, where social issues have not been at the forefront this year.

That is because one of the issues on the ballot was an initiative requiring parents to be notified when a girl age 17 or younger has an abortion. The initiative - which represented the first time Alaskans had been given a chance to vote on the abortion issue - passed with 55 percent of the vote.

Two months ago, National Republican Senatorial Committee officials met with strategists for the Murkowski campaign and urged them to tap her nearly $2 million treasury to begin running ads against Miller, a party official said. The campaign declined, saying that to attack him would merely elevate an opponent whom they did not consider a serious threat, the official said.

Miller's team was a simple operation: He traveled by motor home and pickup truck, and his operation was run by longtime friends.

At her news conference, Murkowski acknowledged that she was surprised by the outcome, saying her polling had "not only been strong, but really overwhelmingly strong. Clearly there was a shift, whether it was the anti-incumbency feedback that you get in the Lower 48, I don't know that."

But she insisted she had no regrets about the race she ran.

"There's been a suggestion out there that in order to win in politics today, you've got to run a negative campaign," she said. "I don't think Alaskans want that. I don't think Americans want that."

There has been some speculation that she might use the money left in her campaign treasury - $1.87 million as of Aug. 4, though much of that may have been spent in the final days of the race - to mount an independent bid to hold onto her job.

But the deadline has passed to run as an independent, so that would require persuading the Libertarian Party to replace its nominee with her, or waging a write-in campaign. GOP officials suggested those options are unlikely.

"It is way, way, way too premature to be talking about that," Murkowski said when asked about that possibility. "We need to make sure that every Alaskan's vote is counted. So we're not making any speculation."

tumultyk@washpost.com ruckerp@washpost.com

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