Tea party's Joe Miller: What he plans if Alaska sends him to Washington

If you missed any of this year's primaries -- or just forgot -- here are the names and faces you need to know in November.
By Amy Gardner and Philip Rucker
Saturday, September 4, 2010; 12:29 PM

FAIRBANKS, ALASKA - The people who live in the farther-flung cities of this farthest-flung state take a frontier pride in their physical and cultural distance from the cushy "Lower 48." Many will tell you that they are especially wary of the federal government's attempts to regulate the way they live. But this wariness had always been matched by the strong desire here to make sure their representatives in Washington kept millions of federal dollars flowing into their underdeveloped state.

Which makes it all the more curious that Alaska's next U.S. senator is likely to be political novice Joe Miller, a "tea party" hero with an uncompromising view that government spending is out of control and has to stop - even if that means Alaska gets less.

Miller's win in the Republican primary left the rest of the country - including shocked political handicappers and the Senate GOP leadership - asking: "Who is this guy?"

Like many Alaskans, Miller, 43, came from somewhere else. He grew up in Kansas, the son of a minister and bookstore owner. As a kid, he had a passion for hunting - deer, pheasant, quail - and military history.

In an interview, he recalled dressing up as Gen. Lafayette for a parade commemorating the nation's bicentennial in 1976. He was accepted to all three service academies and chose West Point. "The best decision I could've made," he said.

"I developed a real affinity for the founders and what they stood for, the sacrifice they made on behalf of their country, and that really had staying power," he said.

After serving in the Gulf War and earning a Bronze Star, Miller left the Army to attend law school at Yale, where a professor who knew him well recalled a passionate, conservative young man who could have found a place at any East Coast law firm but chose instead to move to Alaska for a semester-long internship.

"It was unusual for students at Yale," said George Priest, the professor. "Yale, given its stature, makes entry into the Eastern legal establishment much more available than other schools. Miller was a smart guy. He could have clerked on courts on the East Coast if he wanted. He could have done extremely well going back to his home in Kansas. Instead, he's a real adventurer. He wanted to strike out and go to this frontier and make a name for himself."

Miller recalled the allure of Alaska this way: "It was the love of the outdoors; the big, wide open spaces; the rustic, hard-core environment you've got up here - all of it attracted me."

Miller and his wife, Kathleen, have eight children (two are from her previous marriage), and they live on 20 acres about 15 miles outside Fairbanks. He hunts elk with his sons, and his beard, which seems perpetually to be one week from coming in, evokes the plaid-shirted Brawny paper towel man.

His path in Alaska zigged and zagged: After a stint with an Anchorage law firm and another as a magistrate in the tiny southeastern outpost of Tok, he settled in Fairbanks. He built a private law practice and was an assistant attorney for the Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska's version of a county.

He first tried for public office in 2004, when he unsuccessfully challenged a Democratic state lawmaker. He said he decided only in April to challenge Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary. He is willing to move his large family to Washington - probably Virginia, he said - because "our nation is in crisis."

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