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

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."

Miller described a lifelong belief in what he views as the original intent of the Constitution - limited government, states' rights. Yet in television interviews and campaign appearances, his rhetoric has a distinctly 2010 sound to it, with all the catchphrases and buzzwords of this year's tea party movement. Miller comes off as someone who arrived at his conservatism and government skepticism honestly, but who also saw early on this year that there was a special opportunity - and seized it.

"We knew the message resonated," he said. "It was uniquely calibrated for the time."

That's one reason Miller has taken such a tough stand against federal spending, he said. In an interview at his Fairbanks law office this week, he promised to fight for Alaska's fair share just as he promised to protect Social Security for those dependent on it today. But if earmark spending and Social Security aren't radically changed, the country will go bankrupt, he said. And Alaskans get that.

"The fiscal insanity that's going on in Washington right now - folks on all sides understand that," he said. "It just can't continue."

Miller's shocking GOP primary defeat last week of the incumbent, Murkowski, was seen as yet another sign of how volatile this election year has been for those seeking to stay in office. But his real test may be yet to come if he is elected to the Senate in November. There, his disdain for the power of incumbency and his resolute opposite to earmarks will collide not only with other senators but with Alaska's long-standing dependence on federal largess.

Miller and his wife, who answered the phone behind him as he conducted back-to-back interviews with national newspapers, seemed a bit stunned themselves at his victory. They silenced each other with gestures when they thought the other said something unhelpful. When campaign staffers began to speak about election strategy, they were shooed out of the room. Miller ordered reporters ejected from a fundraiser at a nearby supporter's house even though the event was advertised on his campaign Web site.

Because of Alaska's strong Republican leanings, Miller is the heavy favorite in the November general election against Democrat Scott McAdams, the mayor of Sitka. Miller's primary win was helped considerably by Sarah Palin's endorsement and a $500,000 ad campaign on his behalf from the Tea Party Express. But it was due at least as much to Murkowski's failure to recognize the growing dissatisfaction in Alaska with the kind of bring-home-the-cash politics that voters once demanded.

Murkowski's reelection was seen as a given, so much so that many of her supporters didn't bother to show up at the polls. "I thought she was a shoo-in," said Wally Roberts, 59, a retired pipe-fitter who came to Alaska in the 1970s from Minneapolis. Roberts voted for Murkowski in the past but felt no urgency to act on primary day. "And that's what killed her," he said. Will he vote for Miller next time around? Only if Miller shows that he'll fight for Alaska, Roberts said.

It's a test that all the tea party candidates who won GOP nominations this year - Sharron Angle of Nevada, Rand Paul of Kentucky, to name two - will face if they win the general election. But for no one is the challenge starker than Miller, who hopes to be the first Alaskan senator in a long time to survive Washington without promising to use his clout to bring home the bacon.

"Incumbency can be two different mind-sets," Roberts said. "It's the abuse of power and the old-boy network on one hand, and it's the wellness of the state on the other. Throwing that away - the voters are going to see that's a shame. There's going to be a lot of second-guessing one what they've done here."

For many years, Alaska ranked No. 1 among states in the amount of federal money it received. Former senator Ted Stevens, who died in a plane crash this summer, used to brag about how much money he brought home to the state, as did Murkowski. Alaska's reputation as a beneficiary of pork is embodied most dramatically by Stevens's and other Alaskan politicians' efforts to build a $400 million "bridge to nowhere" from Ketchikan to Gravina Island. In Fairbanks alone, Miller's home town, Stevens's hand is everywhere: a shiny new federal courthouse, a $28 million visitors center, a pedestrian bridge and path along the Chena River - all built with federal help.

But the truth, Alaskans say, is the state is 100 years behind in constructing such crucial infrastructure as bridges, roads and utilities.

Some Alaskans fear what will happen if those federal dollars dry up. "People up here like being far away, but it's a hard way to go," said George Page, 68, a retired truck driver who moved to Alaska from Southern California in 1967. "Heating fuel is $1 more a gallon than in the Lower 48. There are no roads. All the people in the Lower 48 hear about is our oil wealth, the dividend. It's a perception that's really, really hard to change."

It will be even harder to fight for federal resources with a new senator who doesn't want them. Even Miller's supporters said they hope his anti-spending rhetoric softens once he's in office.

"Joe is very smart. He is very passionate. He is very conservative," said Rhonda Boyles, a past mayor of Fairbanks North Star Borough who supports Miller for Senate. "Will he be a team player? Well, I think that he will be. But I think that's what Republicans are worried about."

gardnera@washpost.com ruckerp@washpost.com

Rucker reported from Washington. Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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