A Thrilla in Wasilla? Daddy's Girl Versus Sarah's Boy

On August 24 Joe Miller, a no-one-had-ever-heard-of-him-before attorney from out the road in Fairbanks, beat Lisa Murkowski, Alaska's senior United States Senator, by 2006 votes in the Alaska primary election to win their party's nomination as its candidate in November for election to the seat Lisa now occupies in the United States Senate.

Lisa had way more money than Joe. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, she raised $3.5 million. Although Alaskans contributed to her campaign, Lisa shook down most of that money from political action committees that had been organized by corporations that do business with the major Senate committees on which Lisa sits, the Energy and National Resources Committee and the Appropriations Committee, as well as from employees who work for, and lobbyists and attorneys who represent, the same corporations.

By contrast, Joe Miller raised only $283,000. Only $5,000 of that came from political action committees. And of the individual contributors, Miller contributed $103,000 of his own money to his own campaign. Independent of Miller, the Tea Party Express spent another almost $600,000 to elect Miller. But that still gave Lisa a four-to-one money advantage.

In June, Sarah Palin endorsed Miller. And the week before the election she recorded a get-out-the-vote-for-Joe robo-call that was telephoned in to targeted conservative Republican voters.

But former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, who despite his brief tenure as a convicted felon and despite having in the 2008 election lost the seat in the Senate he had held since 1968 remained an icon among Republican voters, supported Lisa.

Two weeks before the primary election Stevens died in a plane crash. But before he did he filmed several television commercials in which he endorsed Lisa. After the plane crash Lisa decided not to broadcast them, even though a family member later told me that Catherine and/or Lilly Stevens, Ted's widow and daughter, would have been willing to film an introduction in which they would have vouched that Ted would have wanted the commercials to have been broadcast. And knowing Ted as I did, I know he would have.

But the commercials weren't broadcast. And Lisa has no one to blame for that blunder but herself. Lisa also decided to leave more than $1 million of the $3.5 million she had raised sitting unspent in the bank, even though if she had won the primary election she would have been reelected in November even if her campaign had not spent another dime. And worst of all, as Lisa later admitted, during the primary election campaign not only did she not "educate Alaskans about the extremist views that were held by Mr. Miller," late in the campaign "when he swung, I didn't swing back."

What I take away from all that is that Joe Miller ran the better campaign and on August 24 he beat Lisa Murkowski fair and square.

That grim fact of the matter left Alaskans like me, who are not hard-right Palinistas, a Hobson's choice.

To take Joe Miller's measure, on September 11 I attended the "Standing Strong for America" rally that a group of wing-nuts that calls itself the Conservative Patriots Group hosted at the Wasilla Sports Center and at which Miller was the announced star attraction. The event began with Pastor Stan Roach, an evangelical Baptist who came on stage without the snakes he undoubtedly handles on Sundays, ranting in his invocation against the "spineless politicians in Washington," and then praying for the Wrathful God in which he believes to strike down the Islamists. After the mayor of Wasilla then reminisced about the attack on World Trade Center, Joe Miller addressed the crowd.

Miller is tall and thin and presents well. And he spoke extemporaneously in complete sentences that flowed into paragraphs that made points that the crowd could understand. What I took away from that performance is that, unlike Pastor Roach, Miller, who graduated from West Point and Yale Law School, seemingly is a bright guy. Although Paul Krugman has my proxy insofar as macro-economic policy is concerned, I also did not disagree with Miller's principal campaign theme (nor does Krugman), which is that over the long haul the level of debt the federal government is incurring (including by continuing to borrow from China the money on which a significant part of the Alaska economy depends) is unsustainable.

But then came the nut-ball stuff. Joe Miller's pro-life rhetoric and honor-the-troops jingoism were what I expected to hear from a candidate Sarah and Jim DeMint have endorsed. But Miller's view that the U.S. Constitution prohibits Congress from spending money except on activities that the Founding Fathers specifically "enumerated" in the text of the Constitution is beyond ridiculous.

If that is correct, Dwight Eisenhower should have been impeached for having bamboozled Congress into financing construction of the inter-state highway system. Miller's hair-brained theory also ignores the fact that Article I, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power to provide for the "general Welfare of the United States" and to "make all Laws which are necessary and proper for carrying into Execution" the power to provide for the "general Welfare."

Those powers are as "enumerated" as any others. So how someone from Yale Law School who is as bright as Joe Miller seems to be could, as he did last Sunday on national television, tell Chris Wallace that Congress had no authority to appropriate the money it appropriated recently for the purpose of providing extended unemployment insurance benefits is a befuddlement.

Joe Miller also believes that the way for Alaska to transition away from its dependence on federal spending is for Congress to convey to the State of Alaska legal title to every last one of the 242 million acres of land the federal government owns in Alaska, including, among other locations, Denali National Park, the purportedly oil-rich coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and Elmendorf Air Force Base.

That idea is even nuttier than his "enumerated powers" theory.

But even worse, after listening to him at the "Standing Strong for America" rally, I believe that Joe Miller is the real deal. An ideologue who sincerely believes in his simplistic nonsense view of the complex and economically interdependent world that we all are stuck living in.

But if we can't vote for Joe Miller because his policy views are not tethered to the earth, how can I and every other reasonably sane Alaskan vote for Miller's Democratic opponent, Scott McAdams, a thirty-nine-year-old rolly-polly dough-boy of a man-child who sports a used car salesman's mustache that makes him look ridiculous on television and who by any intellectually honest standard of measure is not remotely ready for prime time, much less for election to the United States Senate?

Friends of mine who know him tell me that Scott McAdams is a smart, thoughtful, and very nice guy. Other friends who know him tell me that he is a spineless weasel whose word cannot be trusted. But either way, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, prior to Joe Miller rocking the Alaska political scene, McAdams, the part time mayor of Sitka, a small out-of-the-way fishing town on an island in southeast Alaska, raised a grand total of $16,812 in campaign contributions, only $11,148 of which he bothered to spend prior to the primary election. And he understood that his candidacy was so obviously hopeless that he didn't bother to take a leave of absence from his full-time job working for the local school district to campaign.

In sum, this mess is what democracy in Alaska has wrought. Of the 384,330 Alaskans who could have voted in the Alaska Republican primary election, only 109,750 bothered to; which allowed 55,878 of those who did (14.5 percent of the total) to push Joe Miller across the finish line. And the Alaska Democratic Party didn't bother to field a real candidate.

Which brings me to Lisa Murkowski.

Four days before the primary election Lisa and Joe Miller made a joint appearance before the Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce. When they did, Lisa had more than a million dollars in the bank that she saw no need to spend because the pundit class and the pollsters were predicting that she would stomp Joe Miller like a bug. So when she was asked whether she would agree to abide by the outcome of a primary election that she had no doubt she would win she publicly promised that she would.

When the votes were counted and Lisa lost, from Randy Ruedrich, the chairman of the Alaska Republican Party, to Republican Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, the Republican Party establishment fell in behind Joe Miller. But not Lisa. A week after the election she told a group of supporters how much she now was "looking forward to coming back home [to Alaska] with my family" when her term in the Senate expires in January. But another week later she equivocated by telling the Alaska press that she still was "weighing all my options."

Why did Lisa break her word? Only Lisa knows. But one reason is that, while it is an immense geographical expanse, Alaska is a very small town. And after the election many of the most influential of the relatively small group of people who run the town panicked when they realized that Joe Miller is the real deal -- an ideologue who, if he is elected, will do in the Senate what on the campaign trail he has been promising that he will do.

Of the segments of Alaskan society that will lose if Joe Miller is elected, none is more vulnerable than the Alaska Native community, a majority of whose 100,000 rank-and-file Indian, Eskimo, and Aleut members live in one of 200 remote villages in which the local economy is absolutely dependent on government spending, and whose leadership cadre since the late 1960s has had easy access that until now it has taken for granted, first to Ted Stevens's Senate office, and then to Lisa's. As a consequence, the week after the election the members of the board of directors of the Alaska Federation of Natives set up a meeting with Lisa at which, according to Albert Kookesh, a Tlingit Indian who is a co-chairman of the AFN board as well as a state senator and a nominal Democrat, they "begged" Lisa to find a way to save them from Joe Miller.

And the members of the AFN board of directors have not been alone in their panic. As Lisa would accurately report to the Alaska press, since the election she has received "a huge outpouring of support" from individuals throughout Alaska who for their entire adult lives have benefitted from the ersatz economy that Ted Stevens created during the almost forty years he occupied the seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee that Lisa inherited two years ago when Alaska voters impetuously turned Ted out of office after he had been convicted of not reporting to the Senate more than $250,000 worth of gifts he had received from Bill Allen, a longtime Stevens crony who for thirty years had been the oil industry's bagman in the state capitol.

Notwithstanding the interest group pressure, for almost a month Lisa equivocated, both publicly and privately. Friends of mine who are friends of hers tell me that early on Lisa told them how relieved she was to have been turned out from a seat in the Senate to which, if her father had not given it to her, she never could have won election on her own because she no longer had to behave in public like the right-of-conservative Republican that she isn't. But after eight years of faking it, Lisa likes being a Senator. And she still can't believe that a girl like her could have lost to a guy like Joe Miller.

So after continuing to equivocate to the very last minute, last Friday afternoon at a pep rally at the Anchorage convention center Lisa announced to a hastily assembled crowd of supporters that she had made her decision. She would be a write-in candidate in November for the seat in the United States Senate she now occupies.

When I heard that that would be her announcement, I motored over to the convention center to be on hand to hear it. When I arrived three hundred people were milling around an open beer and wine bar, many waving professionally printed signs that read: "Let's Make History."

A bigger conglomeration of usual suspects it would have been difficult to find. And when the television cameras turned on the most prominent of them climbed on stage with their signs in order to provide Lisa with an enthusiastic visual backdrop. Prior to Lisa's arrival, the warm-up speakers included the executive director of the Associated General Contractors of Alaska who lamented that the federal dollars Joe Miller wants to give back to the United States treasury finance a huge hunk of the construction industry in Alaska, as well as the heads of the teachers' and police officers' unions. Representing the Alaska Native community, in addition to Albert Kookesh, Byron Mallot, a former president of the Alaska Federation of Natives who is a much more important guy in Alaska political circles than Kookesh is, gave a rousing speech in which he touted Lisa's candidacy.

Then Lisa burst into the room, and, after hugging her way through the crowd as it chanted "Run, Lisa, Run," she climbed the stairs to the stage. To wild applause, she then announced that she was running.

But before she got to that she had to explain why she was breaking the commitment she had made when she and Joe Miller had appeared before the Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce. Here's how Lisa spun it:

Prior the August 24 primary I stated that I was going to accept the outcome of that primary. I regret that statement. It was made before I became aware of the last minute mud-slinging, the name-calling, the outright fabrications and lies that came by Mr. Miller and his staff. So I've got the choice of either living with the regret of making an ill-timed statement in a debate, or living with the regret of remaining silent while Mr. Miller and his extremist positions dismantle the relationships that Senator Stevens and I along with so many others have built over the years in Washington. And I can tell you unequivocally that that is not in Alaska's best interests.

In other words, she was breaking her word because during the last four days of the campaign Joe Miller had been mean to her.

Every Alaska voter can decide for him and herself whether in the sharp-elbowed rough-and-tumble world of politics that rationale is legitimate. But I don't think it is. Although it may sound counter-intuitive, in politics, if you give your word, you have an obligation to keep it. And if keeping it turns out to be inconvenient, then you shouldn't have given it to begin with.

Joe Miller and I don't agree on much. But I agree with Joe that Lisa has failed that test of character.

But even if she has, so what? Can she win?

If I had to bet my own money, as of today anyway, my bet is that she loses.

A new Rasmussen poll shows Joe Miller 15 percentage points ahead of Lisa with Scott McAdams nipping at her heels. But David Dittman, an Anchorage pollster who usually works for Republican candidates, has a poll that shows Lisa's write-in candidacy winning 37 percent of the vote in November, Joe Miller winning 31 percent, Scott McAdams winning 19 percent, and 13 percent of the electorate undecided. But in August Dave's polling completely missed Joe Miller's late surge of support.

So the way I figure it is this:

In the last two Alaska elections held during non-presidential election years, an average of 233,000 voters cast ballots. If Lisa needs 35 percent of that vote to win (and she may need more), 81,550 voters will have to write in her name and then color in the write-in oval on their ballots.

81,550 voters are an awful lot of people.

In a circumstance that, adjusted for time and political context, was not dissimilar from that in which Lisa now finds herself, in 1968 Mike Gravel beat Alaska United States Senator Ernest Gruening fair and square in the Democratic primary election. Gruening, who, like Lisa, convinced himself that the election had been stolen, then mounted a write-in campaign that attracted only 17.4 percent of the vote in the general election.

Ten years later Wally Hickel, a former Governor of Alaska who had served two years as Secretary of the Interior in the Nixon administration, did somewhat better. After losing the 1978 Republican gubernatorial primary election to Alaska Governor Jay Hammond by 98 votes, Hickel mounted a write-in campaign that attracted 26.4 percent of the vote in the general election. But that was back in the days when the election rules allowed a write-in candidate to hand out stickers for his supporters to paste onto their ballots, which today the election rules no longer allow.

It also is ironic that Lisa's intrusion into the general election may have cost Scott McAdams the theoretical slim chance he might have had to stop Joe Miller.

Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, the Senate Minority Whip, has expressed concern that Lisa's write-in campaign will peel enough votes away from Miller to allow McAdams to win a plurality. But that is not how I see it.

A day or two ago McAdams observed that "Alaska is a center-right state," not a "far-right state." Because (pun intended) he is right about that, independent center-right voters for whom Joe Miller's "constitutional conservatism" is too much to stomach had to either stay home or vote for McAdams.

Door number one. Or door number two. Those were the choices.

While many independent center-right voters would have stayed home, an unknown number may have voted for McAdams. But now they don't have to because Lisa has given them somewhere else to go.

Finally, any analysis of the Joe Miller-Lisa Murkowski general election contest would be incomplete without mentioning the larger to-the-death struggle inside of which the Miller-Murkowski contest will be fought out.

Sarah Palin invented Joe Miller. And if she had not endorsed him the Tea Party Express would not have spent the almost $600,000 that it did which made his primary election victory possible. So Sarah has heavily invested her brand in Joe, for which reason if Miller loses in November Sarah loses with him. Whatever her other failings as a candidate, Lisa Murkowski seemingly, if belatedly, finally understands that. Which is why in the speech in which she announced her write-in campaign she inflicted the first cut by promising that she would be "one Republican woman who won't quit on Alaska."

Reacting to that insult Sarah took the high road by simply dismissing Lisa's write-in campaign as "futile" and reaffirming her support for Joe Miller. But Sarah, who settles every score, is not a high road kind of girl. And she never takes prisoners. So my expectation is that Sarah does not just want Lisa to lose in November, she wants her to be publicly humiliated.

Lisa on the other hand has over the past eight years never displayed the fire-in-the-belly it's-about-me-and-no-one-else ambition that Senators who have fought their way into office possess. Nor during the primary election was she willing to slit throats when winning required that they be slit. In any other context, Lisa's level-headed sensibility would be commendable. But not between now and the general election.

So what it comes down to is that instead of keeping her word and retiring, Lisa has decided to slug-it-out in a probably lost cause election against the Eva Peron of contemporary American politics. A woman so ruthless, so focused on self-promotion, and so bent on winning that she sometimes scares the bejesus even out of me. In her speech at the Anchorage convention center Lisa promised her supporters that from here on out "the gloves are off." Maybe they are. But I'll believe that when I see her throw her first bare-knuckled punch.

But who knows? Maybe I'm not giving Lisa Murkowski her due. Maybe she now really is willing to unsheath a stiletto and vivisect Joe Miller and his patron. If she is, however the election turns out, the next forty-two days have the potential to be a lot of fun. A Thrilla in Wasilla the likes of which Alaskans have never seen before and may never see again.

So stay tuned.