~Senator Lisa Murkowski Campaigning for Senator Ted Stevens in 2008
In 2006, a relatively unknown small town mayor in Alaska toppled the incumbent Republican governor in the primary. Garnering more than 50% of the vote in a three-way race, and leaving the incumbent in the dust with 19%, the political career of Sarah Palin was born. The governor that was sent packing was Frank Murkowski. He'd been Alaska's Junior Senator under Ted Stevens for decades, and decided to come home and try his hand at the governorship. It didn't work out very well. His mismanagement, pandering to the oil companies, corrupt administration, and subsequent devastating defeat would have seemed to end the Murkowski reign in Alaska -- except for one little thing. Frank Murkowski had appointed his daughter, former state lawmaker Lisa Murkowski to fill the empty senate seat.
Less corrupt, less conservative, and harder-working than dear ol' dad, Lisa Murkowski appealed to the large chunk of centrist Republicans, centrist Democrats, and Independents which make up the majority of Alaska voters. Her approval ratings soared into the high 70s, and there they stayed. The Murkowski dynasty appeared poised to last another lifetime.
One of the casualties, however, of Lisa's installment to her father's senate seat was Sarah Palin. She'd been interviewed for the job, along with a handful of others, and had ultimately been rejected by Frank Murkowski, in favor of family ties. Palin was not pleased. Alaskans didn't much like the royal appointment either. A ballot measure put to voters and passed into law stripped sitting senators of the ability to make appointments to fill their own seats. It would now be left to a vote of the people via special election. Ironically, that very ballot also contained Lisa Murkowski's first legitimate run for the senate on her own merits. She won.
Fast forward to 2008. After Palin's failed VP run, rumors swirled that Sarah would exact revenge and make a run for Murkowski's senate seat when she came up for re-election in 2010. The Republican Party began to grumble. To ease fears, Sarah made nice and wrote her very first check from SarahPAC to Lisa Murkowski in the amount of $5000. But the uneasy truce was not to last.
Former Palin campaign supporter and family friend, attorney Joe Miller from Fairbanks decided he was going to be the David to take a shot at the Goliath of the Murkowski family. First came a formal endorsement from Todd Palin. Then came the formal endorsement from Sarah herself. Miller got a little bump in the polls, but not much. Then came the endorsement of the Tea Party Express, and the financial floodgates opened. In a market where $10 will buy you a radio ad, and the entire state has only 600,000 people, the torrent of money that the Tea Party brought created an instant professional campaign the likes of which Alaskan candidates seldom have. Slick ads, four-color mailers, a revamped website, campaign signs everywhere -- Miller's numbers started to grow, but still lagged by well into double digits.
But in the last two weeks, things began to change. Just when it looked like the Palin endorsement wasn't working as well as expected, the final media blitz hit. Every available moment of air time on TV and radio was overtaken by Miller ads -- Murkowski is a liberal! Murkowski is part of a political dynasty. She's entitled. She says one thing and does another. She's sold out for political power in D.C. She's a liberal, and also by the way, she's a liberal.
The Murkowski campaign, believing in their own numbers, her popularity with constituents, and in the reasonable nature of most Alaskans, didn't seem to think that catastrophe was nipping at their heels.
In the final 48 hours, a popular local radio host interviewed Miller and framed Murkowski as a "rabid abortionist." This in itself would have riled up the Christian conservative base, but on top of that there was an added bit of ballot bait this time around. Ballot Measure 2 stated that doctors of any girl 17 years of age or younger needed to notify her parents if she sought to have an abortion, or face felony charges. Like red meat to the wolves, Ballot Measure 2 brought out the Right to Life crowd in force. Churches devoted entire services on the Sunday before primary day to talking about why congregants should support Measure 2. Signs promoting "Alaskans for Parental Notification" showed up in their lobbies.
The beneficiaries of the voters who came out to support Measure 2 were Miller, Sean Parnell and Mead Treadwell. Parnell was Palin's Lt. Governor who assumed the seat after she resigned. Treadwell, the Lt. Governor nominee was one of the top donors to Yes on 2, with credit on the website. All three men appear to have won their respective slots on the party ticket -- Parnell with the Republican gubernatorial nomination, Treadwell as the GOP's Lt. Governor candidate, and Miller officially once the absentee ballots are counted. As a measure of the issue's ability to bring out the vote, there were 10,000 votes cast just for the ballot measure alone, with no senate candidate even selected. The ones who chose a senatorial candidate while they were there anyway, presumably also numbered in the thousands.
Another mitigating factor were progressives who, trying to play political chess and overthrow Murkowski, crossed over and voted for Miller. The logic was that Miller, a far right fringe candidate, would be far easier for the Democratic candidate to beat in a head to head race with all Alaskans in the voting mix. And this may come to pass.
Scott McAdams, little known to Alaskans outside the southeast pan-handle, is a popular small town mayor. He runs the city of Sitka and has balanced budgets, focused on education, served on the school board, and has even figured out how to sell water to India. He was a deckhand on a commercial fishing boat all over the state, and is all the kinds of things that Sarah Palin said she was, before the media began to shine a flashlight in all the dark corners. He's a "real Alaskan" in the style of the politicians of old, before oil was discovered and turned a libertarian blue state reddish.
I say redd-ish because despite the meme that Alaska is ruby red, and that it's full of a bunch of Palin-style conservatives, Alaska is actually very... plum-colored. Democrats have an equal number in the state senate, and in November stand a good chance of getting a decisive majority in both the senate and the house. It has one Democratic Senator and one Republican Senator. Before Frank Murkowski and Sarah Palin, Alaska had a two-term Democratic governor. The Anchorage Assembly has a progressive majority. It's a complicated state.
McAdams, who unlike Miller, is a fiscally conservative moderate Democrat, has executive experience, was born and raised in Alaska, and has worked with his hands in the fishing industry, suddenly finds himself with an incredible opportunity. One could even say that attorney and Yale Law grad Joe Miller who was born and raised "Outside" is kind of "elite," while McAdams is all about Alaska, and "real people."
And despite what they say, Alaskans do like their power in D.C. and the perks it brings home. After Palin rejected a portion of federal stimulus money for her state, there were demonstrations in the streets, and the Republican legislature eventually overturned her decision, bringing in much needed funds to assist Alaskans in rural areas to make their homes energy efficient for the winter, fix crumbling infrastructure, and a host of other things. Electing a minority party freshman on the outer fringes of conservative philosophy and who is doomed to be powerless might not sound too appealing to Alaskans who are used to the likes of Ted Stevens, The Murkowski Dynasty, and Don Young who for decades made a career by bringing home the congressional bacon.
And don't underestimate the damage that Miller has done to the Republican Party and to good will of those who actually really liked Lisa Murkowski recognizing that she actually did work hard to benefit the state, and that she wasn't... crazy. There will be many Republicans who will not be able to bring themselves to vote for Miller, and who will investigate and ultimately hop to the other side of the aisle to vote for McAdams. As we've just witnessed, all it takes is money to get the message out and bring voters to the polls. Our newest Republican candidate for Senate made that very clear.
All in all this makes for some fascinating political theater up here in the Last Frontier, and a golden opportunity for Democrats to reclaim Alaska's past and usher in a new era of moderate, hard-working sensible and centrist Democrats to guide the state to a profitable, post-oil future. Nationally, that's one more coveted chair in the Club of 100 from a very unlikely place.
In the words of a Murkowski campaign worker last night at election central in downtown Anchorage at the prospect of Senator Joe Miller, "The world as we know it is coming apart at the seams, and frankly I'm terrified."