Capitol Idea: Republican Trouble In Palin Country

It’s possible, perhaps even probable, that Republican Joe Miller could run away with one of Alaska’s Senate seats in November.

But with the Republican side of the ballot in open rebellion, that’s no longer a foregone conclusion.

What’s really interesting isn’t that the Democrats could pick up a second Senate seat in solidly Republican Alaska.

No, what could be most remarkable is if incumbent GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski beats the odds and comes back to the Senate next year.


If you think this sounds more like reality TV series than a political campaign, don’t worry. It actually gets more complicated, including a cameo role from Alaska’s former half-term governor, Sarah Palin.

Murkowski last month was upended in Alaska’s Republican primary by Miller, who until weeks ago wasn’t even well-known in his home state. Miller defeated Murkowski in no small measure due to not only the backing of the tea party movement, but also a personal endorsement from “mama grizzly” Palin herself.

But that Palin would support Miller over Murkowski isn’t surprising given the longstanding bad blood between Palin and the Murkowski family.

Murkowski first entered the Senate in 2002, appointed to the job by her father, Frank. Frank Murkowski had held the Senate seat himself, but that year had been elected governor.

He named his daughter to take his old job, but four years later, Palin defeated the elder Murkowski in the GOP primary for governor.

Fast forward to this year. The younger Murkowski didn’t take Miller’s challenge seriously enough until it was too late. Although Lisa Murkowski has compiled a mainstream conservative voting record — going so far as unsuccessfully trying earlier this year to stop the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from using it authority to regulate greenhouse gases — Miller relentlessly attacked her as a “liberal.”

Murkowski lost her nomination, but she didn’t give up, deciding instead to mount a last-minute write-in campaign to remain Alaska’s senior senator. The mayor of Sitka, Alaska, Democrat Scott McAdams, was hardly better known than Miller had been. Given that Alaskans overwhelmingly vote Republicans, McAdams had been little more than token opposition.

But with conservatives split between Miller and Murkowski, he now has a real chance of joining fellow Alaska Democrat Mark Begich in the Senate. A recent Harris poll backs up that possibility.

In an election in Alaska in which a Republican like Murkowski is running separately from the tea party-backed candidate, such as Miller, 41 percent would vote for the Democratic candidate, 23 percent would vote for the Republican, 13 percent would vote for the Tea Party candidate, and 23 percent are still not at all sure.

Among those voters who say they are absolutely certain to vote, 42 percent would vote Democrat, 26 percent would vote Republican, 17 percent would vote for the Tea Party candidate, and 15 percent are not at all sure.

Not good news for either Murkowski or Miller.

Although no one has won in a write-in campaign for U.S. Senate since Strom Thurmond was running as a Democrat in the 1950s, it would be unwise to write off Murkowski’s write-in. Four years ago and thousands of miles from Alaska, Joe Lieberman lost his Democratic nomination for re-election, but he went on to win anyway as an independent.

Murkowski’s refusal to take no nomination for an answer is proving to be as uncomfortable for Republicans as Lieberman’s was for Democrats in 2006. After initially backing her, the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee turned on Murkowski, denouncing her write-in effort.

After all of this dissension, it would be somewhat delicious if Murkowski were defeat both of her opponents in November and return to the Senate in January.

Just what would her relationship be with the Republicans who turned on her? Would all be forgiven, or at least forgotten?

Or would all these bad feelings linger, and perhaps Murkowski might find she has more in common with Democrats than even she once thought?

Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade. Capitol Idea is his regular column from Washington. This article first published as Republican Trouble In Palin Country on Blogcritics.

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