Deadlock In Alaska Shows Tea Party Can't Be Counted Out

GOP senate candidate Joe Miller and his wife Kathleen in Anchorage, Aug. 24, 2010.

Miller and his wife Kathleen in Anchorage on Tuesday. Michael Dinneen/Associated Press hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Dinneen/Associated Press

By the time I left work last night, at 1:30 a.m., most of the day's primary results were already established.

Arizona's John McCain easily prevailed in his first primary contest in the 24 years he's been in the Senate.  The Tea Party candidate, Rick Scott, beat the establishment in the GOP gubernatorial primary in Florida.  Kendrick Meek defeated a challenge from a billionaire real estate mogul to win the Democratic Senate nod in the Sunshine State.  Dan Quayle's son Ben survived gaffes and adversity to triumph in an Arizona congressional district.

What few people expected was what happened, or is happening, in Alaska.  Sen. Lisa Murkowski, in the Senate nearly eight years, is trailing in her bid for renomination.  Leading the race by about 1,960 votes is Joe Miller, a Gulf War veteran and politically unknown Fairbanks attorney who was strongly embraced by the Tea Party and who had secured the endorsements of Sarah and Todd Palin.

Neither candidate was supposed to be in this position.  Sure, the Tea Party stands for limited government, and Murkowski is hardly the epitome of that. Like her mentor, the late Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, Murkowski is a practitioner of the system in which Alaskans get far more from the government than they give in terms of projects and roads and money.  Call it pork, call it largess, but that was the politics of Stevens and it is the politics of Murkowski, and that is — we all argued — what Alaskans like.  As for Miller and the Palins and the noisy Tea Party?  They're missing the point, we said.  They'll get the message on Aug. 24.

Well, a message was sent, alright.  And nearly everyone was caught flatfooted by it.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski shakes hands with supporter Jennifer Johnson; Aug. 24, 2010.

Murkowski, center, shakes hands with supporter Jennifer Johnson at the senator's campaign headquarters in Anchorage on Tuesday. Michael Dinneen/Associated Press hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Dinneen/Associated Press

Many dismiss Sarah Palin and roll their eyes at all the attention she gets when she endorses a candidate ... especially when her endorsement is often no more than a Facebook entry or a Twitter feed.  With Joe Miller, who happens to be a friend of Todd Palin, fundraising appeals under her name were sent out, but she did no physical campaigning for him.

But something worked.

Four years ago, when she was just the little-known mayor of Wasilla, Palin charged onto the scene, criticizing the corruption and ineptitude of the GOP establishment, and clobbered then-Gov. Frank Murkowski in the Republican primary.  In 2008, as her party's nominee for vice president, she said that Stevens, who was convicted on corruption charges shortly before his own re-election, should resign. He refused, stayed in the race, and narrowly lost to Mark Begich, the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in Alaska since 1974.

That brings us to Lisa Murkowski's Senate seat.

Appointed by her father in 2002 — he left the Senate to win the governorship that year and controversially named her as his successor — Murkowski was not thought to be in the least bit of trouble this year.  There was some speculation that Palin, who was still governor, might want to do to the daughter in 2010 what she did to the father in '06.  But the Murkowski camp was unimpressed.  Bring it, they said.

What Palin and the Tea Party did bring was the argument that Murkowski was a RINO, a Republican-In-Name-Only who stood not for GOP principles but for big government.

Perhaps.  But, we all said, that's what Alaskans want.  They never loved Ted Stevens during his 40 years in the Senate — but they kept re-electing him, by landslide proportions, because of what he brought home.  It took a corruption conviction to ultimately defeat him.  Lisa Murkowski had the same philosophy about bringing home the bacon.  And that's why she was going to win big.

Or so we thought.

With about 98 percent of the precincts reporting, Murkowski stands 1,960 votes behind Miller out of more than 91,000 counted.  There are, however, some 16,000 absentee and provisional ballots that have yet to be counted.  Murkowski could still survive.  Whoever emerges as the GOP nominee, he or she will be the strong favorite in November over the Democratic nominee, Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams.

But perhaps it's time that we paid more attention to this Tea Party "thing;" this dissatisfaction among Republican activists that says the politics as usual way of doing things is over.

Their message hasn't resonated everywhere.  There have probably been more failures than successes this year.  But when they win — or when they get mightily close, as in Alaska — they remind us that they are a force to be reckoned with.  And by now everyone should perhaps stop being surprised.

Yesterday, by the way, Alaska Public Radio Network's Libby Casey filed a report on the Miller-Murkowski race for All Things Considered:

Miller Vs. Murkowski

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