McAdams, Murkowski, Miller Make Alaska Senate Race A Three-Way Barn Burner Incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski's aggressive write-in effort and stumbles by Tea Party-backed Republican Joe Miller have thrown more uncertainty into what's been one of the nation's most unpredictable races.
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NPR's Martin Kaste reports on the race

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Alaska's Senate Race Is A Three-Way Barn Burner

Alaska's Senate Race Is A Three-Way Barn Burner

Tea Party-fueled candidate Joe Miller was the on-message man of the hour in the weeks following his stunning August defeat of heavily favored incumbent Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the state's Republican primary.

Joe Miller, Republican nominee and Tea Party-backed candidate for Senate in Alaska, speaks Sept. 16 in Juneau. Chris Miller/AP hide caption

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Chris Miller/AP

The former government lawyer-turned-limited-government proponent made the national cable television rounds, accusing President Obama of moving the country toward "socialism" and criticizing what he characterized as the country's expanding "entitlement state."

But a fierce and extremely well-funded general election write-in campaign by Murkowski, revelations about Miller's past, and his own series of recent missteps — including his "guards" handcuffing a reporter attempting to question the candidate after a public forum — have clouded the West Point graduate's once-rosy Election Day fortunes.

Miller, a 43-year-old veteran and father of eight, now finds himself locked in a three-way race that is too close to call.

Polls show Miller, endorsed in the primary by former Gov. Sarah Palin, in a neck-and-neck battle with the more moderate Murkowski, 53. Pollsters caution, however, that polling a race with a write-in candidate is dicey at best.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who lost the GOP primary and is mounting a write-in bid to keep her job, speaks Sept. 24 in Juneau. Chris Miller/AP hide caption

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Chris Miller/AP

Democratic nominee Scott McAdams, 40, Sitka's mayor, continues to trail the two battling Republicans but has picked up support in recent weeks. That has prompted some party members to dare to dream that they could pick off an Alaska Senate seat for only the second time in more than three decades. (The state hasn't had a Democratic U.S. House member since 1972, and has voted for the Republican presidential candidate since 1964.)

"Joe Miller is on a downward trajectory," says Anchorage-based pollster Ivan Moore, noting that the surprise nominee has gone from the pick of 50 percent of Alaskans surveyed in August, to the one preferred by abut 35 percent this month.

"He got a free ride through the primary," Moore says, "because neither voters nor the media perceived that he'd win."

But Miller's Alaska supporters, including former Republican National Committee member Debbie Joslin, say party members remain excited about the candidate.

Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Alaska, sits for a photo Sept. 16 in Juneau. Chris Miller/AP hide caption

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Chris Miller/AP

"I'm appalled that Lisa Murkowski would not just accept the results of the primary," Joslin says. "I live in Alaska, I talk to Alaskans, and the people who voted for Joe in the primary continue to support him, and people who supported Lisa in the primary are calling and asking for Miller yard signs."

Tough Scrutiny

The heavy post-primary scrutiny has not been kind to Miller, giving Murkowski's supporters hope that her long-shot write-in effort will succeed for only the second time in U.S. Senate history.

South Carolina's Strom Thurmond, then a Democrat and a former governor, was elected to the Senate as a write-in candidate in 1954. Three statewide candidates in Alaska have launched serious write-in campaigns in the past, and failed. They include revered former territorial governor Ernest Gruening, who lost the Democratic nomination for Senate in 1968.

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NPR's Martin Kaste reports on the race

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"Write-ins don't win," says Tom Begich, brother of Alaska's other U.S. senator, Democrat Mark Begich, and son of the late U.S. Rep. Nick Begich.

When a candidate's name is not on the ballot, and is as potentially difficult to render as "Murkowski" — even given her family's more than three-decades-long political history in the state — the hurdle to victory has proven historically too high, says Begich, a former political pollster and strategist.

An Earlier Write-In Effort

In 1968, the campaign of Alaska Senate hopeful Ernest Gruening ran this ad to tell voters how to write in his name on Election Day. He didn't win. (Source: Alaska Film Archives)

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He says that in the old days, write-in candidates were allowed to send stickers bearing their names to voters, who could simply affix the sticker to the ballot. That's now considered illegal politicking.

But — and this is the "but" that the Murkowski campaign is flogging: Despite the historically proven long odds of write-in success, the more the state's voters have gotten to know Miller, the less they appear to support him.

Miller's Time

The Republican nominee has been dogged by the perception of hypocrisy for decrying government programs even though he or someone in his family has in the past: accepted farm subsidies, taken advantage of federal and state government health programs for low-income children and pregnant women, enjoyed discounts available to low-income residents on hunting and fishing licenses, and received unemployment benefits.

Miller has also battled openly with Alaska's reporters, declaring last week that his past would be off-limits to questions or scrutiny. That stand came just days before his private "guards" handcuffed Alaska Dispatch editor Tony Hopfinger in a public school hallway after an open campaign event.

Hopfinger had been aggressively questioning Miller about the circumstances surrounding his departure in 2009 from his job as a lawyer for the Fairbanks North Star Borough. A number of news organizations have gone to court in a bid to force the release of personnel information that could shed light on why Miller left the job.

Monday, Miller acknowledged during an appearance on CNN that while he was a borough lawyer he was reprimanded for misusing workplace computers for political purposes — a failed fight to become Republican state chairman.  He said, however, that was not why he left his job with the borough.

Beyond all of that, it may be Miller's distaste for the flow of federal money and entitlement programs that has unnerved many voters.

Alaska has enjoyed years of healthy amounts of Washington money courtesy of the late Sen. Ted "Uncle Ted" Stevens and, more recently, Murkowski.

The prospect of an anti-Washington, anti-government entitlement senator in Washington has made more than a few shudder, and Murkowski has been highlighting the federal money she has brought to the state.

Who Benefits?

"Joe Miller," says Moore, the pollster, "peaked too soon."

Miller's decline in the polls has benefited both Murkowski and McAdams.

And at a Monday night debate, which Miller skipped, the write-in and the Democrat insisted they would stay in the race — neither accepting a scenario of dropping out to help the other defeat the Tea Party favorite.

"If people are shaking off Joe Miller, they're obviously more likely to land with Lisa," Moore says. "Yet with every drop Miller has, McAdams also has picked up support."

Once 20 points off the lead, McAdams in two recent polls was within striking distance. A poll for the conservative Club for Growth showed Miller polling at 33 percent, Murkowski at 31 percent and McAdams at 27 percent. A poll for the liberal website DailyKos.com taken at the same time had similar results.

Whoever wins will likely do so with 36 percent or so of the vote, and polls suggest that all are within striking distance.

What Miller's slide has done for McAdams, Democrats say, is to give a candidate once seen as having no shot an aura of actually having a path to victory.

Both Joslin and Tea Party Express leader Amy Kremer dismiss the polls that show Miller sagging.

"Polls are a snapshot in time, and we won't stop working with Joe Miller until the last ballot is cast — we support him 100 percent, all the way," Kremer said. Take the polls, Joslin advises, "with a grain of salt — we saw in the primary that the polling was not accurate."

Rosy Scenario

Begich thinks he has it all worked out. Miller will settle in with up to 33 percent of the vote, Murkowski's Election Day take will be about 10 percentage points lower than what polls suggest, and McAdams will slip in and make his own history.

"Murkowski needs more than 33 percent, and she can't get it," he says.

Most political handicappers see McAdams doing better than expected because of the three-way battle, but one of the Republicans pulling it out. NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin says the race "leans" Republican. "It's one thing to tell a pollster that you will vote for Murkowski and another to actually go into the voting booth and write out her name," he writes on NPR.org's Election Scorecard.

Said Miller recently: "Now, did I make mistakes in my past? Does that disqualify me as a U.S. senator? I guess that's got to be the people's decision to make."

And they've already begun to make it. Early voting in Alaska started Monday.