If There Is An Anti-Universe, It's In Alaska : It's All Politics We have political science fiction coming true right before our eyes. The possibility that Tea Party favorite Joe Miller has overthrown Sen. Lisa Murkowski defies everything we know about politics
NPR logo If There Is An Anti-Universe, It's In Alaska

If There Is An Anti-Universe, It's In Alaska

Reuters News — "Space-Based Detector Could Find Anti-Universe: A huge particle detector to be mounted on the International Space Station next year could find evidence for the anti-universe often evoked in science fiction, physicists said this week. ... The 20-year research program would bring a huge step forward in understanding the cosmos."

Let physics go in search of science fiction. We have political science fiction coming true right before our eyes. We have discovered the anti-universe and it seems to be expanding outward from Alaska.

This week, a Fairbanks lawyer named Joe Miller (no need to check the spelling) may have knocked off incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski in the Alaska Republican primary. The counting of absentee ballots may yet erase his narrow lead, but it hardly matters to the larger point. The mere fact that the race was a dead heat defies everything we know about politics.

Murkowski out campaigning on Monday. Mark Thiessen/Associated Press hide caption

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Mark Thiessen/Associated Press

We may not know what an anti-universe what would look like, exactly, but we assume it would be — well — different. Things would be pretty much the opposite of what we expect them to be.

And that's just what we have in the 49th State. Murkowski's name recognition was not just superior, it was nearly perfect. She and her father, Frank, had held this Senate seat for 30 years. Miller (did I get that name right?) had never run for office and had no other particular claim to fame.

Money? She had millions; he had a few hundred thousand.

Polls? Fairly recent polls showed her ahead by 25 to 30 points.

Moreover, Murkowski had no obvious reason to be in trouble. Unlike Sen. John McCain in Arizona, whose past flirtations with moderation had angered much of his party base at home, Murkowski had no special reputation as a maverick. She may have shown interest at one time in bipartisan energy legislation that would attempt to deal with global warming. But she backed off of that issue and retreated from prospective compromises on others as well.

Sure, she voted for the Toxic Asset Relief Program in the closing months of the last Bush administration, but she is scarcely the first or last Republican to have the TARP thrown over her this year. Most have survived their primaries easily.

Miller, center, smiles as he visits with supporters in Anchorage, Alaska on Tuesday. Michael Dinneen/Associated Press hide caption

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Michael Dinneen/Associated Press

Some say that in this year of the Tea Party, it's enough to be tarred as an establishment type, a member of the club. But power in Washington has long been considered a plus for Alaskans, who depend on seniority and committee clout to maintain one of the most lucrative ratios of any state when it comes to federal spending received to federal taxes paid.

Alaskans are supposed to appreciate this, which is why they elected Murkowski's father to the Senate four times and Ted Stevens seven times (and their one member of the House, Don Young, no less than 19 times).  Lisa Murkowski just moved into Stevens' seat on the all-important Appropriations Committee last year. And the recent outpouring of appreciation for Stevens, who died in a plane crash this month, seemed likely to buoy the incumbent's traditional appeal.

Searching what we know for an explanation, then, we are left with two traditional considerations: endorsements and voter turnout. One we often over-emphasize, the other we should never forget.

Which kind of Alaska Republican was most motivated for this primary? The answer appears to be the populist, evangelical, anti-abortion Republicans who are likely to identify with the movement known as the Tea Party.

Murkowski had a vulnerability within her own party because she was a supporter of abortion rights in some cases. While abortion views are divided in Alaska as elsewhere, opposition to abortion is more concentrated in the Republican Party. And this week's ballot featured a voter measure on requiring parental notification prior to an abortion for a minor. Murkowski endorsed the measure, but the anti-abortion activists who came out to vote for it may well have preferred Miller's anti-abortion credentials overall.

It was also this issue that influenced former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to switch her support from Murkowski to Miller. The incumbent's campaign had received a check from Palin in the early going, but when Miller later emerged as an anti-abortion champion aligned with the Tea Party and other Palin causes, the state's most mediagenic citizen made her move. It didn't hurt that Mike Huckabee, the former minister, governor and presidential candidate who also appears on FOX News, came to the state to campaign for Miller.

But it was Palin's endorsement that helped galvanize her supporters in Alaska and got the headlines the day after Election Day. It should have surprised no one familiar with her own career history, of course, as she took on Frank Murkowski in the Republican primary in 2006 and beat him, launching her own statewide and national rise.

Frank Murkowski's one-term governorship may also have weighed on his daughter this week. Practically his first act as governor upon election in 2002 had been the naming of Lisa as his Senate successor. She won the seat on her own in 2004, to be sure, but the memory of her initial appointment and the decline of her father's personal popularity in the intervening years may have weighed her down.

In the end, family associations can be a burden as much as a benefit , and that's part of the known universe of politics too.

Still, the shock waves from Alaska this week are one more reason a lot of us down here on terra firma are finding the terra less firma lately.