Huffpost Politics

Tea Party Casualty Lisa Murkowkski Wages Establishment Comeback

Posted: Updated:

JUNEAU, Alaska — Against a string of tea party victories, the establishment is fighting back. Its personification is Lisa Murkowski, a U.S. senator by means of her father's appointment and one unwilling to fade into Alaska's political wilderness after losing to a candidate backed by Sarah Palin and tea party activists.

Murkowski's establishment is the same one that brought billions of dollars in federal projects and aid to Alaskans, something she's counting on them to remember as she wages a write-in candidacy against Joe Miller, a candidate who upset Murkowski in last month's GOP primary.

Murkowski's bid is a long shot but not the only one being waged by members of the GOP's old guard against newcomers who bested them by espousing more conservative views and playing to an anti-establishment mood among voters irked by a Wall Street bailout and lingering high unemployment, bankruptcy and foreclosure rates.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is running for the Senate as an independent after tea party favorite Marco Rubio put a bow on the GOP nomination long before the state's primary. And nine-term Rep. Mike Castle, the former Republican governor who lost to tea party-financed novice Christine O'Donnell, has been eyeing an independent bid in Delaware.

Pilloried for months, most Republican veterans toppled by rebellious "tea partiers" advocating smaller government and lower taxes chose simply to surrender. Defying the will of one's party means proceeding without its formidable cash-raising apparatus and trying to win with what's left.

In Murkowski's case, what's left is an unused million-dollar campaign account: her association with and blessing of the state's pre-eminent figure for a quarter century, the late Sen. Ted Stevens; and the name recognition from the three decades she and her father, former Gov. Frank Murkowski, have held the Senate seat.

Political analysts are not counting on her to prevail. But this election year of unprecedented influences and trends could work for Murkowski, especially in a tight race, said one.

"If I were to bet, I'd bet on Miller. But I wouldn't bet a lot," said Sandy Maisel, director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs at Colby College.

There's a lot stacked against Murkowski. It's legally unclear, for example, which version of her name written on a ballot would count as a vote. The Republican establishment has pledged campaign cash to support Miller. To counter the GOP's influence, she'll need a broad coalition of voters behind her. And that means competing with Democrat Scott McAdams to win the support of moderates.

There's also the political force of Palin, the former Alaska governor who was John McCain's vice presidential running mate and is now the GOP's, the tea partiers' and the conservative movement's top draw. Palin drove Murkowski's father from the governor's office in 2006. And months after she and McCain lost the presidential election, Palin resigned from the governor's job.

With Palin's endorsement, Miller defeated Murkowski in the state's GOP primary last month by 2,006 votes. Murkowski no longer holds back her thoughts about Palin. In announcing her write-in candidacy, she referred to herself as "one Republican woman who won't quit on Alaska."

Murkowski's write-in bid has alienated some Republicans as the destructive product of political sour-grapes.

"Nobody likes to lose, but, gee, when Lisa won the primary (in 2004), we all just sucked it up and went along, and she needs to do that, too," said Debbie Joslin, the Republican National Committee woman for Alaska.

A conservative nonprofit group is running radio ads in Alaska portraying her as a spoiled princess trying to hold onto a seat her father gave her.

Murkowski is not backing down.

She has a new campaign manager, and perhaps more importantly, an energy that wasn't there in the summer, when she focused on her record and seniority and referred to Miller as "my opponent."

She's touting Stevens' tradition of bringing home federal money that helped build Alaska's airports, highways and schools. And she's no longer shying away from linking her work to Stevens' legacy, something she refused to do in the wake of the senator's death in a plane crash last month. She's yet to decide whether to air two ads Stevens had cut for her.

A tougher challenge is what form of her name, written on ballots, would count as a vote.

Murkowski is asking Alaskans to come up with slogans, write letters to the editor, call-in to radio talk shows and make YouTube videos. She's handing out sample ballots so voters can practice writing in her name at home. And she's planning to cut radio jingles that explain the write-in process.

Paul Hamby, 54, a Republican and regional vice president of a firefighters' association, said his support for Murkowski is a matter loyalty.

"We stick with our friends. No matter how bad things get, we stick with our friends," Hamby said.