For those of us who had a ringside seat in Alaska from which to watch it happen, Sarah Palin's take-no-prisoners rise from small town mayor to tabloid celebrity who moves through the hard-right circles in which she now travels like the rock star she has become has been wonderful fun. But Sarah belongs to America now and for the past year-and-a-half Alaskans have seen hardly hide nor hair of the woman.
But over the next two months we may be seeing more of her because three weeks ago Sarah endorsed a Fairbanks attorney named Joe Miller who is running in the August 24 Republican primary election against Lisa Murkowski for the seat in the United States Senate that Lisa has held since 2002.
Last month at Wally Hickel's wake in the ballroom of the Captain Cook Hotel I was introduced to Joe Miller and chatted with him long enough to confirm the street talk that Joe, who seemed a pleasant enough fellow, is a run-of-the-mill, anti-government, pro-life wing-nut of the kind for which Fairbanks, the birthplace of the Alaska Independence Party and the hometown of the first member of the Alaska Libertarian Party to be elected to the Alaska Legislature, is renowned.
But so what if Joe Miller is a wing-nut? Inside the Alaska Republican Party being a wing-nut is a credential worth advertising. And Sarah's endorsement was a terrific advertisement that instantaneously gave Joe credibility with thousands of right-of-conservative Republican and Independent voters. Sarah's endorsement also brought Joe to the attention of the Tea Party Express, which two weeks ago endorsed Joe and announced that between now and August 24 it will spend $500,000 to try to get him elected.
In California or New York $500,000 in a statewide election is chump change. But it's not chump change in Alaska, particularly when only 378,000 Alaskans are eligible to vote in the semi-closed Republican primary election in which, based on the number of votes cast in past Alaska Republican primary elections held in non-presidential election years, only a third of that number will go to the trouble to cast a ballot. For that reason, David Dittman, a respected Alaska pollster who works principally for Republican candidates, now predicts that, thanks to Sarah and the Tea Party Express, Joe Miller has a shot.
How for Lisa Murkowski it could have come to this is a story worth telling.
Since it entered the union in 1959 Alaska has had seven United States Senators. Of the lot, Frank Murkowski, who served from 1981 to 2002, has been the worst. Self-absorbed, abusive to his staff, intellectually incurious, and pathologically incapable of learning from his mistakes, during his twenty-one years in the Senate, Frank accomplished absolutely nothing. But from the neck up Frank looked on TV like a Senator, so he got away with it and most Alaskans thought Frank was a terrific Senator even though they had no idea why they thought that.
In 2002 Frank decided to finish off his political career by retiring from the Senate and running for Governor. That November Frank drubbed Fran Ulmer, his Democratic opponent, by winning 56 percent of the vote. But that was the apogee. Finally having to deal with him at close quarters, within months of his inauguration, Alaskans who for decades had considered Frank their guy realized that they had elected an arrogant mean-spirited fool as their chief executive. Nevertheless, oblivious to public opinion, Frank plodded on and by 2006 when he ignored the polls and ran for reelection Frank, who had been one of the most popular Senators in Alaska history, had become the most reviled Governor in Alaska history.
Frank Murkowski's self-inflicted descent into ignominy paved the way for the rise of Sarah Palin who in the August 2006 Republican gubernatorial primary election won 51 percent of the vote in an election in which Frank, with 19 percent, finished third. The month after the election only 14 percent of Alaskans polled had a favorable opinion of their soon to be ex-Governor, an approval rating that was 5 percentage points behind that of Ohio Governor Robert Taft who in 2005 had pleaded no contest to four misdemeanor counts of public corruption. That accomplishment allowed Frank to end his political career the least popular Governor in the nation.
While start to finish Frank's tenure as Governor was a disaster, during that tenure Frank, for the wrong reason, did for Alaska what has turned out to be one right thing.
In December 2002 when he resigned from the Senate and was sworn into office as Governor, Alaska law in effect at the time allowed Governor Murkowski to appoint Senator Murkowski's replacement.
Who would Frank pick? For the month after the election speculation swirled as the usual suspects in the Alaska Republican Party - most sitting or former members of the Alaska Legislature - elbowed each other for advantage in their pursuit of Frank's favor.
In the end, their scheming and conniving did them all zero good. Because three weeks after he assumed office, Frank announced that he was appointing his forty-five-year-old daughter, Lisa, to succeed him in the Senate.
In addition to the fun of watching Frank be Frank, the best part of that joke was that Frank's brazen nepotism saddled the Alaska Republican Party with a Senator who - if she had had to win the seat her father gave to her by standing as a candidate in a Republican primary election - would have been humiliated by the enormity of her defeat.
Because Lisa Murkowski is everything Frank Murkowski is not.
During her eight years in the Senate Lisa has demonstrated that she is what she was when her father appointed her: smart, hard-working, conscientious, courteous to all she meets, and respected by peers on both sides of the aisle. And while, because she is a Republican, she caucuses with yahoos like Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint, by temperament and ideology Lisa Murkowski is a center-right Democrat.
Every hard-right Republican in Alaska understood that when Frank appointed Lisa. But there was nothing any of them could do about it but rail. As the Anchorage Daily News reported the day after Frank announced her appointment: "Alaska's conservative radio talk shows have been aflame with questions about Lisa taking over the seat."
As well the talk shows should have been.
The month before Frank appointed her Lisa had been elected to her third term in the Alaska House of Representatives from an Anchorage election district that includes Elmendorf Air Force Base and its surrounding off-base neighborhoods. The district is so rock-ribbed Republican that in the three elections Lisa won the Democrats didn't bother to field a candidate.
In 1998 Lisa won her seat by defeating an underfunded unknown candidate in the Republican primary election.
In 2000 Lisa was reelected by winning the Republican primary election unopposed.
But 2002 was a different story. During that year's legislative session Lisa was a member of a bipartisan Fiscal Policy Caucus that developed a plan to address the State's looming budget shortfall by reinstating the income tax and using revenue from the Alaska Permanent Fund to finance state government. And if for conservative Republicans that was not heresy enough, her signal offense that session was voting against a flagrantly unconstitutional bill that Republican leaders in the House cooked up whose enactment would have prohibited the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services from paying for abortions for indigent women.
When the bill was being debated on the House floor a pro-choice colleague privately advised Lisa that since Tony Knowles, the Democratic Governor, had announced that he would veto the bill if it passed, she should vote yes to placate her constituents. But in a speech prior to the vote, Lisa announced that "I may have a very short-lived political future here. But I'm going to stand up for the Constitution and I'm going to stand up for the women of Alaska and I'm going to vote no."
That no vote provoked Nancy Dahlstrom, an energetic hard core conservative, to challenge Lisa in the 2002 Republican primary election in which Lisa, by only 57 votes, barely snuck through.
Four months later when her father appointed Lisa to the Senate, Karen Vosburgh, the executive director of Alaska Right to Life, publicly warned Alaska's new Senator that she had a Hobson's choice: move off her pro-choice position or face a challenge from a pro-life candidate in the 2004 Republican primary election.
In the 2004 Republican primary election two pro-life challengers ran, Mike Miller, a former president of the Alaska Senate, and Wev Shea, a former United States Attorney. But Mike and Wev had no statewide name recognition and no money to buy any. So Lisa sailed through winning 58 percent of the vote. She then held on to slip by former Alaska Democratic Governor Tony Knowles by 3 percentage points in a general election in which Republicans who disliked her policy views and/or were offended by the nepotism her incumbency represented had no choice but to vote for her in order to avoid being saddled with Tony.
Which is why this time around Sarah Palin's endorsement of Joe Miller is so interesting.
When John McCain and Sarah lost the 2008 presidential election, Alaska immediately was riven with speculation that Sarah would run against Lisa in 2010. But I didn't believe it. First, because by then Sarah's celebrity already had transcended politics (which is why I have a bet out that she doesn't run for President in 2012). And second, because, as self-absorbed as she is, even Sarah understands that she is temperamentally unsuited for the Senate, where when she was elected to the body even a world-class celebrity like Hillary was required to spend years doing her homework and speaking only when spoken to.
So I took Sarah at her word when she told an interviewer a month after the 2008 presidential election that Lisa's Senate seat was "not in my sights." And four months after that I took Meg Stapleton, Sarah's spokesperson at the time, at her word when Meg reconfirmed in April 2009 that Sarah "has no intention of running for the Senator's seat in 2010" because she "thinks the Senator is doing a great job."
But if in April 2009 Sarah thought Lisa was doing such a great job, why in June 2010 did she endorse Joe Miller?
My theory, and I think it's a good one, is that there are two reasons.
The first reason is that in April 2009 Sarah did not think Lisa could be beat. But now she does.
In January 2009 David Dittman, the Republican pollster, released a poll which indicated that even though Sarah's approval rating in Alaska still stood at 60 percent, if she ran against Lisa, Lisa would win 57 percent to 33 percent. And no other challenger could be expected to do as well as Sarah would. While that was a poll of statewide voters, Lisa's numbers were solid enough to suggest that she would win the Republican primary election. By June 2010 the anti-incumbent mood that has swept the nation and the Tea Party Movement's success in denying Utah Republican Senator Robert Bennett, a dependably stalwart conservative Republican if ever there has been one, his party's nomination for a fourth term, and in assisting Sharron Angle to win the Republican Senate nomination in Nevada has changed the dynamic.
The second reason is that Sarah's decision to endorse Joe Miller wasn't motivated by new-found anathema for Lisa. It was motivated by long-held anathema for Frank.
In 2002 when she ran for the Alaska Republican Party's nomination for Lieutenant Governor, Sarah ran a credible statewide campaign, losing in a four-person contest to Loren Leman, a well-known State Senator from Anchorage, by less than 2,000 votes.
Because he thought Sarah had the potential to be a rising new star in the Alaska Republican Party, Frank Murkowski's campaign manager, Gregg Renkes, a longtime congressional aide who Frank would appoint after the election as his Attorney General, decided to team Sarah up with Alaska Senator Ted Stevens to campaign for Frank in the general election. When combined with the success of the statewide primary campaign she had run on her own, her performance on the road rousing the crowds with Ted gave Sarah enough of a following inside the Alaska Republican Party to be able to work her way after the election onto the list of Republicans from which Frank announced that he would pick his successor.
Since she was only thirty-eight-years-old and the highest public office to which she had been elected was mayor of who's-ever-heard-of-it Wasilla, Frank put Sarah on his list only as a courtesy. But that's not how Sarah saw her situation.
In Going Rogue, her ghost-written autohagiography, Sarah modestly purports to having had mixed feelings about making Frank's list because she "didn't know if there'd be room for one more maverick on Capitol Hill." However, more candidly, in the next sentence she admits that "the idea of serving in the Senate where I could contribute on a national level was definitely appealing."
Of the twenty-six individuals on the list (none of whom was Lisa Murkowski), Frank and Gregg Renkes interviewed eleven, one of whom was Sarah. In Going Rogue Sarah describes her interview. According to Sarah, during the half hour she spent with Frank and Gregg, rather than listening to her views on "resource development so we can grow jobs in Alaska," Frank "launched into a soliloquy on how tough it was on a family to serve in the Senate." That, Sarah reminisces in Going Rogue, was when "I knew I wasn't getting the gig."
Again according to Going Rogue, when Sarah told Todd how the interview had gone, "We were disappointed . . . for about seven seconds." But more revealingly, Going Rogue concludes Sarah's description of the episode as follows:
Soon afterward Governor Murkowski made his big announcement.
He'd chosen the 'most politically aligned Alaskan to replace him in
the U.S. Senate,' he said. He then handed what was called the most
coveted government job in the state to his daughter, Lisa, a mom
with two young kids.
No one but Frank Murkowski, Gregg Renkes, and Sarah Palin know what actually was said during Sarah's interview. But according to my sources, when it was over Frank and Gregg thought Sarah had come across as "immature" and "uninformed," and that of the individuals they interviewed she had been the least impressive. And another source who was close enough to her at the time to know reports that, rather than having been "disappointed for about seven seconds," Sarah was furious that Frank had had the temerity to refuse to give her his Senate seat and that four years later she made her decision to run against Frank in the 2006 Republican gubernatorial primary election in no small part in order to settle that score.
Throughout her extraordinary rise to wealth and celebrity Sarah has left road-kill behind her all the way up the line. The most prominent of the dead is Frank Murkowski who, whatever his other failings, treated Sarah better than, in the end, Sarah treated him. While he did not appoint her to the Senate, Frank offered Sarah a cabinet position in his administration. And when Sarah turned the job down because taking it would have required her and Todd and Track and Bristol and Willow and Piper to move to Juneau, Frank appointed Sarah to the Alaska Oil & Gas Conservation Commission, the highest paying patronage job in state government and a position for which she was completely unqualified, but which Sarah touted throughout the 2008 presidential campaign as the credential that made her an energy expert.
Given her penchant for carrying grudges and settling scores, if, as her endorsement of Joe Miller signals, Sarah is serious about using Joe as a surrogate to do to Lisa what she did to Frank, for us Sarah watchers the next two months have the potential to be a lot of fun. Will Sarah raise money for Joe, either in Alaska or Outside where the big donors to whom she now has access can be shaken down? Will she campaign for Joe? If Sarah does either, Lisa may be in trouble. If Sarah does both, Lisa may be doomed.
However between now and August 24 Sarah decides to play it, sensing the Zeitgeist and anticipating that a challenge in the Republican primary election would come from a candidate who would come at her from her right, for the past two years Lisa has been trying to rebrand herself.
Last August I motored out to Anchorage's South High School to attend one of the town hall meetings Lisa held on health care reform. By the time I arrived the auditorium was over-flowing with a standing-room-only crowd at least 500 strong. Mostly white. Mostly over fifty. Mostly Republican. When the meeting began Lisa bounded on stage in a tan pants suit and for the next two hours incited the crowd by transforming what could have been a serious public discussion about a nationally important policy issue into a Tea Party rally during which, to thunderous applause, she repeatedly vowed to fight the Democrats' attempt to "eliminate the private health insurance industry as we know it" in order to pave the way for the federal government to "run health care."
Two days later on the street in downtown Anchorage I bumped into a Republican member of the Alaska Legislature who (although that is not his name) I will call Fred. Fred, who is a friend of mine and a friend of Lisa's, served with Lisa during the four years she served in the Alaska House of Representatives. At the health care town hall meeting I had seen Fred standing on the other side of the auditorium. So I asked him what he thought of Lisa's performance. In response to my question, Fred shook his head and said that her throw-raw-meat-to-the-crowd demagoguery had been shameful. But with her reelection only a year away he understood why she thought she had to do it.
That for the past year is how Lisa has played it. As recently as last Friday at the weekly Republican luncheon in Fairbanks, according to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Lisa "railed" against the "overreaching" Obama administration, advocated that Congress repeal the new health care law, and proudly touted her recent failed attempt to persuade the Senate to pass a resolution to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions.
With Sarah and Joe Miller now hard at her heels, several days ago Lisa began broadcasting her first radio commercials. According to the voice-over:
Lisa fought President Obama's trillion dollar take-over of health care
and voted to repeal it. And when Obama's EPA planned a massive
power-grab over our economy, Lisa led the fight to stop them.
Lisa Murkowski. A strong conservative record of fighting for Alaska.
Then Lisa takes over to finish up by lecturing that:
Washington is out of control. The Democrats in charge keep borrowing
and spending, leaving us with a crushing debt that our kids will have to pay.
For Alaska, for our families, we need to keep fighting to lower taxes, to
shrink the size of government, and to push back against the federal
government's assault on Alaska.
I'm Lisa Murkowski and I approved this message. Because together we
can hold the line and turn the tide.
The next time I see Lisa I intend to ask her if the woman who was a member of the Fiscal Policy Caucus and who told the Alaska House of Representatives that she didn't care whether she had a "short-lived political future" because she was going to vote her pro-choice conscience could have thought that eight years later that same woman would be attempting to hold onto a seat in the United States Senate to which she never could have been elected on her own by trying to bamboozle right-of-conservative Republican primary election voters into believing that she's one of them?
I'll be curious to hear Lisa's answer. I'll also be curious to see over the next two months whether, now that she's thrown in publicly with Joe Miller, Sarah allows Lisa to continue to have the free hand she has had for the past two years to try to reinvent herself.
If she doesn't, for those of us who miss Sarah, it will be fun to see her back in Alaska and out on the stump.
But as much fun as that would be to watch, my personal hope is that this summer Sarah's so busy making money giving speeches that she decides to let the Tea Party Express try to get Joe Miller elected on its own. Because if Sarah sits it out and if for the next two months Lisa can stay on message pretending to be the hard-right conservative she's not, it may be enough to get her through the primary election of a party she should not be a member of.
If she does get through, thanks to Frank, Alaska will continue to be the better for the subterfuge.