When the polls closed on the August 24 Alaska Republican primary election an unknown forty-three-year-old, flag-waving, baby-killer-hating, right-of-fiscally-conservative attorney from Fairbanks, Alaska, named Joe Miller dumbfounded the pundits and rocked the national political culture. Because if after absentee ballots are counted he holds onto his 1,668-vote lead, Joe Miller will have ousted Alaska's senior United States Senator, Lisa Murkowski, from the seat in the Senate she has occupied for the past eight years.
In June on Facebook, Sarah Palin touted Joe Miller as a Commonsense Constitutional Conservative who "has fought alongside me and others to help clean up the Republican Party here in Alaska by bringing in new leadership, new ideas, and commitment to putting government back on the side of the people, not any political machine."
Most of the pundits who so badly misjudged the mood of Alaska voters who voted the Republican ballot have attributed Joe Miller's unexpected (by them) triumph to Sarah's endorsement, as has Miller himself who has said he is "absolutely certain" that the endorsement was "pivotal." But while the endorsement gave Miller political traction and a modicum of Tea Party money at a time both were needed, the "Sarah did it" explanation of the Alaska Republican Party's apparent repudiation of its most prominent, and in Washington, D.C., most influential, officeholder ignores the fact that Lisa's seat has been ripe for a hard-right plucking from the moment her father, former United States Senator and Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski, gave it to her.
In 1980 United States Senator Ted Stevens, the dominant political figure of his generation in Alaska, arranged for Frank to take the Alaska seat in the Senate that since 1968 had been occupied by Mike Gravel, a Democrat Ted hated. At the time the downtown businessmen and oil company executives who were members of the Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau chambers of commerce were the base of the Alaska Republican Party and Ted and Frank were the leaders of the base. But by 2002 when Frank retired from the Senate to run for Governor in the same election cycle in which, with little money and no name recognition, a neophyte candidate named Sarah Palin almost won the Alaska Republican Party's nomination for Lieutenant Governor, the chamber of commerce faction of the Party had been marginalized by Republican members of the evangelical Christian hard right.
When Frank Murkowski won the 2002 Alaska gubernatorial election he appointed his forty-five-year-old daughter, Lisa, to succeed him in the Senate. When he did, Alaskans of all parties were, to the man and woman, astounded, and most were outraged, by one of the most brazen acts of nepotism in American political history.
But the members of the hard right evangelical Christian base of the Alaska Republican Party were absolutely furious. And they had every right to be because Lisa Murkowski is a gracious, smart, hardworking, nonideological, pro-choice political technocrat whose policy views, when unrestrained by electoral necessity, are to the left of those of Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. As a consequence, in 2002 Lisa was unelectable to statewide office. And if Alaska law had required a special election to have been held to fill his Senate seat when Frank vacated it, and if Lisa had been dumb enough to have stood as a candidate (which she would not have), she would have been humiliated and the election would have been won by someone just like Joe Miller.
In 2004 when Lisa had to defend the Senate seat her father had given her, two hard right candidates ran against her in the Alaska Republican primary election, Mike Miller, a former president of the Alaska Senate, and Wev Shea, a former United States Attorney. Neither Mike nor Wev had money or statewide name recognition. Lisa had both, and in that match-up she easily prevailed winning 45,710 votes out of a total of 78,628 cast.
So far in the 2010 Alaska Republican Primary election Lisa Murkowski has received 45,359 votes with as many as 16,000 absentee ballots still to be counted. So after that counting, whether she wins or loses, Lisa will have won more votes than she won in the 2004 Alaska Republican primary election.
So the variable in the Alaska Republican primary election that changed between 2004 and 2010 was not Lisa's vote count. It was the total number of votes cast. 78,628 in 2004. If all absentee ballots are returned, 108,386 in 2010. Most of those 29,758 additional votes were cast for Joe Miller.
Who were those voters? The Alaska Republican Party's election rules allow not only Republicans, but also independent and non-partisan voters, to vote if they wish in Alaska Republican primary elections. But my hunch is that registered Republicans, rather than independent or non-partisan voters, cast most of the 29,758 additional votes.
Why did so many Republican voters turn out? Maybe Sarah twittered them to turn out. Maybe the pastors in the pulpits on the Sunday before the election sent them to the polls. Maybe the Tea Party ran a successful get-out-the-vote operation. Maybe 29,758 new evangelical Christian voters came out on their own to support Ballot Measure No. 2, which requires parental notification before an underage woman can obtain an abortion. When the dust settles, it will be interesting to find out.
Between now and then, two speculations:
In the five election districts in southeast Alaska, in the 2004 Alaska Republican primary election Lisa Murkowski won 5,146 votes and Mike Miller/Wev Shea won 2,744 votes. In 2010 Lisa won 5,271 votes, a modest 125-vote gain in her vote count. But Joe Miller won 3,910 votes, a 1,166 vote increase over the Mike Miller/Wev Shea vote count in 2004.
Southeast Alaska is not a hard right venue. But for the past two years one of the most controversial political issues in that region of the state has been S. 881, the Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization Act, a grab-bag of a bill that was written by attorneys in the employ of the Sealaska Corporation, the regional business corporation based in Juneau, Alaska, that is owned by the Tlingit and Haida Indians. If enacted by Congress, S. 881, which Lisa introduced in April 2009, will direct the Secretary of the Interior to convey to the Sealaska Corporation legal title to tens of thousands of acres of federal land in the Tongass National Forest from a Sealaska Corporation wish-list that is depicted on maps that are referenced in the bill. Some wish-list acres are valuable for their commercial grade timber. Other acres are valuable for income-generating recreational purposes. For two years the non-Sealaska Corporation shareholder residents of communities throughout southeast Alaska have complained to Lisa that S. 881 is a totally unjustifiable land-grab. But Lisa has been an unapologetic defender of the Sealaska Corporation's overreaching. How many of those 1,166 new Joe Miller voters turned out in order to punish Lisa for her support of S. 881? Again when the dust settles, it will be interesting to find out.
Finally, when he once was asked what the quality was that he most looked for in his generals, without hesitating Napoleon answered, "Luck." So even though Alaska Republicans who are members of the party's hard right evangelical Christian base know that she's not one of them, and even though her stalwart support of S. 881 has angered voters in southeast Alaska, the support of independent and non-partisan voters who voted the Republican ballot might have allowed Lisa to sneak through into a second term. But for bad luck.
As much as she is her father's, since her arrival in the Senate, Lisa Murkowski has been a protege of Ted Stevens. The former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, from 1973 when he joined the Committee to 2008 when he lost his bid for a seventh term after he was convicted on federal corruption charges, for thirty-five years Uncle Ted, as his constituents called their Senator when they stuck out their hands to be greased, showered Alaska with billions of federal dollars for earmarked projects, large and small, meritorious and ridiculous, that he buried in the appropriations bills whose writing he supervised.
Ted's job for Lisa in the 2010 Alaska Republican primary election was to be the closer. And to that end, Lisa had television commercials featuring Ted ready for broadcast during the last week of the campaign when on August 9 Ted Stevens died when the small plane in which he was flying to a fishing camp in Bristol Bay augered into the side of a mountain in bad weather.
Since bringing Ted back from the dead on television to turn out the vote for Lisa would have been maudlin in the extreme, the commercials were never broadcast and the best Lisa could do to tie herself to Ted Stevens prior to the election was to precede Vice President Joe Biden as a speaker at Ted's funeral, which was broadcast statewide on television.
If Ted's plane had not augered into the mountain could his vouch have bamboozled enough Republican voters into believing that Lisa shares their politics or have motivated enough independent and nonpartisan voters to have saved Lisa from her own party by voting the Republican ballot? Who knows? All that can be said is that Ted Stevens's death was horrible luck for Ted, and very bad luck for Lisa.
Maybe when the absentee ballots are counted Lisa Murkowski will pull out a skin-of-her-teeth come-from-behind win. But if she doesn't, she can't complain. Because for eight years Lisa's had terrific fun flying around the world in Air Force jets and being kowtowed to as a United States Senator while working at a job that she never ever could have gotten on her own. And along the way, she's done more good for Alaska than whoever the Republican who would have won a fair-and-square special election for Frank's seat in the Senate would have done, or that Joe Miller will do when he is elected in November and, with Sarah sending him tweets, reinvents himself in Washington, D.C., as the Jim DeMint of the subarctic.
Funny world isn't it?