09/01/2010 04:12 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

How Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski Fumbled in GOP Primary

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Tuesday evening ended her bid for the GOP nomination to the seat she has held since her father passed it on to her eight years ago.

After elections officials spent the day counting about 13,000 absentee, questioned and early ballots that saw Murkowski make up little ground against Fairbanks lawyer Joe Miller, Alaska's senior senator called Miller and conceded: He had beat the popular incumbent in what national political experts were calling "the most shocking" upset of the 2010 political season.

"It's been a terrible week," a surprisingly upbeat Murkowski said at a press conference held to announce her concession. "I don't see a scenario where the primary will turn out in my favor."

Murkowski's speech Tuesday evening was punctuated by cheers and cries of "yeah" from supporters gathered to witness the senator's swan song.

Outside Alaska, political experts watched closely as the Miller-Murkowski race unfolded.

"This is every incumbent's nightmare," veteran political analyst Larry Sabato said. "They think they're way ahead but come election night they find out differently."

While Sabato and other experts debate whether Murkowski's defeat is indicative of a national trend (they say no), whether inadequate polling played a role in the primary's outcome (they say yes) and whether the senator will pursue a write-in campaign (they're in disagreement), in Alaska, some are ruing the loss of what seniority the state had in the Senate, particularly after Sen. Ted Stevens lost re-election to now-Sen. Mark Begich in 2008.

"It's a shame to lose all that seniority," said former state Sen. Clem Tillion, a Halibut Cove Republican. "Now we have two freshmen down there with no seniority. We're going to be naked."

Murkowski was appointed to the Senate in 2002 when her father, Frank Murkowski, resigned to become governor of Alaska. In the years that followed, she gained enough prominence in the GOP political hierarchy to become ranking member on the Senate Energy Committee, a position that is important to a state that depends on oil and gas production for most of its income.

By 5 p.m. Tuesday, Murkowski still trailed Miller by 1,496 votes -- 49.40 percent to his 50.60 percent. As expected, she gained some ground in Anchorage but not enough to significantly close the distance with Miller, who continued to remain strong in Fairbanks and the Valley. "We did the math. We didn't want this to draw out any longer than it needed to be," Murkowski spokesman Steve Wackowski said.

Miller now faces Democrat Scott McAdams, a former commercial fisherman who is currently the mayor of Sitka, in the Nov. 2 general election.

McAdams issued a brief statement Tuesday night, applauding Murkowski and slamming Miller for running such a nasty race against her. "Lisa Murkowski served Alaska as a state legislator and United States Senator with energy and enthusiasm. We agree on the great majority of Alaskan issues. Lisa Murkowski is a class act who always put Alaska first," McAdams said.

"By contrast, lawyer Joe Miller ran an unfair, nasty campaign that didn't extend to Lisa Murkowski the respect she deserves. Over the next two months, Alaskans will clearly see the difference between Mr. Miller and me, and it starts with basic decency."

Robert Campbell, Miller's campaign manager, tried his best to tone down the rhetoric that had marked the waning days of the campaign. "I don't have anything negative to say about Sen. Murkowski except that she is not Joe Miller," he said. "Joe Miller is just a better candidate."
Miller is a Gulf War veteran and Yale Law School graduate backed by the Tea Party Express and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Before the primary, few political insiders and journalists expected Miller would beat Murkowski, leaving many Alaskans unfamiliar about some of his positions.

As word spread that Murkowski might concede Tuesday evening, staffers and volunteers at Miller's modest campaign headquarters in Anchorage hurriedly held a series of closed-door meetings. The face of Mark Fish, a volunteer who hadn't shaved before the Aug. 24 primary and teased that the hair growth was a "playoff beard," lit up with a smile after taking a call from his wife who informed him that she had just seen a news report that Murkowski was about to say something.

The volunteers expressed gratitude to the people who mobilized statewide on Miller's behalf, and gave a nod to the sizable financial backing of the Tea Party Express, which they believe allowed Miller to better compete with Murkowski. Without it, her campaign message could easily have overrun his on television and radio, potentially drowning out his criticism of her record and his "conservative constitutionalist" platform.

"It was always a grassroots effort," Fish said.

Tea party influence: Fact or fable?

Tuesday's ballot count was a slow motion political dance that captivated national media and political experts who pontificated on what led to the "shocking" turn of events and whether Alaska's Senate race portends a tea party tide for upcoming elections in November.

Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, says much has been made of tea party influence on the Murkowski-Miller race as well other primary campaigns across the country. While there's no question that the Tea Party Express out of California played a major role in Miller's campaign, Sabato says the reality doesn't match the hype.

"Murkowski is the exception, not the norm," he said, noting that while a handful of incumbents have been knocked off this political season by tea party candidates, the vast majority have survived and will go on to the Nov. 2 general election.

"You're going to see a lot of incumbents defeated then and overwhelmingly they'll be Democrats," he predicted.

"If you go back to the (tea party) rhetoric you would have thought incumbents were going to be tossed out right and left," Sabato said. "But no. American politics does not change that quickly. It's a gradual process. It's an evolution, not a revolution."

Sabato acknowledges "there are tensions all over the country between the mainstream Republican Party and the tea party. It's showing up everywhere."

"The tea party people are true believers and the mainstream Republicans, they just want to win elections," he noted. However, he expects to see most of that dynamic play out once the candidates have become elected officials and are back in Washington participating in the House and Senate Republican caucuses.

Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at Cook Political Report, gives the tea party candidates a bit more credit when it comes to setting a trend in American politics. She ticked off Senate races in Utah, Kentucky and Nevada that saw the tea party contender winning. There's only a couple more to go, she said, most notably in Delaware where Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express are backing a candidate.

"I think it's just one more example of where the tea party has flexed its muscle and been successful," said Duffy, who follows Senate races for the nonpartisan political newsletter. "It's part of the larger narrative."

Still, Murkowski "is kind of the end of it," she said. "After Bob Bennett lost (in Utah) that was a sign that no incumbent could take anything for granted."

But that's apparently just what Murkowski did, according to Duffy and Sabato, both of whom have been in touch with campaign insiders. Local Alaska politicos also are shaking their heads at some of the decisions made by Murkowski and her campaign advisers.

Skimpy polling may have hurt Murkowski

One factor both Duffy and Sabato cited in Murkowski's loss was a lack of polling, both by independent pollsters -- of which there was none -- and by the candidates themselves. Duffy, in a written essay for Cook Political Report, noted that "while public polling in Alaska has never been particularly stellar, there's generally been a lot of it, which when considered in total, at least provides a trend line."

But the latest polls in this race were released in July. One, by Ivan Moore Research, showed Murkowski with a 53 percent favorable rating while 54 percent of those polled had never even heard of Miller. Likely primary voters chose Murkowski over Miller, 62 percent to 30 percent. A Hellenthal & Associates poll later in July put Murkowski up 69 percent to 28 percent.

"It appeared that Murkowski would trounce Miller, even though nearly a month had passed between the last poll and the primary," Duffy wrote.

But in an interview Tuesday, Duffy said Murkowski also chose to ignore some parts of her own polling, including breakdowns that showed the race was much closer when people were asked about re-electing an incumbent or voting for someone new. In the end, Miller was able to sell himself as the new face.

Anchorage pollster Dave Dittman also said Murkowski did not contract with him for any tracking polling this year which surprised him. Still, even without the benefit of data, "it was pretty clear it was closing, but it's just a case of degree," he said. "It was closing faster than I thought it was. I didn't think Miller would actually catch her."

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