08/25/2010 11:43 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

How Sarah Palin-Backed Joe Miller Took on Sen. Lisa Murkowski

The day after Alaska Republicans drove their pickups and minivans to churches and elementary schools to vote for their next senator, the battle between U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Fairbanks attorney Joe Miller is stuck in an intensely close deadlock. As of Wednesday afternoon, Miller had claimed 50.9 percent of the vote with Murkowski hanging on to the rest.

Multiple polls conducted in advance of the primary election showed Miller getting squashed by 30 or 40 points, but with 100 percent of precincts reporting (and a potential pile of over 16,000 absentee ballots that will be counted starting Aug. 31), Miller has a lead of 1,668 votes that might be enough to carry him all the way to Washington, D.C.

So how did that happen? Analyzing an election as it unfolds is sort of like trying to figure out who started a food fight by cleaning the pie and mashed potatoes off the floor. But there are a mess of factors, ranging from Sarah Palin's endorsement of Miller to a groundswell of conservative values, that certainly didn't help Alaska's senior senator.

"We felt that if people knew that she wasn't going to be helpful in turning the country around, then they would go for Joe," said Miller spokesman Randy DeSoto.

Tuesday in Alaska was a banner day for social and fiscal conservatives. Gov. Sean Parnell was comfortably nominated to keep his job. Mead Treadwell, who ran for lieutenant governor on a pro-life and anti-fed platform, easily won over Fairbanks hotelier Jay Ramras. A ballot referendum to require parental notification for teen abortions, Ballot Measure 2, soared through.

Miller supporters: A 'fertile crowd'

The difference between the Miller and Murkowski supporters gathered Tuesday night to watch the returns was striking. While there didn't seem to be a single child at Murkowski headquarters in Midtown Anchorage, at the Snow Goose Restaurant downtown, sprinting 6-year-olds in Joe Miller T-shirts seemed to make up about half the group.

Wanda Sternhagen, who agreed that Miller supporters were a "fertile crowd," has 10 siblings and at 44 is herself the mother of nine. Leaning against one of her children, Sternhagen recounted a story about her 4-year-old asking her "Mama, is Lisa the bad one?" Sternhagen said she answered her child by saying, "No, darling, it's not about good and bad. Lisa has good intentions. I just believe she's misguided."

Sternhagen was joined at the Snow Goose by her mother, Anna Campbell, and her sister, Kathleen Barnes. Campbell, 77, said she supports Miller because "I liked the honestness of him," while Barnes, 38, said her support for Miller stems from the fact that his values match up with hers.

"We're supporting Joe because he represents the ideas we believe in, and we can't go (to Washington) ourselves," she said.

Palin and Murkowski's family feud

Some political observers think Murkowski's campaign misfortune stems from a political family feud between the Murkowskis and the Palins. They say Palin's endorsement of Miller actually had its roots in Frank Murkowski's refusal to appoint Palin to the U.S. Senate seat he vacated when he became governor. He appointed his daughter, Lisa, instead, and Sarah has never forgiven him, that storyline goes.

In fact, Palin went on to trounce Frank Murkowski in the 2006 GOP gubernatorial primary and then won the job in the general. She resigned a year ago, handing over the governor's office to Parnell, her lieutenant governor, who has now won the GOP nomination.

Lisa Murkowski has generally downplayed the political bad blood, although the two have sometimes disagreed publicly on issues -- more so as Palin has strived for more of a foothold in the national Republican scene.

Veteran Anchorage pollster and political consultant Dave Dittman said the distance between Murkowski and Miller closed much faster than most people expected. "I think it just took people by surprise," he said.

Dittman doesn't see one main defining moment in Miller's come from behind, but rather a series of events and actions that served him well in the end: "I think a whole lot of little things happened and I think they added up to something."

He ticks them off: Sarah Palin's endorsement gave him attention and credibility. The Tea Party Express took up his cause and funded the bulk of his campaign. His involvement with Ballot Measure 2, the parental notification prior to a teen-age abortion issue, resonated with Republican primary voters.

"And then Joe just campaigned hard," Dittman said.

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