For most of the last three decades, Alaska's residents have been represented in the U.S. Senate by two legendary Republican names—Stevens and Murkowski. Two years ago, though, the late Sen. Ted Stevens, at the time the longest-serving GOP senator, lost to Democrat Mark Begich by fewer than 4,000 votes out of some 318,000. That left Sen. Lisa Murkowski to maintain an Alaskan political legacy started by her father, former Sen. Frank Murkowski (who appointed her to complete his term when he became governor in 2002). Yet last week, unexpectedly trailing in the GOP primary ballot count, she conceded her family's 30-year Senate seat, handing over the nomination to a political neophyte and the Tea Party movement's latest hero, Joe Miller.
Alaska's August 24 primary came down to absentee ballots, a slow process because the state was accepting any ballot postmarked by the primary date. Nevertheless, Murkowski did not make enough gains after a week of counting and, as a result, the moderate Republican bowed out last Tuesday. After Sen. Robert Bennett in Utah, she is the second Republican Senate incumbent to lose the party's nomination. Her concession sets up a possibly close race between Miller and Democrat Scott McAdams, the mayor of Sitka, the state's fourth largest city. And it launches Alaska politics onto the national stage.
A Fairbanks attorney, Miller was little known statewide before being endorsed by his friend Todd Palin. Support from former Alaska governor and GOP vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin catapulted him to popularity among Alaska's conservative crowd and earned him the backing of Tea Party groups around the country, especially the Tea Party Express, which spent close to $600,000 on his behalf. [See photos of Sarah Palin and her family. ]
On paper, Miller's credentials outshine Sarah Palin's and those of other Tea Party favorites, such as Kentucky ophthalmologist Rand Paul. After graduating with honors from West Point and serving as an Army officer in the Gulf War, Miller earned a law degree from Yale University and a master's degree in economics from the University of Alaska.
Miller differentiated himself from Murkowski by vowing to wean Alaska off dependence on federal funding, a popular stance among limited-government conservatives. Traditionally, Alaska receives more federal money per person than any other state. According to a Census Bureau report released Aug. 31, Alaska received $20,351 of federal spending per resident in 2009, almost twice the national average. Usually, that federal largesse pleases constituents, but this year, with voters in an antigovernment, antideficit mood, Miller pulled ahead by rejecting the familiar practice of bringing home the bacon.
Miller's views on other issues also fall to the right of Murkowski's. While promising to keep Social Security and Medicare intact for current seniors, Miller wants Congress to cut entitlement programs in the future. "Ultimately we want to transfer the power back to the states," he said in a CNN interview last week, "so that states can take up the mantle of those programs, if they so desire." In the interview, Miller also said that President Obama is "bad for America" and "one of the major forces moving this country toward socialism."
Now, the question is whether Murkowski's disappointed supporters will back the GOP outsider who defeated her (she hasn't endorsed him yet) or swing to little-known McAdams, who was trailing Miller by six points in a recent poll. Political analysts say he doesn't stand much of a chance, but they said that about Miller too.
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Corrected 09/08/10: A previous version of this article misstated a few time elements.