Tea Party Bags Murkowski--Alaska Senate Seat Now in Play?

Once again Republicans eschew electability. What will it cost them in the end?

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With Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski conceding defeat in the state's GOP Senate primary Tuesday night, the Tea Party movement scored another victory over a Republican incumbent. But it raises again the question of whether the anger-fueled Tea Party movement is ultimately good for the GOP. To wit: Attorney Joe Miller's victory over Murkowski marks another midterm race in which Democrats are more competitive than they should be in large part because of extreme, Tea Party-supported GOP-ers.

The question of course is whether Joe Miller's extreme profile moves the race merely from slam dunk Republican to comfortable GOP win or whether Democrat Scott McAdams, mayor of Sitka, Alaska, can actually make a race of it. The argument for a competitive race goes like this: Miller's way out on the fringe, advocating for the phase out and privatization of Social Security; he wants to phase out Medicare; he thinks unemployment compensation is unconstitutional; ditto the Department of Education, which he wants to abolish.

[ See a slide show of the year's worst political candidates.]

And oh yeah, he's an unrepentant critic of pork barrel spending, which is normal rhetoric for ordinary politicians, who generally define "pork" as federal money that goes to someone else's state. But Miller appears ready to include federal money to Alaska in that definition as well, and that's no small matter. As CBS News reports:

Through May the state had taken in over $3,000 per capita in stimulus money, more than any other state by far and more than double the national average, as the New York Times reports. ... Federal spending there is 71 percent higher than the national average.

Alaska's politicians have long taken pride in bringing home the federal bacon. Former Sen. Ted Stevens, a Republican, was known for being unabashed about bringing a steady stream of federal money back home, and Murkowski landed a seat on the Appropriations committee that allowed her to steer money back to her state.

There has long been a disconnect in Alaska between the rhetoric and reality in a state where lawmakers rail against the stimulus bill before taking what some see as more than their fair share of it. Republican state lawmaker Carl Gatto's comment to the Times is telling: Though he wants to "roll back the federal government," he admits: "I'll give the federal government credit: they sure give us a ton of money. For every $1 we give them in taxes for highways, they give us back $5.76."

Not a bad gravy train, if you can get on it. Are Alaskans really ready to step off of it? Or is it just the hyperactivated, superconservative Tea Party base (or as I like to call them, Republican primary voters)? One answer came with a recent PPP poll of the race showing that while Miller held a 47-39 percent lead, a majority of voters (52 percent) hold a negative view of him.

That's the case for McAdams making a race of it. The case for Miller cruising to an easy election is much shorter and to the point: This is Alaska, which brought us Sarah Palin (Miller's patron) and routinely gives around 60 percent of its presidential vote to the Republican. And a GOP poll released this week gave Miller a 52-36 lead.

Regardless of whether a real race materializes on the tundra, however, the fact that we're even talking about the possibility illustrates the Tea Party's danger for the GOP, and the fundamental weirdness of this election year. There are several Senate races that are competitive and shouldn't be because the GOP nominated a fringe candidate: Rand Paul in Jim Bunning's open seat in Kentucky, Sharron Angle against Harry Reid in Nevada, Ken Buck against Michael Bennet in Denver. Add Joe Miller to that list. Granted all of these candidates may yet win, but at the cost of party attention and resources that could have been used elsewhere.

UPDATE: The Census Bureau Tuesday released a new report on federal spending. Not surprisingly, Alaska received more federal bucks per capita--$20,351--than any other state.