Tea Party movement denizens point to their successes at the polls this month as a display of the will of the people—and they're right. But the same grassroots empowerment is also evident in the apparent loss by one of the movement's favorites, Republican Senate candidate Joe Miller.
Miller stunned political experts when he captured the GOP nomination for Senate in Alaska, defeating incumbent Republican Lisa Murkowski. The sitting senator could have just walked away, but she fought, mounting a write-in campaign that appears to have been successful (Miller is still refusing to concede and says he will demand a recount). Winning an election as a major party nominee is surely satisfying; capturing the seat because tens of thousands of people made the effort to write in one's name is exhilarating. These are not voters who pulled a lever because it had an "R" or "D" after a candidate's name. These are voters who assertively wanted Murkowski and were willing to take the chance that splitting the conservative vote could swing the election to the Democrat, Scott McAdams (who didn't come close to winning).
While Murkowski is hardly the anti-establishment candidate, her apparent re-election offers a glimmer of hope for whatever electoral structure will emerge from the current system, which has contributed to a crippling dysfunction on Capitol Hill. The answer may well be a third party, and Murkowski's success shows that voters are willing to go a third way—even in the safer context of voting for an incumbent—to get their choice, despite who the two major political parties have chosen for voters to consider.
The election is also a particularly personal validation for Murkowski, who came into the Senate with heavy political baggage since she had been appointed to the post by her father, former Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski. Other lawmakers have entered Congress with some history to live down: Former Sen. Hillary Clinton was the controversial former first lady who moved to New York to run for the Senate there. Sen. Al Franken was a former Saturday Night Live comic. Former Rep. Katherine Harris who, as Florida secretary of state during the 2000 recount, was forever associated with the bitterness of the 2000 campaign season and Democrats' unwavering belief that George W. Bush had stolen the election.
Clinton became a workhorse, and soon she transformed from the architect of the failed Clinton healthcare plan to a prominent lawmaker respected by both parties for her diligence and smarts. Franken is determinedly not funny, erasing (to the dismay of Capitol Hill reporters) his entertainment past and redirecting the focus to his voting record. Even Harris, before she mounted an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate, had developed a working relationship with House colleagues, including a surprising number of Democrats who considered her one of the few GOP lawmakers committed to housing legislation.
Murkowski, too, delved deeply into hard-work mode when she joined the Senate, earning her the respect of her colleagues and greatly diminishing the controversy about how she got there. Winning re-election—and in such an historic and difficult way—vanquishes it entirely.