Murkowski's Alaska Write-In Bid Will Test Sarah Palin, Tea Party Power

Senator Lisa Murkowski’s attempt to win reelection through a write-in campaign in Alaska will test the staying power of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party amid a debate over the role of federal spending in that state.

“I’m going to give them a choice,” Murkowski said yesterday on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “If the people on Nov. 2 say, well, we don’t like her, that’s fine.”

Murkowski lost last month’s primary to Joe Miller, a lawyer from Fairbanks and a former U.S. magistrate judge. She had been the Senate’s No. 4 Republican before she was forced by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to resign her leadership post following her write-in announcement.

Write-in efforts are almost always unsuccessful. Only Strom Thurmond of South Carolina in 1954 won election to the chamber through that method, according to the Senate historian’s office.

“This is a tough hurdle,” Murkowski said on CNN. “But don’t you tell Alaskans that we can’t do tough things. You don’t think we can fill in an oval and learn to spell Lisa Murkowski? We can figure this out.”

She is one of the victims of the Tea Party movement, a loose-knit coalition of voters seeking limits on government spending, taxes and debt that has sparked intra-party Republican battles nationwide. Republicans are seeking to wrest control of Congress from President Barack Obama’s Democratic Party.

Palin’s Backing

Palin, who has become a Tea Party star after being the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, has backed candidates who have knocked off rivals endorsed by the party’s leadership in Kentucky, Delaware, Nevada and her home state of Alaska.

Murkowski, 53, announced on Sept. 17 her intention to join the race between Miller, the Republican nominee, and Scott McAdams, the Democratic nominee.

While McAdams had been given little chance, that could change if Murkowski and Miller split the Republican vote. Voters who declare no party preference form the largest bloc of registered voters in Alaska.

After not directly engaging Miller in the primary, Murkowski pledged to confront him during the remaining six weeks of the campaign.

“He is suggesting to us, in my opinion, and in the opinion of many, many Alaskans, some pretty radical things,” she said on CNN.

Murkowski attacked Miller for wanting to phase out Social Security, Medicare and so-called earmarks for federal spending on local projects pushed by lawmakers.

Miller, in an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” criticized Murkowski’s decision rejoin the race.

“She’s not listening very well to the Alaskan voters,” he said.

Tank Commander

Miller, 43, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and a decorated tank commander during the Persian Gulf War, beat Murkowski by about 2,000 votes out of about 110,000 cast in the Aug. 24 primary.

In an interview on Sept. 11 in Wasilla, Alaska, Miller said Alaska needs to assume more responsibility for its own destiny and reduce its dependence on federal dollars.

“I think it is naïve to think that that money is going to continue unabated in the future,” he said. “People need to understand that we are on the verge of bankruptcy as a country and whether we like it or not, those funds are going to be reduced in the future.”

Miller said he wants more of Alaska’s oil, gas and other natural resources developed to help fill the hole left by less federal funding.

Federal Money

On Fox, he said 40 percent of the state’s economy is “somewhat derived from the federal government.” Alaska’s unemployment rate is 7.7 percent, compared with the national average of 9.6 percent in August.

Murkowski said on CNN that, while she also seeks to reduce spending, she wants to make sure it is done in a “responsible” way that does not hurt Alaska.

The state’s politicians have a decades-old tradition of winning an outsized proportion of Washington dollars for projects back home by arguing that Alaska’s size, remoteness and relative newness as a state justify the spending.

“I’m also very cognizant of the fact that we live in a state where we’re not connected to anybody’s transportation grid,” Murkowski said. “We’re not connected to an energy grid that allows us to have lower energy costs.”

Wayne Stevens, the chief executive officer of the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce, said many of the state’s businesses are heavily dependent on federal dollars.

“While it makes for great press -- get the federal government out of our lives -- what does that really mean?” he said. “It’s the Coast Guard, it’s the Air Force, it’s the Army, and a myriad of federal agencies that are spending money in our economy. I don’t think that discussion has occurred yet.”

Loss of Seniority

Stevens, whose group hasn’t endorsed any of the Senate candidates, said he fears the loss of seniority in Washington.

“You are going to the back of the line in terms of pecking order and perks,” he said. “When you lose that seniority and you lose that influence and you lose that perspective, there will be consequences that perhaps people did not intend.”

As he watched his son play hockey in Wasilla, Garry Winder, 48, said he backed Miller and wanted Murkowski to stay out.

“She might be better for Alaska,” he said. “But I’m looking at it nationally. I like his views better.”

Palin, a former Alaska governor, said after a Sept. 17 speech in Iowa that Murkowski wasn’t a threat to Miller.

“It’s a futile effort on her part,” she said. “Joe Miller is the right person to help lead the state and the country.”

Political Spending

The Tea Party Express political action committee poured money into advertising and e-mail blasts for Miller, who criticized Murkowski for her support of the 2008 federal government bank bailout. The group spent more than $400,000 on the race in August, Federal Election Commission reports show.

Palin, 46, defeated Murkowski’s father, then-Governor Frank Murkowski, in Alaska’s 2006 Republican gubernatorial primary, and won the office that November. Frank Murkowski, 77, left the Senate when he won the governor’s office in 2002 and named his daughter to replace him. She won a full term in 2004.

McAdams, 39, said in a Sept. 13 interview in Anchorage that he would welcome Lisa Murkowski to the race.

“There is agreement that Joe Miller is not the answer,” said McAdams, a former high school football coach who is mayor of the tourist and fishing town of Sitka. “My campaign is about Alaska. It’s not about a national crusade.”

To contact the reporter on this story: John McCormick in Wasilla, Alaska at jmccormick16@bloomberg.net.

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