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Alaska’s Murkowski Is Latest to See Career Upended by Tea Party

U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska
U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski was defeated by a Republican primary challenger backed by Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement in what may be the biggest upset so far this U.S. election year.

Murkowski, the Senate’s No. 4 Republican, conceded the race late yesterday after a day of absentee ballot-counting failed to reverse lawyer and political newcomer Joe Miller’s lead of more than 1,600 votes.

“It’s been a long week,” Murkowski told reporters at her campaign headquarters in Anchorage. “I don’t see a scenario where we could win.”

Miller said in a statement his goal was “taking power from the federal government and bringing it back home to the people.” The Tea Party movement is a loose coalition of voters seeking limits on government spending, taxes and debt.

His win follows victories by other Tea Party candidates over establishment-backed rivals in Nevada, Kentucky, Colorado and Utah. In Florida, Republican Governor Charlie Crist dropped out of his party’s Senate primary contest to run as an independent rather than face a Tea Party-backed rival for the party nomination.

Murkowski, 53, who followed her father into office, said that when she completes her work in Washington, “I’m coming home.” Last weekend, Alaska’s Libertarian Party ruled out allowing her to run for the Senate on its ticket.

‘Wake-Up Call’

Senator Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican who is backing insurgent candidates, called Miller’s win the “upset victory of the year” and a “wake-up call to politicians who go to Washington to bring home the bacon.”

“Do you believe in miracles?” Palin wrote on Twitter after Murkowski conceded.

Miller emerged from the state’s Aug. 24 primary with a 1,668-vote lead after winning the endorsement of Palin, the former Alaska governor and a Tea Party heroine.

Murkowski pinned her hopes on more than 15,000 absentee and other ballots that state election officials began counting yesterday. She wound up gaining only 38 votes. More than 100,000 were cast.

Jennifer Duffy, a Senate campaign analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said Murkowski didn’t take Miller’s candidacy seriously enough.

‘Stretched the Truth’

Although Murkowski raised 20 times as much money as Miller, she refrained from running negative political ads like those seen in other races even after “Miller said a lot of things about her record during the primary that, to be kind, stretched the truth,” Duffy said.

“When you know this is an election cycle that does not favor incumbents,” Duffy said, “you take absolutely nothing for granted, and I think Murkowski took a lot for granted.”

Murkowski said her campaign “stayed on the high road.”

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 independent expenditures for the race this month, reports to the Federal Election Commission show.

Frank Murkowski

Miller was also aided by support from Palin, who defeated Murkowski’s father in the 2006 Republican gubernatorial primary. Frank Murkowski left the Senate after winning the governorship in 2002.

Murkowski was hurt during the primary by a state ballot initiative requiring teenagers to notify parents of abortions, which helped draw single-issue voters to the polls, Duffy said. While Murkowski endorsed the proposal, anti-abortion groups have criticized her positions on other abortion-related issues. The proposal was approved with more votes than either Murkowski or Miller received.

Alaska’s Senate seat is likely to remain in Republican hands. Republican voters outnumber Democrats in Alaska, and Democratic nominee Scott McAdams, the mayor of Sitka, has raised less than $10,000. The national Democratic Party is focusing on other, more competitive Senate races.

“After a hard-fought primary contest, I offer my sincere congratulations to Joe Miller and offer him my strong support,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn of Texas. “I have no doubt that he will be elected as the next U.S. senator from Alaska.”

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