Sarah Palin's husband, Todd, sat amid the Alaskana of the Sourdough Mining Co. restaurant in Anchorage and watched his friend Joe Miller tell potential campaign donors he's got U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski running scared.
"It's a competitive campaign," Miller said. "We know that Murkowski sees this as a competitive campaign, based upon the actions that she's taking. We've certainly seen how she's moving to the right."
Murkowski is the frontrunner, with more than $2 million in campaign cash and more Republican leaders in the state lining up to support her than Miller in the Aug. 24 party primary. But Miller's campaign is gaining increasing attention, in large part because of Sarah Palin. The ex-governor's endorsement of Miller caused the national Tea Party Express to take a hard look at the race, leading the group to commit to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to beat Murkowski, the 53-year-old former state legislator who has been a U.S. senator for eight years.
It remains to be seen how much Palin's help will count as Miller embarks on what has never before been a winning strategy for an Alaskan running for Congress. He's running on a platform of choking federal spending in a state that lives off dollars from Washington, D.C., a state that worshipped Ted Stevens for his talent in delivering it.
Miller has called for across-the-board cuts, phasing out government Medicare and Social Security, and getting rid of the federal Department of Education because it is not in the Constitution, leaving the function to the states. He's going well beyond positions that Palin advocated when she was running to be governor of the state and those she espoused as governor.
The Palins have declined interview requests to talk about Miller, although Palin called him a "true Commonsense Constitutional Conservative" on her Facebook page.
Miller maintains the alternative to his message is government insolvency and that his tea party views resonate even in a place like Bethel, where half the jobs are in government.
"They are exceptionally concerned about a government that is nearing a sovereign debt crisis where it can't pay its bills," asserted Miller, who made a campaign stop in Bethel recently.
Miller at this point only needs to worry about those voters who will participate in the Aug. 24 Republican primary, which is closed to registered Democrats.
Murkowski said spending is a serious problem but argues Miller is making easy generalizations about abolishing programs and is not providing realistic alternatives. She dismisses Miller's claim she's changing her positions to appeal to conservative voters, saying he's conveniently leaving out facts about her stance.
"I do expect that there's a level of integrity and intellectual honesty in any kind of campaign, and I am hopeful that my opponent will honor that," she said.
THE PALIN FACTOR
Murkowski has criticized Palin, saying last year that Palin abandoned the state and her constituents by resigning as governor little more than halfway through her term. But she said she doesn't think Palin is targeting her out of animosity.
"I think it's a personal thing between Sarah Palin and Joe Miller. They've got a relationship, their families have been friends, so I think it's more of an issue of their friendship," Murkowski said. "We're a small state, people know one another, sometimes you find yourself in an election where your personal relationships allow you to be supporting people that you ordinarily would not have."
Miller, 43, is a Fairbanks lawyer and graduate of West Point and Yale law school. He could find that support from Palin has pros and cons in the race to convince Republican primary voters who is the real right-winger. There's a sizable segment of Alaska Republicans who remain unhappy with Palin for her large tax increase on oil companies and the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act, Palin's strategy for getting a natural gas pipeline that included a license and $500 million state reimbursement for the pipeline firm TransCanada Corp.
Miller said on local talk radio that it's too soon to say if the Palin AGIA strategy was the right call for sparking gas pipeline construction. On the oil tax increase, he told talk-radio host Dan Fagan that while there's evidence it's slowed oil company investment, the jury is "potentially still out" on that. He later expressed a different opinion on Fagan's show: that Palin's original oil tax plan was supported by the Alaska Constitution's demand that the state get maximum benefit for its resources, but that the Legislature jacked up the proposal to the point where it's clear it's now a detriment to oil investment.
Miller says he's not a Palin clone and that his focus is on federal issues and Murkowski's record.
"I'm not running because she's a liberal," Miller told the crowd at his Sourdough Mining Company fundraiser. "I'm running because the nation is in crisis. But she is a liberal."
CLASH ON CLIMATE CHANGE
Miller says Murkowski's climate change position is the prime example of the need to defeat her, and it's one area in which he accuses her of flip-flopping to appeal to the right. Miller signed a candidate questionnaire from the Wasilla-based Conservative Patriots Group, saying he rejects the argument that man-made carbon dioxide emissions are causing significant global warming.
Miller has called the scientific support for climate change "dubious at best."
Miller rejects "cap and trade" efforts in Congress to deal with it, and points to a 2009 article in the Washington, D.C., publication The Hill in which Murkowski signaled her openness to compromise.
Murkowski has said there's a growing consensus that greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for at least part of the warming in the atmosphere. She and then-Alaska Sen. Stevens co-sponsored a plan in 2007 for imposing a limited cap on carbon emissions by industry. Murkowski said then that "the permafrost is melting, Arctic ice is disappearing and wildlife habitat is changing."
Their proposal included billions of dollars for Alaska to deal with the effects of climate change.
However, last month Murkowski led an unsuccessful effort to prevent the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. Murkowski, the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy Committee, is opposing the current Democratic efforts to pass an energy bill capping carbon emissions, saying they go too far and "that is a hit to our economy that we simply can't afford at this point in time."
Murkowski says she's not reversing policy, just responding to bad regulations.
Another issue Miller accuses Murkowski of reversing herself on is repealing the federal health care law. Miller points to an interview she gave KTUU-TV in April saying the law needs to be changed but "if you just repeal and you do nothing, we will not have addressed health care reform."
"Now that I'm in the race, she says she wants to repeal it," Miller said in an interview, pointing to her speech last month in the Senate floor calling for repeal of the law.
Murkowski said Miller is being misleading. She said her statement to KTUU was that, while she opposes the law, the system needs other reform to bring down the cost of health care.
"How many times did I vote against the bill as it went through committee, as it went through amendment on the floor, as it went through the full process?" she said. "To suggest somehow or another I am soft in my opposition is really quite stunning."
Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.