Loss cuts off Murkowski's promising Senate future

August 31, 2010 

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski's stunning defeat in the Alaska primary ends a 30-year family legacy of holding that seat, an era that spanned a majority of Alaska's statehood.

Joe Miller, a self-styled constitutional conservative backed by the Tea Party Express and former Gov. Sarah Palin, upset Murkowski in a close primary race. Miller had a more than 1,600-vote lead with outstanding ballots yet to count, but Murkowski conceded Tuesday night.

There are multiple theories on what led to Murkowski's demise -- from her not taking Miller seriously or being aggressive enough, to Palin's endorsement of Miller, to an abortion ballot measure that drew conservative voters to the polls.

"People have got to be looking at Alaska right now and wondering how the heck someone who advocates the wholesale reduction of federal spending to the states could possibly win in Alaska," said Ivan Moore, an independent pollster in Anchorage.

"And the answer to that question is because Lisa Murkowski didn't tell us about it. And it was her job to tell us about it because Joe Miller wasn't going to scream from the rooftops about it. He was going to go on about being a constitutional conservative, and rah, rah, rah, and not say, 'Oh, yeah, when I get to D.C., I'm going to shut the spigot off.' That was her job, and she didn't do it," said Moore, who didn't work for any candidate in this race.

Nothing should be taken away from Miller's indefatigable campaigning. He was able to forge a grassroots campaign, relying in part on the Internet, and he leveraged his newfound national visibility, following Palin's June endorsement, to get on talk shows, appear on Fox News and speak with other prominent, national conservative outlets, which helped to burnish his "credentials" as a true conservative.

Before her defeat, Murkowski was settling into her role as the state's senior senator, earned when her mentor, the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, was defeated in the 2008 election.

Few observers felt she served long enough to build a legacy of her own.

But in her eight years in office, Murkowski established herself as a capable and energetic advocate for Alaska's interests, said University of Alaska Fairbanks political science professor Jerry McBeath.

Murkowski was chosen in 2002 by her father, Frank, the newly elected governor, to fill the seat he left in the U.S. Senate. He had been senator for 22 years.

She skipped over a long list of prominent and up-and-coming Alaska Republicans, including Sarah Palin, raising the ire of some in the GOP.

Despite cries of nepotism, Murkowski won the seat outright four years later when she defeated former two-term Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, in the general election.

She then quickly rose through the Republican ranks. In her first full term, Murkowski was the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, a crucial role for Alaska.

She also won a seat on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and has been named to the Senate GOP's leadership team.

But at the same time, she was known as a moderate Republican who would cross the aisle to work with Democrats.

"Had she stayed in office longer," McBeath said, "she would have become, I think, a very solid and accomplished senator," serving in the Stevens tradition.

Compared with her class of senators, Murkowski was in the top, taking her work very seriously and responding well to constituents, McBeath said.

"She was not a show horse. She didn't grab the mic to parade her views on issues," he said. "She was there to represent Alaska, and I think she did that quite well."

Part of Murkowski's downfall might be attributed to the California-based Tea Party Express, which spent nearly $600,000 on ads in Alaska to paint her as a Washington liberal unwilling to overturn federal health care reform.

Murkowski started fighting back in the race's waning weeks, about the time Congress let out for recess. She had said she was at a disadvantage, compared with Miller, because she was working in Washington, D.C., and was unable to be on the ground in Alaska, except during crammed weekends.

It wasn't until the day before the primary that Murkowski did a "you lie"-style radio ad, called "Truth." But this was lost amid a barrage of negative Miller and tea party ads, and Murkowski's own ads, which continued to focus almost exclusively on her experience and record.

The de facto leader of the tea party movement is Palin, who took barbs at Murkowski on her Facebook page when urging Alaskans to elect Miller.

Both women have denied there's a feud between them, but there's certainly no love lost. Palin beat Frank Murkowski in the GOP gubernatorial primary in 2006. And when Palin quit as governor during the middle of her first term, Lisa Murkowski said she was "deeply disappointed that the governor has decided to abandon the state and her constituents before her term has concluded."

Palin had initially donated to Murkowski's re-election fund, but afterward endorsed Miller. Palin's husband, Todd, attended Miller fundraisers.

And there's been continued sniping from both. In the last weekend before the election, Palin encouraged her Facebook fans to donate $30,000 for a critical last ad for Miller. "Let's raise $1,000 for each of the 30 years this senate seat has been locked in by the Murkowski family," she wrote.

On election night, Murkowski told the Anchorage Daily News that Palin isn't keeping the promise she made when she resigned last summer -- that she would use her national role to help Alaska.

"I think she's out for her own self-interest. I don't think she's out for Alaska's interest," Murkowski said.

Clive Thomas, a political science professor at the University of Alaska Southeast who has spoken extensively on the Palin phenomenon, said he doesn't know the source of the feud between Alaska's two most powerful politicians.

"Lisa is much of a more mainstream Republican that Sarah Palin has prided herself on not being," he said.


Associated Press writer Becky Bohrer in Juneau contributed to this report.

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