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How Sarah Palin could decide Alaska's race for Senate

Donald Craig Mitchell
Republican US Senate candidates, from left, Joe Miller, Dan Sullivan and Mead Treadwell, appearing at the Alaska Support Industry Alliance, an oil, gas and mining trade group on Apr. 24, 2014. File illustration. Loren Holmes photo

To take control of the U.S. Senate in January, in the November general election the Republican Party needs to win six of the eight seats that Charlie Cook, Stu Rothenberg, and other pundits who pay attention to such things say are up for grabs. One of those seats is occupied by Mark Begich, Alaska’s first term Democratic senator.

Those same pundits say that the likelihood that Begich will be reelected in November is a toss-up. Except for Nate Silver, the wunderkind du jour of algorithms, who last month gave Begich a slight statistical edge. But Silver rightly cautioned that the outcome of the Alaska Senate election may be “the hardest race to forecast” because, with voters scattered in villages and small towns from Barrow south to Ketchikan, polling on the nation’s Last Frontier “is often erratic.”

In a state in which Barack Obama won a dismal 38 percent of the vote in 2008 and did only 3 percentage points better in 2012, Mark Begich should be a Dead Man Walking.

First, because Begich is a Democrat in a state in which Republicans outnumber Democrats almost 2 to 1, and voters who have no party affiliation (and who are 53 percent of all registered voters) trend from center-right to flat-out-nuts. Because of that structural problem, other than in the occasional aberrant circumstance election, no Democrat running statewide can win more than 46 percent of the vote. In 1982 Democrat Bill Sheffield was elected governor with 45.1 percent of the vote in a three-way race. In 1994 Democrat Tony Knowles was elected governor with 41.1 percent of the vote in another three-way race. In 2002 Democrat Fran Ulmer, who had been Knowles’s lieutenant governor, won 40.7 percent of the vote when she tried to succeed Knowles and lost to former Republican Sen. Frank Murkowski. And in 2004 when he ran against Lisa Murkowski for the seat in the Senate her father had given her and lost, and in 2006 when he ran against Sarah Palin for governor and lost, Knowles won 45.5 and 40.9 percent of the vote.

The second reason Mark Begich should be a Dead Man Walking is that in 2008 he was elected to the Senate in an aberrant circumstance election that he didn’t really win.

Begich's opponent was Ted Stevens, the 84-year-old president pro tempore of the Senate. During his 40-plus years as a solon Ted divided his time between exploiting his position, first as a member, and then as chairman, of the Appropriations Committee to earmark what over the decades became billions of federal dollars for delivery to constituents and favored friends, and running the Department of Defense from his position as either chairman or ranking member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

Everyone in Alaska has his favorite Ted Stevens earmark. Mine is the $28 million Ted gave to the Federal Railroad Administration in 1998 to build a railroad station at the Ted Stevens International Airport that no one had asked for and which since it opened in 2002 has only rarely been used, except as a venue for wedding receptions. At the dedication, when a reporter mused that a railroad station at the airport made no sense and the facility would never pay its way, Ted’s exasperated retort was, don’t you understand, “It doesn’t have to pay for itself. It was a grant from the federal government.”

Since he never said much about it back home, most Alaskans didn’t appreciate the extent of the influence Ted Stevens had over national defense policy. But they were educated in 2010 when Ted died in a plane crash. At the state funeral at the Anchorage Baptist Temple for which everyone who is anyone in Alaska turned out, in addition to Vice President Biden, 11 senators from both parties, and Ted Kennedy’s widow, into the middle of the event marched the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

As the adage goes, absolute power eventually corrupts absolutely. And after 38 years of wielding power in the Senate that, if not absolute, by the end was only infrequently challenged, by 2006 Ted’s sense of entitlement had pre-positioned him for an ignominious end when the Great Cyclops Eye of the Department of Justice focused on Bill Allen, the longtime Ted Stevens sycophant who since the 1980s had been the oil industry’s bagman in Juneau.

As a spin-off from the Department’s investigation of Allen, by the summer of 2007 a grand jury in Washington, D.C., was investigating Ted Stevens regarding myriad matters, including an earmark that had benefitted a former chief of staff, and free labor and building materials that Allen had given Stevens during a remodel of Ted’s house in Girdwood. The public part of the investigation crescendoed in July when FBI agents raided the Girdwood house and the fact that they had done so became a national news story.

Mark Begich watched that happen.

Mayor Begich

As his television commercials now are reminding us, Begich is the son of Nick Begich, an expatriated Minnesota Democrat and Hubert Humphrey protege who served one term as Alaska’s congressman before dying in a plane crash prior to the 1972 election.

As rawly politically ambitious as his father had been, in the early 1980s Begich, who had skipped college and was managing an apartment building his father had built, landed a job as the chauffeur for Tony Knowles, who in 1981 had been narrowly elected mayor of Anchorage.

After soaking up what watching Mayor Knowles move around the city had to teach, in 1988 Begich ran for an open seat on the Anchorage Assembly in an election he won by winning 28 percent of the vote when his six more conservative opponents divided the other 72 percent. Then three years later he was reelected with a majority of the votes in an election in which the only competing candidate was a right-of-ridiculous Republican gadfly.

While Begich then focused his ambition on the mayor’s office, the Anchorage Home Rule Charter required a run-off election for mayor if no candidate won 40 percent of the vote. Since, like the statewide electorate, the Anchorage electorate trends center-right, in 1994 when Begich finished second in the mayoral election with 19.58 percent of the vote, he lost the run-off election to Rick Mystrom, a mainstream Republican. The 42 percent of the vote Begich won in the run-off election was a statistically accurate representation of the strength of the Democratic Party in Anchorage. And after conducting polling place exit interviews the Anchorage Daily News explained Begich’s loss as follows: “Many voters were quick to point out what they didn’t like about Begich. They said he’s too liberal -- too friendly with unions, too likely to raise taxes, and too sympathetic to homosexuals.”

To drive what they intended to be the last nail into the lid of the coffin in which the remains of Mark Begich’s political career by then were languishing, in 1999 Anchorage Republicans put an initiative on the municipal election ballot whose passage raised the run-off election requirement from 40 percent to 50 percent because, as former Anchorage mayor and stalwart Republican conservative Tom Fink explained, “One on one the conservative candidate wins.”

And that’s what happened when Begich ran for mayor in 2000, won 40.26 percent of the vote (which would have won the election under the 40 percent rule), but then lost the run-off election to George Wuerch, another mainstream Republican.

But Begich was not done.

In addition to increasing the run-off requirement from 40 percent to 50 percent for the mayoral election, the 1999 initiative required run-offs for Anchorage Assembly and school board elections. So in 2002 Allan Tesche, a member of Begich’s inner circle who represented downtown Anchorage on the Anchorage Assembly, arranged for the Assembly to put an amendment to the Home Rule Charter on the 2003 municipal election ballot whose passage would eliminate the run-off election requirement for Anchorage Assembly and school board elections. The amendment also lowered the mayoral run-off election requirement from 50 percent to 45 percent of the vote. And even more shrewdly, the amendment was written to take affect in the election in which it was passed. Tesche quite purposefully did all that in order to improve Begich’s chances of being elected.

As a consequence, in 2003 when Mark Begich ran for mayor in the same election in which the amendment did pass, he was elected with only eighteen more votes than the number he needed to exceed the 45 percent requirement and avoid the run-off election he would have lost. Benefitting from the power of the incumbency, in 2006 Begich was elected to a second term as mayor by winning 56 percent of the vote against a weak Republican opponent in an election in which only 35 percent of registered voters bothered to cast ballots.

Rolling the dice

So the summer of 2007 when the Department of Justice’s investigation of Bill Allen began to focus on Ted Stevens, Mark Begich was only a year into his second term as mayor of Anchorage. So if he ran against Ted in 2008 and lost, he still would be mayor. And who knew what might happen prior to the election. Five years earlier Ted Stevens had been elected to his sixth full term in the Senate by winning 78 percent of the vote in an election in which the Democrats hadn’t bothered to run a real candidate. But maybe the pickle Ted was in would get worse.

So Begich rolled the dice. In February 2008 he formed an exploratory committee, in April declared his candidacy, and in July got the first break he needed when the grand jury in Washington, D.C., indicted Ted on seven felony counts for having made false statements on his Senate disclosure forms by failing to list gifts valued at more than $250,000 that he had received from Bill Allen.

A month later Ted easily won the Republican primary election.

If Ted then had spent the next two months traveling around the state professing his innocence, in November he would have been re-elected. But instead of Ted doing that, Mark Begich caught a second lucky break that would prove determinative.

When he was indicted, Ted hired Brendan Sullivan, a white-collar criminal defense attorney of national reputation who in the 1980s had represented Col. Oliver North when North had been indicted as an outcome of a special prosecutor’s investigation of the Iran-Contra scandal. Sullivan advised his new client not to demand a speedy trial. But Ted rejected that advice so that “my innocence will be confirmed before Alaskans go to the ballot box.” Then in September when the trial began Sullivan advised Ted not to testify in his own defense, advice he also rejected.

As a consequence, on October 27, 2008, when a jury convicted Ted Stevens on all seven of the felony counts, everyone of my acquaintance who had watched him testify told me that Ted had been his own worst witness. One juror said, “He looked fragile for most of the trial, and then he testified, and man, he became this lion. I thought, ‘Wait a minute, if the defense is trying to portray this man as a sympathetic character who didn’t know what was going on in his life, why did they put him on the stand and he could recall everything that happened except the gifts?’”

Prior to the trial Ted had predicted that “the verdict is the general election.” And it was. Because eight days after the verdict Mark Begich defeated Ted Stevens by 3,953 votes in an election in which more than 317,000 votes were cast.

Five months after the election, Attorney General Eric Holder asked District Judge Emmet Sullivan, who had presided at the trial, to vacate Ted’s convictions because of prosecutorial misconduct. When Judge Sullivan did so, New York Times columnist David Brooks aptly noted that, while that was a good outcome for Ted, the problem was that people now were going to think he was innocent. And that is how most Alaska Republicans continue to look at it.

Last February Ted’s daughter, Lily, flew up to Anchorage from San Francisco, where she practices law, to be the featured speaker at a gathering of the Alaska Republican Party faithful. That evening when Lily told the crowd, “I’m not going to mince words. My father should have never lost his seat,” the room erupted in cheers and shouts.

And Lily Stevens is right. Because if only 1,977 of the voters who abandoned Ted Stevens had stuck with him he would have been re-elected. And they would have stuck with him if Ted, after 40 years in the Senate his judgment ossified by hubris, had not demanded a trial and a verdict before the election.

But if Alaska Republicans consider Mark Begich a fraud and a usurper, which of the three candidates who are competing in the Republican primary election this August will they select to be their nominee to return the seat in the Senate in which Begich sits to the party of its rightful owner?

Here’s where the 2014 Alaska Senate election starts to get fun.

Three Republican primary choices

The first candidate is Mead Treadwell, Alaska’s lieutenant governor. Yale and Harvard educated, Mead is a soft-spoken nice guy who has spent more than 30 years paying his dues inside the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce wing of the Alaska Republican Party, serving most of that time as one of former Alaska Republican Gov. Wally Hickel’s aides-de-camp. In anticipation of making the run against Begich, Mead has quietly tried to reach out to the uber-patriots in Fairbanks, the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, and the Kenai Peninsula who are members of the right-to-life, gun-nut wing of the Alaska Republican Party that Sarah Palin led before she relocated in 2009 with Todd and Willow and Piper and Baby Trig to a gated compound in Scottsdale, Ariz. As of this writing, it remains to be seen how successful Mead has been in that endeavor.

But more importantly, Mead Treadwell’s major liability as a candidate is that, having moved to Alaska out of college almost 40 years ago, for all practical purposes he’s a local boy. Because he is, he does not have the connections with the National Republican Party and the big-money donors who fund its candidates to attract the campaign contributions he needs in order to compete dollar-against-dollar against the second candidate who wants to be the Alaska Republican Party’s nominee.

That candidate is Dan Sullivan, who to differentiate him from the Dan Sullivan who is mayor of Anchorage is known around town as “Cleveland Dan,” “DNR Dan,” and “Afghan Dan,” take your pick.

Sullivan is the 49-year-old scion of a politically well-connected and mega-wealthy family in Ohio whose patriarch established RPM International, a multi-national corporation based in Ohio that has more than 10,000 employees, does business in more than 150 countries, and whose CEO is Dan’s brother.

Educated at Harvard and Georgetown Law School, Sullivan’s Alaska connection is that in the mid-1990s he married Julie Fate, the daughter of Fairbanks residents Hugh and Mary Jane Fate. Touting that credential, one of the first television commercials the Sullivan for Senate campaign broadcast featured Julie Sullivan looking into the camera and explaining that she met her husband “while I was working (in Washington, D.C.) for Sen. Ted Stevens, and the first place I brought Dan was to my family’s fish camp on the Yukon River. He fell hard for me -- and for Alaska.”

And who knows? Maybe Dan Sullivan really did fall as hard for Alaska as he did for his wife. But even if he did, Dan’s seemingly out-of-nowhere arrival on the Alaska political scene emits the malodorous scent of opportunism.

Here are the facts about that which are known so far.

After a post-law school enlistment in the Marine Corps, in 1997 Sullivan moved with his wife to Fairbanks, where he worked for a year as a law clerk for a federal judge. Then he clerked for a justice of the Alaska Supreme Court. When that clerkship ended, after a stint as a staff attorney at the Alaska Court of Appeals, Sullivan took a job as an associate attorney in an Anchorage law firm.

Then on Sept. 11, 2001, Osama Bin Laden’s hijackers blew up the World Trade Center. According to Sullivan, “my country had been attacked and I wanted to serve.” Fair enough. But the odd way he picked to fight terrorists was to apply to George W. Bush for a White House fellowship that he later told the Alaska Legislature he thought when he submitted his application was a “severe longshot.”

When he beat the purported long odds and was awarded the fellowship, at the White House, Sullivan became a protege of Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security advisor. And when Rice moved to the State Department, in 2006 she took Sullivan with her as an assistant secretary of state.

In January 2009 when Barack Obama was sworn into office as president, like all other Bush administration political appointees, Sullivan was out of a job.

Five months later and two weeks before she announced that she would resign as governor of Alaska, in June 2009 Sarah Palin appointed Dan Sullivan as her new attorney general. When he was asked during his confirmation hearing how that happened, Sullivan said: “The position of the attorney general had come open after the (legislative) session. And when I was up here (in Alaska) a number of times several different people had mentioned, ‘Geez, this might be something you’re interested in. You have a strong background in this area.’ So I had indicated that I was interested. And actually, a friend of mine had contacted the governor’s office.”

But that’s not exactly the complete real story.

In 2007 Pat Galvin, the Alaska commissioner of revenue, and two other senior members of the Palin administration met in Washington, D.C., with a roomful of State Department officials to discuss Alaska energy issues. One of those officials was Assistant Secretary of State Sullivan who a participant in the meeting remembers steering the conversation to his wife, his Ivy League education, and the four years he had lived in Alaska. When the meeting ended Sullivan asked Galvin and the two other Alaskans if he could stay in touch and they said sure.

The fog of WAR

Two years later when Talis Colberg, her original attorney general, resigned, in March 2009 Sarah appointed an Anchorage attorney named Wayne Anthony Ross to succeed Colberg. A former vice president of the National Rifle Association who refers to himself in the third person as “WAR” and whose good-natured bombast is legendary in Alaska legal circles, Wayne -- who once during a debate on equal rights for women said, “If a woman would keep her mouth shut, there wouldn’t be an issue with domestic violence” -- was a fabulously idiotic choice to be the state’s chief law enforcement officer.

That fact became apparent in April at his confirmation hearing when Wayne was asked about his well-known antipathy for gays and lesbians and cheerfully responded that, as attorney general, he would provide homosexuals fair treatment just as he would provide lima beans, which he disliked just as much, fair treatment if the law required him to do so.

On April 16, 2009 WAR became the first attorney in Alaska history to have his appointment as attorney general rejected by a bipartisan vote of the Legislature.

Wayne’s performance at his confirmation hearing was so hapless that there was speculation in the Alaska press that the governor might ask Wayne to withdraw before the legislature voted him down. So the likelihood that Sarah was soon going to need a new nominee was being discussed in Alaska political circles when Pat Galvin and one of the other Palin administration officials who two years earlier had attended the meeting at the State Department received a telephone call from Dan Sullivan inviting them to coffee.

At Café del Mundo, the Midtown Anchorage coffee shop where lots of consequential meetings take place, Sullivan told them that he wanted to be attorney general and asked if they would do what they could to help. They agreed and when the legislature rejected WAR they floated Sullivan’s name to Sarah, whose initial response was “I’ve never even heard of the guy.”

If during his confirmation hearing Dan Sullivan was intentionally abstruse when he was asked about the events that led to his appointment as attorney general, there is nothing wrong with political ambition or with soft-pedaling it when need be. But how did Dan morph from an attorney general who had not lived in Alaska in seven years and whom no one, including the governor, had ever heard of into a candidate for the U.S. Senate?

Here is what Anchorage Daily News reporter Lisa Demer reported after she asked Julie Sullivan that question: “Almost right away, Sullivan was approached about running for the U.S. Senate, his wife Julie said. She wouldn’t say who was behind the push.”

Presumably “almost right away” means the summer of 2009 when Sullivan relocated from Washington, D.C., to Anchorage to become attorney general six months after Mark Begich had been sworn into Ted Stevens’s seat in the Senate.

Their idea? Or his idea?

In Anchorage, I live around the corner from a member of Mark Begich’s staff who, when he’s home from Washington, D.C., walks his dog down the sidewalk in front of my house. Last May when I was planting marigolds in my front flower bed and the two of them, one straining on the leash, happened by, after exchanging the ritual pleasantries I asked how the Begich campaign was shaping up for Mark’s run against Mead Treadwell? The answer, which at the time surprised me, was, “Mark doesn’t think he’s going to be running against Mead. What we hear is that (Kentucky Senator) Mitch McConnell (the Republican minority leader) and John Cornyn (the Texas senator who in 2009 was chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee) (NRSC) decided that Mead doesn’t have the gravitas to beat Mark. So they looked around and the candidate on whom they’ve settled is Dan Sullivan.”

Five months later Dan declared his candidacy. And several weeks after that he was the guest of honor at a fundraiser on Capitol Hill that Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, the current chairman of the NRSC, and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, the vice chairman of the NRSC who is rumored to be an old friend of Dan’s, attended, even though the NRSC is supposed to remain neutral prior to the primary election.

Were McConnell and Cornyn and Portman, or members of the staff at the NRSC, the individuals Julie Sullivan refused to identify who made the push back in 2009 to recruit her husband to run? If they were, who convinced them that Mead Treadwell doesn’t have the necessary gravitas? And is it possible that Sullivan may have pitched his candidacy (and Mead’s purported lack of gravitas) to McConnell and Cornyn and Portman, rather than the other way around?

Maybe the Alaska press corps will get to the bottom of that. But for the moment all that can be said about those conjectures is that since declaring his candidacy Sullivan has been raising money from major Republican donors with multi-million dollar success that suggests that he is indeed the handpicked candidate of the East of the Potomac Republican Establishment. He’s been endorsed by the Club for Growth. In March, American Crossroads, Karl Rove’s super-PAC, released a television commercial in which, in her usual lady-like tone, Condoleezza Rice vouched that she knows for absolute sure how much Dan Sullivan “loves and cares for the state of Alaska.” And this month the U.S. Chamber of Commerce broadcast a television commercial that, after it trashes Mark Begich for being a friend of Barack Obama’s, endorses Sullivan.

Because Alaska is a small state in population in which retail politics matter, several Saturday mornings ago Mark Begich dropped in for coffee at City Market, the ersatz Starbucks in my downtown Anchorage neighborhood that stocks 20 different brands of imported olive oil and sells the New York Times, and where on weekends those of us who feel like doing so hang around. During my coffee crowd’s conversation with him, Mark mocked Cleveland Dan as a self-promoting carpetbagger. Mark also assured us that in November he’s going to win the general election because a majority of Alaska voters care more about local issues, to which since becoming a senator Begich has been relentlessly attentive, than they will about the television commercials already being broadcast that to try to hang Barack Obama around Begich’s neck like the 60-pound fishing weight that in Alaska he is.

Mark Begich’s election handicapping was obviously self-serving. And I remain to be convinced that in a state as blood-red as Alaska, Sen. Begich’s track record for delivering constituent service in the post-Ted Stevens post-earmark era is going to trump his vote for the Affordable Care Act, support for gay marriage, and general reliability inside the Senate Democratic Caucus as a vote Harry Reid usually can count on.

But when Mark confidently predicted that he’s going win, my coffee crowd’s assumption was that Mark will be running for reelection against Dan Sullivan because this August in the Republican primary election Dan’s outside money and establishment connections will overwhelm Mead Treadwell, who to keep it on life support recently had to loan his campaign $175,000 of his own money.

But my view is that even if Dan beats Mead, that doesn’t mean Dan wins the Republican primary election. Because there is a third candidate who, with a lot less money and a completely different set of national connections, has every chance of winning.

Don't write off Joe Miller

In 2002 when Frank Murkowski, who by then had been Alaska’s junior senator for 22 years was elected governor, he dumbfounded Alaska by appointing his daughter Lisa to succeed him in the Senate.

When Lisa Murkowski, whose private politics are only slightly to the right of Mark Begich’s, then ran on her own in the 2004 Republican primary election she easily turned back a challenge from a conservative Republican state senator, and then, being the Republican candidate in a Republican state, she just as easily defeated former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles in the general election.

But then six years later Lisa unexpectedly lost the 2010 Republican primary election to Fairbanks attorney Joe Miller whose campaign had been ably assisted by Sarah Palin who dislikes both father and daughter Murkowski because in 2002 she was outraged when Frank appointed Lisa, rather than Sarah, to the seat in the Senate that, in no small part thanks to Sarah, Joe had now seemingly taken away.

A committed evangelical and Tea Party ideologue, Miller, who graduated from West Point and Yale Law School, is stupid the way Ted Cruz is stupid, which is another way of saying that he’s a very smart guy. But in 2010 when he beat Lisa fair and square in the Republican primary election, Joe quickly proved that he wasn’t yet ready for prime time.

If after he won the primary election Joe had flown to Maui and then had sat quietly on the beach for the next two months, he probably would have been elected to the Senate. Instead, he stayed in Alaska and launched a general election campaign that by November had convinced a majority of Alaska voters that Joe Miller might not only be mentally unhinged, but maybe even downright dangerous, and which reached its apogee in the corridor of the junior high school around the corner from my house when, after a campaign appearance, Joe’s private security team handcuffed Tony Hopfinger, who today is editor of both Alaska Dispatch and the Anchorage Daily News, because Tony had refused to stop asking Joe a question that he didn’t want to answer.

After Lisa Murkowski lost the Republican primary election, the Alaska Democratic Party’s failure to field a real candidate to run against Joe provided Lisa an opening to run in the general election as a write-in candidate. And in November Joe’s odd, and occasionally disturbing, behavior allowed Lisa to win.

But here’s the thing. After all the craziness that swirled around the Joe Miller for Senate campaign during the run-up to the 2010 general election, when he lost to Lisa, Joe got 90,839 votes.

Being generous, let’s say 30,000 of those votes were cast by Republicans who, because they always vote the Republican ticket, voted for Joe only because he was the Republican candidate. But that leaves 60,839 votes that were cast by voters who by then knew all about Joe Miller and liked what they saw.

Here’s why that’s bad news for Dan Sullivan:

In the 2008 and 2010 Republican primary elections 105,326 and 109,750 votes were cast. Because there will be a referendum on the primary election ballot whose passage will repeal a bill the Alaska Legislature passed last year that dramatically lowered taxes on the oil industry, the industry will be bankrolling a get-out-the-vote campaign to mobilize voters who are sympathetic to the industry to turn out and vote against the referendum. Since a majority of those voters will be Republicans and center-right Independents, let’s again be generous and say that as many as 125,000 votes will be cast in the 2014 Republican primary election.

If that’s how many are, if Joe Miller can turn out the 60,839 voters who voted for him in the 2010 general election to vote for him again, in a three-way race with Dan Sullivan and Mead Treadwell, Joe can win.

That’s why two well-connected Republicans of my acquaintance each separately have told me that they had heard from their sources that Dan Sullivan is trying to persuade Mead to withdraw.

If Mead does withdraw, Dan’s chances of winning go way up. But if Mead hangs in, in August can Joe Miller turn out the votes he needs?

Getting out the Joe Miller vote

To find out, I recently attended the kick-off event for the Joe Miller for Senate campaign that was held in the bar at a motel on Lake Wasilla, the lake down the road from the lake on whose shore Sarah lives whenever she’s back in town from Scottsdale. After prayers and testimonials and then a pep-talk from Joe, before the crowd broke up the mistress-of-ceremonies, a pixie perky blond I recognized from Joe’s last campaign, had everyone in the room take out their smart phones and make sure they were linked into the campaign’s website and Joe’s Twitter account; which meant that Joe has figured out that his campaign needs to replicate the social media network to identify and turn out supporters that the Obama campaign created prior to the 2012 presidential election.

But while social media will be important, the key to Joe Miller winning the Republican primary election is Sarah Palin.

At the moment Sarah, who doesn’t spend much time in Alaska anymore, is busy flying around the country endorsing candidates, making speeches, and earning gobs of money.

But if the week before the primary election Sarah will endorse Joe in a television commercial and then appear at get-out-the-vote events in Wasilla, Fairbanks, Kenai, and maybe over in Glennallen, her rock star presence can not only energize, but electrify, Miller voters.

If Sarah helps Joe turn out his vote and Joe wins, boy will it be fun to watch what happens next.

Because the outcome of the Senate election in Alaska may well decide which party controls the U.S. Senate, the NRSC, whose chairman and vice chairman unofficially support Dan Sullivan, and the super-PACs with which the NRSC is connected will have two months to try to transform Joe Miller into the mainstream conservative Republican candidate he’s not in order to try to make him acceptable to the center-right, but not completely crazy, independent voters who in the 2010 general election abandoned Joe in order to help re-elect Lisa Murkowski.

And while that’s happening, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the super-PACs connected to it will be spending who can only guess how many millions of dollars to help Mark Begich try to marginalize Joe the way that prior to the 2010 general election Harry Reid and Christopher Coons marginalized Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell, the Tea Party upstarts who upset the establishment candidates in the 2010 Republican Senate primary elections in Nevada and Delaware.

For those of us sitting in the ringside seats, it’s going to be quite the show.

Donald Craig Mitchell is an attorney in Anchorage, Alaska. He is the author of "Sold American: The Story of Alaska Natives and Their Land" and "Take My Land Take My Life: The Story of Congress's Historic Settlement of Alaska Native Land Claims," which in 2006 the Alaska Historical Society recognized as two of the most important books ever written about the history of Alaska.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.