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Wounded but focused, tea party favorite Joe Miller tries again

Alex DeMarban
Joe Miller shakes hands with Greg Vaughn during the Eagle River Bear Paw Festival parade on Saturday, July 12, 2014 in Eagle River, AK. Miller is running for the US Senate for the second time, four years after defeating Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary, only to then lose to her and a write-in campaign in the general election. Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News

Recalling his general election loss to Sen. Lisa Murkowski four years ago, tea party favorite Joe Miller will tell you he was undermined by establishment Republicans, misrepresented by a costly smear campaign and betrayed by a rogue security-guard “plant” who took it upon himself to handcuff a reporter.

But the Fairbanks conservative will also tell you any blame for the loss -- and his campaign’s missteps -- rests squarely on his shoulders.

“That’s one thing you learn as a West Pointer, that’s one of the things you learn as someone who served in combat,” said Miller, who graduated from the military academy in 1989 and led a tank platoon in the first Iraq War in 1991. “Ultimately, you’re the guy who makes the decisions and if you take advice and you follow it and it’s wrong, then it’s on you.”

The Yale Law School graduate with a Bronze Star and a Fairbanks law practice came from nowhere to knock off Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary in 2010, only to implode months later as Murkowski clawed back to win a long-shot, independent write-in campaign. 

Now, Miller is gunning for Alaska’s other Senate seat, with Democratic Sen. Mark Begich in his sights. But he must first defeat two prominent Republican opponents considered the race’s front-runners, former attorney general Dan Sullivan and Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell.

Miller said he’s making many sacrifices to run again, including time away from his family and law firm. But he’s doing it, he says, because the nation needs bold ideas to reverse federal heavy-handedness and the $17-trillion debt that has brought the U.S. to the edge of insolvency. He blames Republicans and Democrats both for the country’s woes, including in Alaska where politicians, he says, have focused on keeping themselves in power and bringing home the bacon.

“If this country is not changed around now there won’t be much of a country for the next generation or the generation after that,” Miller said.

‘No envy’

Many political observers give Miller little chance. But he finds himself in familiar territory: An underdog with limited campaign money, strong views and a loyal following. And he’s avoided the barrage of bad press that cost him dearly last time, allowing him to focus on his message that calls for things like abolishing the Internal Revenue Service and maybe the Environmental Protection Agency.

And Miller is doing some things differently this time, including talking more about his personal life -- something he says he didn’t do enough of before. Why not?

“I don’t know how to answer that except to say that when you’re faced with a multimillion-dollar smear campaign, it’s kind of hard to get that message out,” Miller said, referring to attacks from Murkowski and others.

Miller, 47, says he grew up in a family without much money in small-town Kansas, the son of a hard-working Christian minister who worked at a bookstore.

With five sisters and brothers, "things were tight. It was hard to make ends meet, but we always had food,” Miller said. “My dad did not believe in getting any type of government handout, so we didn't participate in any of those kinds of programs.”

As a child, Miller was the primary gardener in the family, raising most of the vegetables they ate through the year. "There was no envy or anything else involved with it, that was how life was,” he said. “I certainly understand folk of little means. I’ve been blessed obviously since I’ve been here in Alaska, but that background allows me to tighten my belt in times like political campaigns where I’m not making much money.”

Accomplished family

At his campaign kickoff in April, Miller recounted how in seventh grade he saved up enough money mowing lawns and working at the store to take the bus to Wichita and pay for a minor surgical operation. The doctor removed scar tissue that had built up on Miller’s lip after a fall years earlier.  

After graduating from Salina Central High School in Kansas in 1985, Miller attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., graduating in the top 1 percent of his class, he said. In 1990, he deployed to Saudi Arabia, where as a lieutenant he led a tank platoon that helped liberate Kuwait.  

After returning to the barracks at Fort Riley, Kansas, Miller met his “superwoman” wife, Kathleen Miller, after she'd advertised in the newspaper for someone to adopt her dog. The couple moved to Alaska two decades ago.

Today, besides being a mom to eight children, Kathleen helps run Miller’s law firm and the campaign while also serving on the Alaska Judicial Council (appointed by former Gov. Sarah Palin). Their brood -- ages 10 to 25 -- includes a West Point cadet, a son who's graduating from college two years early because he took high school college courses, a daughter doing missionary work in Latin America, and a state wrestler. The younger ones are learning karate, whom Miller jokingly refers to as "in-house security" when he makes light of the handcuffing episode.  

Another daughter, Katy, 23, runs Miller’s “Restoring Liberty” website, the current-events blog featuring news and opinion bashing Obama and liberals. Miller said he created the site to promote views ignored by Alaska’s media.

Miller -- a grandfather as of last December -- is still paying off student loans, according to his last personal disclosure filing. He reported a small income from the site, a little more than $15,000 over a 20-month period. That was on top of the roughly $73,000 he reported making at his law firm.

The website “is yet another public service, one I felt necessary coming out of the 2010 race because at every turn it seemed like we were getting unfavorable media, and there was not a good conservative web site for Alaska,” Miller said.  

No federal informants

Asked what he’s learned from his last race, and what he’s doing differently today, Miller said he won’t let federal informants inside the campaign.  

Long gone is “Drop Zone” Bill Fulton, who in 2010 was secretly tracking militia ringleader Schaeffer Cox for the FBI when he agreed to provide security for Miller at a town hall meeting. When Fulton handcuffed a journalist for aggressively questioning Miller, Miller’s reputation took a beating.  

But Fulton came clean last year in press interviews. No longer living in Alaska, and with Cox safely in prison after plotting to kill federal employees, the munitions supplier told reporters he made the call to handcuff Alaska Dispatch editor Tony Hopfinger. He said he was socially liberal and supported Obama -- anathema to Miller​ -- and suggested that the episode boosted his credibility with the far right as he infiltrated their network.

“Not only did he not support me, he was there as a plant, whether by his own accord or others,” said Miller.

“You had an independent actor and what can you do to protect against independent actors? We’re a grassroots campaign. We don’t have the capacity to do a background check on everyone that comes in and helps. We certainly would have handled that differently had we had all the facts that Mr. Fulton later described in the press.”

The damage was done, but it was just one of Miller’s problems.  

‘Malicious Intent’

Many of the problems are laid bare in a new book promoted by Miller and unveiled at his campaign kickoff in April. “The Joe Miller story, Malicious Intent, Inside the Establishment’s War on the Tea Party,” offers an insider’s take on what went wrong.

Written by Miller’s political consultant, Matt Johnson, it details how key Republicans worked to protect Murkowski in the general election, though Miller was the Republican candidate.  

With Miller short on cash after the primary, he accepted an offer from the National Republican Senatorial Committee to run his campaign. But Johnson believes the group had ulterior motives. It produced belated, ineffectual ads for Miller, attacked the harmless Democrat Scott McAdams, and gave Murkowski a pass. 

Miller today says his biggest mistake was letting Outside consultants take charge: “We allowed D.C. to come in and control us. They brought personnel in and other things to our campaign, provided advice and direction that was completely contrary to what we should have done.”

But the buck stops with him for that decision.  “I’m the candidate, I’m in charge. It doesn’t matter internally that I might have had establishment guys and NRSC people working against me. I let them in,” he said.

“That’s a mistake that won’t be made again.”

‘Catastrophic’ blunder

Accepting the advice from the D.C. consultants led to “an absolutely catastrophic mistake,” Miller said.That would be the line-in-the-sand press conference and Miller's announcement that he wouldn’t give the press any more details about his personal background.

The vow of silence came as the media sought to confirm allegations about a 2008 incident when Miller, a valued attorney at the Fairbanks North Star Borough, had secretly accessed the computers of three of his co-workers to vote in an online poll on his own website in an effort to topple then-state Republican Party chair Randy Ruedrich.

Miller’s co-workers learned about the invasion because Miller had erased their cached passwords and web sites. His actions violated borough ethics policy against using government resources for political purposes.

Records released by the borough after media outlets filed suit showed Miller initially lied about the stunt and tried blaming his colleagues, saying they violated borough policy by leaving their computers accessible. He was ultimately put on administrative leave for 15 days and suspended without pay for three days. 

Miller said in 2010 the incident was “petty” and not relevant to his campaign. In a recent interview, he said his actions were a “mistake” and that he was initially dishonest when co-workers asked why their computer caches had been cleared.

“After a few minutes of reflection, I decided I needed to confess all, so I contacted my boss and told her what I had done, and I apologized to my co-workers. My boss noted in the personnel file, it was an ‘isolated incident’ and she did not feel it was indicative of my character,” he said. 

Shortly before the election, Miller bucked the political advice from the D.C. consultants and told the public on national television what he’d done.

But ultimately, Miller fell about 11,000 votes short of becoming a senator, earning nearly 91,000 votes to Murkowski’s 102,252.  

Miller shines in debate

Political observers say voters won’t forget what happened. Polls back them up, with several showing Miller in a distant third behind Sullivan and Treadwell with less than 20 percent of the vote.

But one expert said Miller’s support may be higher than polls suggest. Forrest Nabors, an assistant political science professor for the University of Alaska Anchorage, initially wrote Miller off. But he changed his view after watching the June debate organized by Republican women’s groups, where Miller’s answers generated the most audience enthusiasm.

“I didn’t think Joe Miller had a chance at all in the primary. Now I think he does,” said Nabors.

Nabors said he underestimated Miller’s strengths, including that he has better stump skills than his opponents and that he might be hitting a nerve witnessed in the defeat of Virginia Republican and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in June to a tea party candidate -- growing electorate outrage with big business and federal oversight.

“They don’t like crony capitalism or big government, and I think that bodes well for Joe Miller. It would not surprise me to see a surge in his support,” said Nabors.

Some, including Nabors writing in a Politico Magazine column, have suggested Miller will run as an independent candidate if he loses the primary.

Miller responded with his own article and pointed out that he has never said he’s running for anything other than the Republican nomination.

But Miller has not denied the possibility, said Nabors. If Miller returns for the general election, that could help Begich’s reelection bid by siphoning votes from the eventual Republican candidate, Nabors has said.

‘Tainted goods’

Other consultants said Miller will lose the primary.

Ivan Moore, of Ivan Moore Research, said Miller is charismatic, savvy and the most skilled politician in the primary.

“Still, he’s toast,” Moore said, in part because the candidate's ratings haven’t recovered from the handcuffing and other problems.  

Matt Larkin of Dittman Research, a consultant to Mead Treadwell, said Miller’s seen as not able to win the general election, and that will hurt him. With Republicans targeting a Democrat this time, they’re serious about choosing a candidate with broader appeal, he said.

“They’re putting a premium on electability in a way that’s different than last time,” Larkin said.

Jerry McBeath, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said Miller seemed like the perfect candidate when he appeared on the scene in 2010. But his “sterling credentials” have been overshadowed by what happened four years ago, he said.

That includes the revelations that Miller at times accepted government benefits -- including about $7,000 in farm subsidies for 140 acres of Kansas farmland he owned and sold in the 1990s -- though he’d criticized federal entitlement programs.

“It was a message was not consistent in terms of how he lived his life and what he said ought to be done,” McBeath said.

Now, Miller has no chance, he said. “He’s tainted goods,” McBeath said. 

Bedrock views

Miller says his grassroots supporters know he's sincere and unwavering. They'll help him win, he said. 

Nabors said he doesn’t believe Miller is motivated to run by self-interest. “It’s hard to believe why anyone would go through this for those reasons, when they have to weather the slings and arrows that are easily anticipated given what happened in the last campaign,” he said.

Johnson, Miller’s political consultant, agreed. “He’s the real deal. He’s serious about going to Washington and wanting to change things and confront the problems facing the country.”

Miller’s bedrock views attracted the Gun Owners of America, an increasingly powerful gun-rights lobby that has endorsed him. Tim Macy, a longtime board member of the group from California, spoke at Miller’s campaign kickoff, saying the group had tracked Miller for years and decided he was the rare candidate who would always vote for the Second Amendment.

Miller also wants to eliminate the IRS by removing all taxes except a consumption tax. That would reduce the burden on corporations, bring trillions of dollars in overseas tax shelters back to the U.S. and get the “abusive” agency out of the business of persecuting groups opposed by the administration, Miller said.

He said he would work with “allies in the House” to reduce or strike funding for agencies that have grown their power in unconstitutional ways, such as the EPA. And he’d stand with other senators, like Ted Cruz of Texas, to turn federal land over to western states.

Miller touts an endorsement from Alaska Right to Life, saying he’s the only candidate who is unequivocally opposed to abortion. And Miller opposes nation-building, saying efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have failed to provide the desired freedoms, and that America cannot solve the Middle East’s ancient disputes.  

Such misguided efforts should not be attempted “with the blood, sweat and tears of our men and women in uniform,” he said.

Miller said he’s getting  a second look from some voters and retains core support from those who respect that he took the “type of media beating we got last time,” yet has returned to fight corruption and the establishment.

“I think Alaskans respect that, that we’re still fighting and were fighting for them," he said. It's "not for some personal purpose, but because we want to get this country back on track."