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Miller campaign aims for repeat of 2010 US Senate primary upset

Nathaniel Herz
Joe Miller shakes hands with Greg Vaughn during the Eagle River Bear Paw Festival parade on Saturday, July 12. Miller, who is running for the U.S. Senate, has taken steps to present himself differently than he did in 2010, when his upset of Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary was followed by a series of incidents that damaged his credibility with voters. Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News

Joe Miller, the far-right Republican candidate in the party’s U.S. Senate primary Tuesday, faces tough odds: Recently published polls show him well behind his two GOP rivals, Dan Sullivan and Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell.

But in 2010, those same polls showed Miller in a similar spot, trailing incumbent U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski by as much as 30 percent in July. Miller, of course, went on to eke out a primary victory anyway, then lost in the general election to a vigorous Murkowski write-in campaign.

Four years later, the primary presents different circumstances, though Miller is still the underdog.

He has a pair of serious opponents and lacks the endorsement of the Tea Party Express, which spent more than $600,000 supporting his campaign in 2010. But with less than a week until the election, few political observers are ruling out an upset, given the intensity of Miller’s core supporters and the unreliability of polling in the state.

“Miller supporters are die-hards,” said Republican pollster Marc Hellenthal, who’s not working with any of the Senate candidates. “They’re going to show up.”

Miller’s own campaign has taken recently to citing David Brat, the tea party candidate and Virginia economics professor who knocked off House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Republican primary in June. Brat trailed by 34 points in one poll and raised just $230,000 to Cantor’s $5.7 million, but he still won with 55 percent of the vote.

“It seems that often polls don't actually capture what's going on in Alaska,” said Miller's spokesman, Randy DeSoto.

Miller has raised $330,000 this campaign cycle, compared to $4 million raised by Sullivan, the candidate favored by the Republican establishment. But, he said in an interview, “there just isn’t a lot of excitement for the other two candidates.”

“It’s the only race in America I can think of where the establishment has split its vote,” Miller said.

Miller spoke Monday at the corner of Northern Lights Boulevard and the Seward Highway in Anchorage, where 15 supporters had gathered to wave signs and cheer at drivers during rush hour -- outnumbering the group of Sullivan supporters across the street.

While those supporters attracted the occasional honk or cheer, Miller’s campaign is taking place on a landscape different from the one  in 2010.

That year was a “perfect storm” for Miller, said Taylor Bickford, an Anchorage political consultant.

The tea party was surging, and the Affordable Care Act had just passed Congress. Miller’s campaign produced ads attacking the bill, and he benefited from the tide of advertising from the Tea Party Express, which also dispatched political operatives to the state.

In the 2010 primary, “nobody took him seriously,” Bickford said, compared to this year’s more competitive primary.

Miller has clashed especially with Treadwell, whose right-wing positions on some issues come close to Miller’s.

Miller and his supporters have repeatedly attacked Treadwell as a moderate in conservative clothing, joking that they’re waiting for Treadwell to grow facial hair to match Miller’s own.

“Some people will be deceived by Mead,” said Eddie Zingone, Miller’s brother-in-law, who was out waving signs Monday. “Mead was campaigning that he’s Joe without the beard -- but he’s not.”

Over the last few weeks, Miller has tried to draw contrasts with his opponents on red-meat conservative issues like gun control, immigration and abortion. He has the endorsement of Alaska Right to Life, the Anchorage Tea Party and the political arm of the National Association for Gun Rights, which has been running online ads attacking Sullivan.

Miller has challenged Sullivan’s bona fides on the Second Amendment, producing an open-records request that showed no evidence Sullivan personally pushed for passage of a self-defense law when he served as Alaska’s attorney general.

He has attacked Treadwell, Alaska’s lieutenant governor, for rejecting a pro-life ballot measure on legal grounds, and for donating money to candidates with pro-choice views. And he’s pushed both of his opponents to sign a pledge to cut off benefits to illegal immigrants, to which neither Treadwell nor Sullivan has agreed.

Treadwell said Miller had misrepresented his record and that Miller will have to overcome the highly unfavorable ratings some polls have given him, citing a widely publicized incident in 2010 when a security guard for Miller detained the editor of the news website Alaska Dispatch. (The guard was later revealed to be an informant working with the federal government to monitor Alaska militia groups.)

“Part of what Mr. Miller is known for is putting people in handcuffs,” Treadwell said in an interview. “All polling data I’ve seen showed Joe Miller has a very huge negative to overcome with Alaska’s voters.”

Treadwell added that Miller wouldn’t be viable in a general election race against incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Begich. Jim Lottsfeldt, an Anchorage consultant who runs an independent super PAC supporting Begich, agreed.

“If Miller is the nominee, our polls show this election will be a blowout,” Lottsfeldt said. “Just a blowout.”

But Miller, in a debate Sunday, rejected the notion that he wouldn’t appeal to voters outside a Republican primary, arguing, for example, that some liberal voters would back his opposition to the “surveillance state.”

“I don’t think that my message is a partisan message,” he said. “I think people even on the left see that I’m a fighter, and I’m fighting for liberty -- not partisanship.

“There are people on the left that support me because they know the surveillance state, from my perspective, is horrific,” Miller added.

Miller has also taken steps to present a softer side in this year’s campaign, through his wife, Kathleen. She has appeared on talk radio with him and spoke at a rally last month at the opening of Miller’s Anchorage office, which he said has helped moderate the “intensity” of his beliefs.

“Sometimes that intensity can almost circumvent the human character of things,” Miller said. “And she restores that.”