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Paul Jenkins: Primary turnout pathetic, results good, debate goes on

Paul Jenkins
OPINION: Paul Jenkins says the oil tax referendum's defeat was good but didn't end debate, and that Sullivan will need to be on his game against Begich in the race for U.S. Senate. Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News

You have to wonder about a state where elections sometimes are decided by a coin-flip or vitally important questions about its future are decided by one in three registered voters. Heck, one in three people here routinely wear tin-foil hats.

In Tuesdayʼs primary election balloting, with Ballot Measure 1 -- and arguably the stateʼs fiscal future -- on the line, only about 157,000 of the stateʼs 494,900 registered voters, or a fraction more than 31 percent, even bothered to wander over to the polls and vote despite the angst, hyperbole and near-hysteria generated on both sides of the tax issue. (The total percentage is expected, with absentee ballots, to reach about 35 percent.) There is no way anybody could claim they did not know there was an election. Every stop was yanked out in the oil tax fight, big shots of every stripe were tossed into the fray. Old socialists, Republicans, people we have not heard from in years, they all had something to say. Truckloads of money were dumped into the fracas. The only person with nothing to say was Sen. Mark Begich, who inexplicably refused to take a leadership position on the important question.

Yet, when the smoke cleared Tuesday, 80,508 voters -- or 10.9 percent of Alaskaʼs 735,000 residents -- thankfully had rejected Ballot Measure 1, which would have returned the state to the miserably failed Alaskaʼs Clear and Equitable Share oil tax. Put another way: the margin of victory for the “vote no” forces -- 6,880 votes on election day -- was only about .009 percent of the stateʼs population.

Mind you, the contestʼs razor-thin outcome promises the oil tax question will remain as a pothole in the political road for a long time. There are large constituencies, oddly enough, in places such as Fairbanks, with sizable chips on their shoulders when it comes to the oil industry. The voteʼs tight margin will be an alluring beacon for politicians wanting to cash in on that animosity, and it should serve as a window-rattling warning to the industry that there are miles of fences to mend.

Alaskans are not done fighting about oil taxes yet. Not by a long shot.

GOP primary post-mortem

Joe Millerʼs strong showing in the GOP primary contest, despite heavy negative poll ratings, surprised many, despite his come-from-nowhere success against Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the 2010 Republican primary.

His 32 percent showing Tuesday outpaced Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who netted only 25 percent of the vote. Treadwell finished third, behind Miller and winner Dan Sullivan, who garnered 40 percent. Some wonder whether Miller would have done even better if Sarah Palin, tripping over her own baggage, had not waded in to support him.

The big loser in this election was Palin. She supported Miller and repeal of oil tax reform - and may have hurt both efforts.

Miller,  whose campaign caught fire in the last weeks, showed himself to be a strong campaigner and adept debater, a Sullivan weak spot. Aggressive and generally on point, he appealed to the GOPʼs right wing while, by virtually all accounts, running a focused and viable campaign with boundless energy, but little money. He cannot be counted out.

This campaign was a far cry from Millerʼs last. His willingness to concede without histrionics, and his pledge to support the winner in the GOP primary fight have gone a long way toward rehabilitating his political credentials in Alaska. That from a guy who has not always been kind to Miller. My guess is that we will hear from him again.

Treadwellʼs finish also was a surprise. While Begich, et al., hammered away at Sullivan from Day One with millions in negative ads, Treadwell largely went unscathed. It worked to his advantage early on, but eventually may have been his undoing. His underfunded campaign never seemed to catch the air it needed and Sullivanʼs name was all anybody heard. Add to that a perception that Treadwell just never wanted the nomination badly enough, and you have a prescription for third-place.

Sullivan now finds himself the point man for the GOPʼs Senate takeover bid. It will not be easy against Begich, an adept campaigner and polished politician. Sullivan, by all appearances, is neither, but that may work to his advantage. The former Natural Resources commissioner and attorney general needs to work on his stage presence and debating skills to be successful against a very comfortable Begich.

Let the games begin.

Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com, a division of Porcaro Communications.

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