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Dingman: Joe Miller counts on Round 3 with Murkowski for Alaska Senate seat

Mike Dingman
OPINION: Why is Joe Miller making nice with GOP establishment? He wants another shot at Murkowski in 2016. Pictured: Miller with supporters during the 2014 primary campaign. Bill Roth / Alaska Dispatch News

The Republican Party has chosen their candidate to run against Sen. Mark Begich -- Dan Sullivan.

You might think now Joe Miller will assume his role as obstructionist and find his way to punish the Republican Party “establishment.”

Don’t be so sure about that.

Miller is doing something he didn’t do after winning the primary and losing the general election in 2010 -- he is playing nice with the GOP.

Why, you might ask?

In 2016 we will do this all again and many conservatives will be united to defeat another senator they consider too liberal for their tastes -- Lisa Murkowski.

In 2010, when Lisa Murkowski announced her candidacy to run a write-in campaign against Republican nominee Joe Miller, she stood on stage surrounded by unions and Native corporation leaders -- there may not have been a single Republican on the stage other than Murkowski.

They likely hedged their bets knowing Murkowski was their best bet to keep the federal money flowing in their direction.

Joe Miller defeated Murkowski in the primary amidst a tea party mini-revolution. In 2010, Republicans needed to win 39 seats in the U.S. House in order to regain control. They won back 63 seats -- and 28 of those came in the form of tea party endorsed candidates.

Many pundits, including myself, guessed Miller might enter the race in the general election in some form if he lost the primary. The idea was Mark Fish would be a placeholder in the Libertarian Party and would drop out citing “family,” as many politicians do, leaving Miller to run in the general election.

As it turns out, Fish will not be on the general election ballot so that is not an option. Also, Miller recently promised to support the Republican nominee, whoever it might be, before the Aug. 19 primary.

Joe Miller is playing nicely with Republicans this time, with his eyes set on 2016.

The Alaska Republican Party is split. The 2010 election didn’t cause this split, but it certainly made it apparent. Miller should be prepared to use that split to his advantage in two years.

The conservative wing of the Republican Party has reason to be unhappy. While nobody could have considered former Sens. Frank Murkowski or Ted Stevens “fiscally conservative,” they definitely wore the conservative Republican banner proudly and carried with them a more united party.

Last month the Begich campaign ran a radio ad touting “cooperation” between the two senators, which claimed Murkowski and Begich voted together “as much as 80 percent of the time.” The website Politifact, a project of the Tampa Bay Times, rules this claim as “mostly true.”

The site says, “The Begich campaign calculated the 80 percent figure using every roll call vote in 2014 in which both Murkowski and Begich participated, through July 2. Murkowski and Begich voted 183 times, according to the campaign’s data, which we confirmed. They voted together 148 times, and they disagreed 35 times. Based on these numbers, the senators voted together 80.8 percent of the time for the first six months of 2014.”

Politifact says of the overall picture, “Since the start of 2009, Begich and Murkowski have voted together 60 percent of the time, according to a comparison report by Congressional Quarterly, a nonpartisan outlet for congressional news and legislative tracking.”

It continues, using data from Open Congress, a project of the Sunshine Foundation:  "Murkowski is more likely than Begich to deviate from her party. She voted with Republicans 65 percent of the time in the current Congress, while Begich voted with Democrats 91 percent of the time.”

Begich has attempted to portray himself as a moderate. In June of last year, Begich referred to himself as a “Rockefeller Republican” on the CNBC show “Squawk Box.” The Washington Post reported that Begich claimed to be “a sharp object sent to Washington to jab at President Obama.”

That Begich and Murkowski vote together so often, however, says more about Murkowski than it does about Begich.

Murkowski also has alienated the socially conservative wing of the Alaska GOP by changing her position on gay marriage. She originally voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, but told the Alaska Star in March of last year her position on the issue was “evolving,” the same language President Obama used to describe his changing opinion on gay marriage.

Alaskan voters appreciate moderation; there can be no doubt we are not the “red state” many in the national media portray. However, Republican primary elections are a completely different monster. Historically, primary elections bring out the more conservative element of the party. With Alaska’s quasi-closed Republican primary, the candidates generally run to the right during the primary and toward the middle in the general election.

The stage is set, and Miller has done his part by behaving properly within the Republican “establishment.” The rubber match between Miller and Murkowski in 2016 should be quite the show.

Mike Dingman is a fifth-generation Alaskan born and raised in Anchorage. He is a former UAA student body president and has worked, studied and volunteered in Alaska politics since the late 90s. Email, michaeldingman(at)gmail.com.

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