Fairbanks North Star Borough records released by court order Tuesday revealed Alaska Republican Senate candidate Joe Miller to have lied when first confronted about his misuse of borough computers, but pollsters tracking the state's contentious three-way battle between the Fairbanks attorney, incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Democratic challenger Scott McAdams weren't sure it would mean much come Election Day.
Polls have put Miller and Murkowski, a write-in candidate who lost the primary, in a dead heat for the seat with McAdams lagging just behind. None are expected to win a majority of votes in the Nov. 2 election.
"I think someone will win in the high 30s," pollster Ivan Moore said Tuesday. A respected CNN poll released Oct. 20 found Miller and Murkowski tied at 37 percent among "likely voters." In the poll with a 3 percent margin of error, Murkowski led 38 percent to 36 percent among "registered voters," but the difference is so small as to be statistically meaningless. McAdams trailed at 23 percent with only 3 percent of the electorate undecided.
Moore said other polls seem to indicate Miller has a lock on 30 percent of voters. Pollster Dave Dittman generally agreed. And both expected that 30 percent to remain with Miller come hell or high water, which appears to put the election in the hands of that seven percent with a few lingering questions about Miller and some Democrats heavily courted by Murkowski. Nobody seemed sure on Tuesday where they might go.
Everything, Moore said, would appear to hinge on public perceptions of Miller's behavior while a part-time attorney for the borough, and that is hard to judge. Some of the reactions were, however, predictable.
Competitors' campaigns react
"I know Joe has been trying to downplay this, but quite frankly, this is pretty shocking," said Murkowski spokesman Steve Wackowski. "The fact is that, in his own words, he admitted lying, covering it up, lying again, and then admitting to the whole thing.
"I'm a captain in the Air Force Reserve. I took the same oath he did. Quite frankly, I'm stunned. I would be kicked out of the military for something like this."
Murkowski has tried to make an issue of Miller's seeming abandonment of the "gentleman" part of the "officer and gentleman" training ingrained in graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
While McAdams has attempted to stay out of the mudslinging, deputy campaign manager Leslie Ridle said questions like those being asked about Miller are legitimate.
"Do they accept a piece of land for less than the market value, or do they use their co-workers' computers without permission?" Ridle asked. "It goes to character. Anything you do in your personal life gives voters an idea of how you would act in your professional life, including in the Senate. This is a job interview. If that's the kind of thing you heard from references, you might think twice about hiring someone for a job."
Murkowski was in 2006 accused of engaging in a sweetheart land deal with a family friend for property along the Kenai River. She bought the land at the assessed value but ended up selling it back to businessman Bob Penney after questions were raised about how she got land for assessed value when it would have been worth far more on the open market. Murkowski has come under attack for the deal (which she continues to defend as fair) off and on ever since. And now Miller is under fire for his behavior, which has leaked out bit by bit.
Records were released by court order
The records released by the borough Tuesday in response to a lawsuit filed by Alaska Dispatch and joined by other news organizations add weight to allegations that surfaced this fall about Miller having found himself in hot water while working for the borough. A lawsuit became necessary after Miller backed away from public expressions of desire to release the documents.
"I lied about accessing all of the computers," Miller confesses in one e-mail contained in 60 pages of documents ordered released by a Fairbanks court. "I then admitted about accessing the computers, but lied about what I was doing."
What Miller was doing in 2008, according to his admissions, was getting onto the computers of co-workers, going to the Joe Miller website, and then voting as others on a Miller poll on whether the Republican party should dump state chairman Randy Ruedrich. Miller, then-Gov. Sarah Palin and others were trying to oust Ruedrich but failed. After former Fairbanks borough mayor Jim Whitaker first revealed Miller was involved in "proxy voting" on Ruedrich's fate, the party chairman defended the candidate, saying Whitaker's claim had to be mistaken because there was no vote taking place. Asked Tuesday about Miller's online poll, Ruedrich said, "I think that's characteristic of all electronic polls; they're pretty meaningless. It's what everybody does. They try to kite the results."
Whether the voters care is yet to be decided.
Dittman, an Anchorage pollster who began working for Miller a few weeks ago, doesn't think the latest bad news for Miller is going to move his supporters much.
"In fact," Dittman said, "it could make voters more sympathetic to Miller, as if the media won't let it go and is pounding him."
Miller has tried to portray himself as a victim of the media. He accused reporters of trying to bury any discussion of the "issues" with investigations into his past behaviors and then said he wouldn't talk to them anymore. After one of his security force manhandled and then handcuffed an editor trying to question Miller following an Oct. 17 town hall meeting in Anchorage, the candidate almost immediately launched another offensive, claiming he and his family had been victims of "assault." But Miller has since softened his stance. This week he invited an Anchorage television station into his Fairbanks home to record an interview.
Blaming the media is a strategy the can prove effective, said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, but "it works better in the Republican primaries than in the general election. It depends on the candidate. It depends ... on the media and how they're perceived."
Effect on Miller's campaign remains uncertain
Perceptions on all fronts were still forming in Alaska Tuesday.
Dittman estimated they could affect a key 15 percent of voters who could yet tilt the election in favor of any of the candidates. There are certain blocks of voters that aren't going to be moved, said Jean Craciun of Craciun Research, but there are some still weighing issues.
"Some follow these candidates and the issues from A to Z," Craciun said. "Those are the last to decide."
Some Alaskans, she added, are confused by a Senate race that has been fraught with accusations, denials, cross accusations and more than a little weirdness. Few familiar with politics in the 49th state have witnessed candidates accompanied to town hall meetings by security forces, let alone members of the military sporting earpieces.
"I know people who are desperate to understand what's going on," Craciun said. "And if those people are paying attention (to Miller), they will understand that there were clear violations. And they might ask themselves, if someone is going to go on someone's computer, is that a clear violation? The answer will probably be ‘Yes.' Can I vote for someone who would violate someone's privacy?"
Craciun was of the opinion Miller might be in a better position today if he had come out with the full story when first confronted with the questions about his borough job back in June. In late June, blogger and former state legislator Andrew Halcro reported Miller had been fired because of misbehavior. Miller told the Dispatch on July 12 that those accusations were untrue. What followed was a continuing debate about whether he had been fired, quit under threat of being fired, or quit of his own volition. The documents indicate Miller quit after a disagreement with his supervisors. Craciun said MIiller might have been advised to make that clear early.
"The ethics of today" she said, dictate that "If you did it, call it out and admit it immediately."
Miller lied, then admitted wrongdoing
Miller might have wanted to keep secret other information in his personnel file. His 2008 admission of using co-workers' computers to vote in the joemiller.us poll is damning not only because he did it, but because afterward he made a mess of their computers. To cover his tracks after voting, Miller cleared the browser caches on those computers, deleting stored websites and passwords and alerting co-workers to the fact that something was amiss.
He later apologized for that, saying "I did not clear the cache to cause harm to anyone and was not aware of the impact that would cause to my fellow employees. I now understand that clearing the cache also cleared out passwords and IDs for various websites that people were using and was very hurtful."
He then threw himself on the mercy of his supervisors.
"I acknowledge that my access to others' computers was wrong, participating in the poll was wrong, lying was wrong, and there is absolutely no excuse for any of it.
"I accept whatever pushing you feel is appropriate."
He was put on administrative leave for 15 days and suspended without pay for three days. How the voters react remains to be seen. Some seem to be sticking with Miller.
"I think we should be talking about what's coming up in Alaska instead of all this drama crap," said 66-year-old Gaylord Herman after watching Miller at a debate in downtown Anchorage Tuesday. "I see Miller made a mistake. He owned it, he owned it to his bosses. Every single one of us has made mistakes.
"If you're looking for mud, if you're looking for something to stick on the wall, that's what you're going to focus on. It shows where (Murkowski) is coming from."
The CNN poll found Miller's strongest support is among Alaska voters over the age of 65 -- 39 percent -- and those who express support for the grassoots Tea Party -- 79 percent. The latter tend to view the media as well as nearly all sitting politicians as part of an "establishment" that needs to be overthrown. Painting the media as the new Communist threat could help Miller there.