At a Tea Party Express press conference Monday, when a reporter from KTUU asked whether Alaskans would resent a Lower 48 group pumping money into the election, a party leader trotted out some clichés about how on Election Day it'll just be Alaskans in the voting booths. And then, from the back of the room, lieutenant governor candidate Eddie Burke called out, "How much of Lisa Murkowski's money is from Outside interests?"
Burke getting loud is hardly news. But the issue of Outside money in "our" elections is one Alaskans like to get worked up over, and in the Republican primary between U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Fairbanks attorney Joe Miller, Outside money has become a talking point. While the California-headquartered Tea Party Express has promised to spend "hundreds of thousands of dollars" to get Miller elected, Murkowski is undeniably the cash leader in this race.
According to Miller's most recent campaign filing, he has about $125,000 on hand. Murkowski's shows almost $2.4 million. From a public power plant in Arizona to an Anchorage homemaker to a Washington state fisherman, there's a lot of money being thrown around to keep Murkowski in office.
Miller's campaign has been quick to criticize the size of Murkowski's war chest.
"I think there's a sense of insulation that comes from having so much money that you don't have to vote the values of the voters of your state," said Miller spokesman Randy DeSoto. "She's tried to criticize us for not rejecting the Tea Party money, but she's had six years to raise money and most of it has come from out of state."
The Murkowski campaign recently said it "definitely raises some eyebrows" that Miller is associating himself with the tea party.
"Her criticism doesn't make sense," DeSoto said.
But Murkowski's campaign stands by the assertion.
"I find it ironic that he's sitting here saying things like this when their entire campaign is based on this fringe California-based tea party group," Murkowski campaign spokesman Steve Wackowski said. "It says a lot about a candidate when he has to loan himself the money to run his campaign and can't get that support from Alaskans." (Miller has loaned $103,920.69 of his own money to his campaign.)
Beyond that, Murkowski's congressional staff notes there are legitimate reasons for a member of Congress to receive money from donors outside her home district, and that such contributions are in no way indicative of a lawmaker whose loyalties have left home.
"The reality is that you have to spend a lot of time in Washington, D.C. and give a lot of time to national issues," added Robert Dillon, a Murkowski spokesperson. Still, "Sen. Murkowski has focused foremost on Alaska and Alaska's needs," he said.
Of the $2.4 million Murkowski has to play with in her fight to beat back Miller, at least $850,000 came in from actual people, while at least $1.1 million or more came from political action committees.
Murkowski gathered up six figures in campaign donations from oil and gas PACs in 2009 and 2010 alone. That's in addition to the $188,500 she picked up from PACs run by electric utilities and the donations from PACs run by other politicians. Heck, the $114,000 she raised from health care PACs alone is a few thousand more than Miller has managed to raise altogether. (Figures are from the most recent Federal Election Commission filings available for committee contributions, current through May 2010.)
Dillon points out that Murkowski is a ranking member of the Senate Energy Committee -- a committee with jurisdiction over any number of areas that would be of interest to the energy sector, including utilities, as a whole. "The fact is that Murkowski is a rational voice on national energy policy and that affects their businesses," he said, surmising that the same PACS likely gave to several other members of Congress as well.
With health industry reforms making so many headlines, health care PACs have also paid close attention to lawmakers over the last few years. Murkowski garnered donations from 49 health care PACs, including $8,000 from a committee representing Pfizer and $3,500 from GlaxoSmithKline's PAC, and a number of $1,000 donations from associations that represent specialists like dermatologists and dentists.
With ample drilling opportunities in Alaska, it comes as no surprise that these major oil companies are interested in Murkowski; in March, the senator requested that a climate change bill include a provision to allow drilling in ANWR. Thirty-four oil and gas PACs contributed a total of $142,300 to Murkowski's campaign -- including Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron's PACs, which each donated $10,000.
Murkowski also received $144,500 in donations from 25 different leadership PACs, political action committees started by members of Congress or other politicians with the aim of supporting candidates in elections around the country. These donors included a PAC called Friends of Frank Murkowski, which contributed $2,000, and the New Republican Majority Fund, headed by former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, which donated $10,000 to Murkowski's campaign in 2009 and 2010.
But PACs aren't the only way companies get money to lawmakers -- the employees of companies represented by those PACs are also donating personally.
Individual contributions to Murkowski reflect donor clusters from around the nation. Here in Alaska, people affiliated with Alaska Native corporations or Native-owned businesses donated more than $20,000 this election cycle -- a cycle during which Murkowski fought changes in Congress calling for greater oversight of high-dollar government awards and increased transparency about how Native corporations use the money they bring in to help their home communities.
Murkowski believes the contracting preferences enjoined by Native corporations and tribally-owned firms are fair, noting they stem from the "unique political relationship" that Alaska Natives and Native Americans have with the federal government. She has also pledged to repeal new legislation that requires Department of Defense contractors to justify in writing sole-source awards in excess of $20 million.
Meanwhile, individual lawyers and lobbyists donated nearly $80,000, people affiliated with the medical industry and healthcare donated more than $28,000, and employees of energy companies, ranging from oil and gas producers to out of state public utilities, donated more than $83,000. Louisiana-based shipbuilders donated over $44,000. And people working in the fishing industry, from fishermen to seafood processors -- many from Washington State -- donated more than $40,000.
Wackowski said that in the current election cycle, which runs from 2004 through July 15, Murkowski has raised money from 1,950 individual donors. About 63 percent of the people who gave money to Murkowski live in Alaska -- that's 1,221 donors who live in-state and 729 who do not. But the Outside donors still gave more, dropping about $832,000 in Murkowski's bucket compared to $572,000 from Alaskans.
Bottom line: Murkowski has a lot of money. Pretty standard for a sitting senator. Miller's wallet is a little light, but Tea Party money is serious money, and radio ads for Miller are already crowding Anchorage airwaves. Tea party TV ads on behalf of Miller start next week.
But for all the Miller campaign's criticism of Murkowski for accepting money from outside Alaska, most Tea Party money isn't Alaskan money either. According to the Federal Elections Commission, only about two dozen Alaskans have given money to Tea Party Express, for a total of about $8,334 -- less than one-fifth of 1 percent of the more than $4 million Tea Party Express has pulled in.
It's hard to talk about Alaska politics without mentioning Sarah Palin. Palin's SarahPAC gave Murkowski $5,000 in June 2009. But in a funny reversal, Palin endorsed Miller in early June, via a Facebook note, and SarahPAC slipped Miller's campaign a sweet $5,000 check. The difference is that $5,000 makes up about 5 percent of the donations Miller has received, while the money from SarahPAC represents maybe 0.2 percent of Murkowski's current cash.
Precisely how influential money will prove to be in establishing the campaign voice that sways Alaskans most remains to be seen. With ads and jabs flying, there are only 34 days until election day. Buckle up.
Contact Joshua Saul at email@example.com.