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Alaska's U.S. Senate race: Why Lisa Murkowski won

On Wednesday, Jan. 5, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski made history when she was sworn into the 112th Congress and became the first incumbent senator in United States history to have been reelected as a write-in candidate.

In the November 2 general election Lisa beat Tea Party candidate Joe Miller, the Alaska Republican Party's nominee, by 10,231 votes. Nine weeks earlier Joe had beaten Lisa by 2,006 votes in the August 24 Republican primary election that Lisa, whose campaign had been self-congratulatory and desultory, deserved to lose.

The day after the Alaska Division of Elections finished counting the write-in ballots Lisa attributed her victory to a "phenomenal" bipartisan coalition of Republican, Democratic, and unaffiliated independent voters who had coalesced around her candidacy. In a literal sense that explanation was accurate because it was Democrats and independents, many holding their noses, others writing in her name with what-other-choice-do-I-have trepidation, who reelected her.

But when Napoleon was asked what the quality was that he most looked for in his generals, without hesitation the Little Corporal answered, "Luck." And it was Dame Fortune, quirky doxy that she is, who raised Lisa up out of her crypt in the graveyard of the deservedly politically dead.

Lisa caught three lucky breaks.

Lucky break number one was that the Alaska Democratic Party decided not to run a viable candidate in the general election.

Last May the party held its statewide convention in Sitka, a small fishing town in the Southeast Alaska rainforest that had been the headquarters of the Russian-American Company in 1867 when the czar sold Alaska to the United States. Needing a candidate to run against Lisa, party insiders tried to convince Willie Hensley, a 69-year-old Eskimo who has been a fixture in Alaska Democratic Party politics since the 1960s, to be their nominee. But Hensley took a pass, among other reasons because in May the conventional political wisdom had convinced itself that Lisa's reelection was an absolute certainty.

When Willie bowed out, to save the Alaska Democratic Party from the humiliation of not fielding a candidate, Scott McAdams, a local school district employee who was the part time mayor of Sitka and who was chairing the convention, volunteered to run.

McAdams had no money, no name recognition, and no political gravitas. He also has New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's girth and a used car salesman's mustache that makes him look silly on television. But the morning after the primary election McAdams, who most Alaska voters had never heard of and those who had did not take seriously, found himself in a one-on-one contest with Joe Miller.

As the vote count in the general election would demonstrate, 35 percent of the Alaska electorate is hard-right Tea Party nuts and its flag-waving, gun-toting, pro-life members loathe Lisa, whom they correctly consider an ersatz conservative who is in the Senate only because, in one of the most brazen acts of nepotism in American political history, her father had appointed her to his seat when he vacated it. So Joe Miller, the self-advertised "constitutional conservative," was their boy.

But that left 65 percent of Alaska voters up for grabs.

Twenty percent of the Alaska electorate is composed of hard core Democrats who if Charlie Manson with the swastika that he's carved into his forehead ran as a Democrat from his cell in San Quentin for public office in Alaska would vote for Charlie because of his party affiliation. But most up-for-grabs voters were center-right Democrats, Republicans who aren't crazy, and independents.

Thousands of those voters, and particularly independent voters who are a majority of the Alaska electorate, were apprehensive about Joe Miller. But that did not mean that they would be willing to vote for Scott McAdams.

The latter fact was apparent immediately after the primary election. And at the time there was something that could have been done about it: McAdams could have stepped aside and Alaska Democratic Party officials could have appointed a replacement. Maybe Willie Hensley. Maybe Hollis French, an affable and reasonably well-known state senator from Anchorage. Maybe former Alaska Democratic Governor Tony Knowles or former Alaska Democratic Lieutenant Governor Fran Ulmer. Anyone who had a modicum of the name recognition and political gravitas that Scott McAdams lacked.

I talked with Deborah Williams, the head of the Alaska Democratic Party, about finding a new candidate, as did many other Democrats, many of whom also pitched the idea to Mark Begich who two years earlier had been narrowly elected to the Senate on a fluke when eight days before the election a jury in Washington, D.C., convicted Alaska Republican Senator Ted Stevens on multiple felony counts for having failed to report more than $250,000 worth of gifts he had received from Bill Allen, who for more than twenty years had been the Alaska oil industry's corpulent bagman in the state capital.

The response I got from Deborah was the same as others got from Senator Begich and the people who staff senior positions in his organization: "Absolutely not. The idea is out of the question. Scott McAdams is our candidate."

The adamance of Deborah Williams and Mark Begich's push-back was odd at the time and it remains odd now. I have been told by someone who knows him better than I do that the explanation is that Mark Begich simply likes Scott McAdams. But Mark Begich is a smart, ruthless (in the best sense of the word), pragmatic politician. So the idea that Mark allowed sentimentality about a personal friendship to cost the Alaska Democratic Party a shot at winning a seat in the United States Senate that Joe Miller's unexpected victory in the Republican primary election had put in play is an explanation that doesn't ring right.

In any case, Scott McAdams remained the Alaska Democratic Party's candidate, Mark Begich detailed Suzanne Fleek-Green, his state director in Anchorage, and Leslie Ridle, his deputy chief of staff in Washington, D.C., to manage the McAdams campaign, and in the general election the campaign spent more than $1 million to win 23.4 percent of the vote, which is within a percentage point or two of the number of votes Scott McAdams would have won if he had stayed home in Sitka and not run a campaign.

September 15 was the deadline for the Alaska Democratic Party to replace Scott McAdams as its candidate. When the deadline passed, on September 17 Lisa Murkowski announced her write-in candidacy. Several weeks later I bumped into Lisa. When during our conversation I suggested that the two dates might be connected, Lisa's doe eyes widened and her response was "Duh," you think?

Lisa got lucky break number two last January when in its decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission the U.S. Supreme Court threw its precedents in the trash and, on a five-to-four vote, announced that the federal statute that prohibits business corporations from trying to influence the outcome of federal elections by making independent campaign expenditures was unconstitutional.

In 1971 Congress settled aboriginal land claims in Alaska by enacting the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which paid Alaska Natives who were alive on the day President Richard Nixon signed ANCSA into law $962.5 million and directed the Secretary of the Interior to convey them fee title to 44 million acres of public land in Alaska. But Congress directed that, rather than to individual Natives, most of the money was to be paid and title to most of the land was to be conveyed to more than two hundred village business corporations and twelve regional business corporations that ANCSA authorized Alaska Natives to incorporate.

Although today in Alaska no mention is made of it, for the first quarter of a century the implementation of ANCSA was a fiasco since, through inexperience and corruption, most of the corporations lost most of the money they were given. But in the mid-1980s Alaska Senator Ted Stevens bamboozled Congress into recapitalizing ANCSA by authorizing the corporations to sell their net operating losses to corporations like Kellogg's and the Ford Motor Company. Then in the 1990s Ted bamboozled Congress again by arranging for it to amend section 8(a) of the Small Business Act to allow ANCSA corporations (only) to receive sole source contracts of any amount from the Department of Defense and other federal agencies.

While the regional corporations, which now are considered successful, today are involved in oil and gas, hard rock mining, and timber development, tourism, and other businesses, a huge hunk of their income comes from sole source contracting with the federal government. In FY 2008 the corporations had revenue of $6.8 billion and 68,000 employees, most of whom worked outside Alaska for the corporate subsidiaries that handle the sole-source contracts.

During the primary election Joe Miller campaigned on a platform that included dramatically restricting section 8(a) contracting and reducing the multi-million-dollar ear marks on which Alaska Native nonprofit corporations that administer health and social service programs in Native villages, and the thousands of Alaska Natives they employ, depend. So in August when Joe unexpectedly beat Lisa, Native leaders were dumbstruck.

They were further dumbstruck when after the primary election Joe Miller refused to meet with them when the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN), the statewide organization of which the regional corporations are members, invited him to address its board of directors.

The board did meet with Scott McAdams. According to a board member of my acquaintance who attended the meeting, when McAdams departed the consensus in the room was that, while he seemed to be a nice guy, his candidacy was a joke. So the board then met with Lisa. According to Albert Kookesh, the co-chairman of the AFN board, one-by-one the members each "begged" Lisa to run as a write-in candidate. But most importantly, the board members who represented the regional corporations pledged that, if she would run, the corporations would spend however many corporate dollars it would take to get her elected.

And that's what happened.

The twelve regional corporations, and seven of the village corporations, organized Alaskans Standing Together, a political action committee to which the ANCSA corporations and other business corporations such as GCI, the major telecommunications company in Alaska, gave $1.7 million of corporate money that Alaskans Standing Together then spent to get its girl elected. Thanks to the Citizens United decision, the use by Alaskans Standing Together of corporate money to influence the outcome of the general election was entirely legal, except possibly in one curious particular.

According to the disclosure report Alaskans Standing Together filed with the Federal Election Commission, AFN gave $308,000 to Alaskans Standing Together. What's curious about that is that AFN does not have any money other than the dues its members contribute and the money it receives from time to time from various state and federal grants. So where did AFN get $308,000? When she was asked, Julie Kitka, the president of AFN, refused to say.

It is a felony to knowingly make a campaign contribution to a federal election candidate in the name of another. But if someone or some corporation washed $308,000 through AFN, because Alaskans Standing Together used the money it received from AFN to make independent expenditures, rather than campaign contributions, the pass-through apparently was lawful. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to know whose money it was and why the contributor hid his or its identity.

Alaskans Standing Together used the $1.7 million it collected to produce and broadcast television and radio commercials, publish advertisements in the major newspapers. But most importantly, it used the money to turn out the vote for Lisa in Native villages throughout rural Alaska.

The majority of the residents of Native villages usually vote for Democratic candidates. But not this time around. For example, in the four election districts in western Alaska in which Lisa received 6,210 votes in 2004 when she lost the districts to former Alaska Democratic Governor Tony Knowles, in 2010 Lisa received 10,488 votes -- an increase of 4,278 votes which is almost half the vote count by which she beat Joe Miller. And that was the trend statewide where 36,474 Democratic and independent voters who voted for Ethan Berkowitz, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, abandoned Scott McAdams, to vote for Lisa. Many, and my guess is a majority, of those Lisa Murkowski votes came from Native village precincts.

Could Lisa have won if Alaskans Standing Together had not used corporate money to move the village vote from McAdams to Murkowski? According to Lisa: "I'd like to think that yes we could have, but [$1.7 million] is a lot of money. It's a lot of reach-out."

Indeed it is. And when Lisa next bumps into Nino or Sam or Clarence or John Roberts or Tony Kennedy at the White Tiger or one of the other lunch room restaurants on the Senate side of Capitol Hill, she needs to give each of them a hug and a kiss and say thanks. Because, but for the Citizens United decision, Joe Miller today would be Alaska's junior United States Senator.

Lisa's third lucky break was that she got to run her write-in campaign against Joe Miller.

If between August 25 and the November 2 general election at each campaign appearance Joe Miller had simply said "Barack Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi don't care that this country is bankrupt, but I do," and then had sat down and shut up, he would have won the election no matter how much money Alaskans Standing Together spent to try to prevent that from happening. As late as the end of September, when the Rasmussen poll surveyed registered voters who were likely to vote in the general election, Joe led with 42 percent of the vote, and was 15 percentage points ahead of Lisa.

But mesmerized by the sound of his own voice, and with hubris swirling through his brain, Joe Miller spent the next five weeks educating Republican voters who were not members of the Tea Party and conservative independent voters about Joe Miller. And what those voters learned was that the Republican candidate was an arrogant, and possibly emotionally unstable, prevaricator.

In October on the campaign trail Joe lectured that the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution, which authorized voters whose support he was seeking, rather than the Alaska Legislature, to select Alaska's Senators, should be repealed. Then Joe announced that unemployment insurance was unconstitutional, even though it turned out that when he had been a state magistrate he had hired and then fired his wife in order to enable her to be eligible to file for it. Then Joe announced that he opposed farm subsidies, even though it turned out that when he had owned a farm in Kansas he had been on the subsidy dole. Then Joe told a Fairbanks reporter that social security and federal minimum wage and child labor laws were unconstitutional. Then two weeks before the election Joe made the front page of The New York Times when at a campaign event in the auditorium of the junior high school around the corner from my house two servicemen from the local army base who were moonlighting as Joe's "security team" handcuffed Anchorage reporter Tony Hopfinger when Tony, notebook in hand, tried to approach Joe to ask him a question. Then a week before the election Joe failed to prevent the Fairbanks North Star Borough, for whom Joe had worked part time in the legal department, from releasing his personnel records, which revealed that Joe not only had been disciplined for the unauthorized use of his co-workers' computers to try to rig an internal Alaska Republican Party election, but when he was caught red-handed he had lied to his supervisor about it.

By the end, Paul Jenkins, a locally well-known conservative columnist, would sum the situation by writing in the Anchorage Daily News that "No rational person, nobody in complete command of his or her faculties could possibly vote for Miller. Nobody." And according to Anchorage pollster Ivan Moore, 71 percent of likely voters had a negative opinion of Joe.

On New Year's Eve afternoon in an empty store front wedged between a pizza parlor and a sandwich shop in midtown Anchorage, Joe Miller held a press conference at which he announced that he was "accepting the practical realities of our current legal circumstances" and abandoning the lawsuit he had filed to try and persuade a federal judge to throw out enough Lisa Murkowski write-in ballots to alter the outcome of the election. In the speech he read Joe blamed his defeat on "powerful vested corporate interests, funded in part by U.S. taxpayer dollars with no bid contracts" which had "successfully organized against our messages of reform and fiscal responsibility." When Joe took questions I asked him whether he could name two or three things he had done during the general election that he now regretted. Joe answered that while "of course mistakes were made," he couldn't think of a single one.

Donald Craig Mitchell is an attorney in Anchorage and a contributor to Huffington Post, where this essay first appeared. Mitchell is the author of Sold American: The Story of Alaska Natives and Their Land and Take My Land Take My Life: The Story of Congress's Historic Settlement of Alaska Native Land Claims, which in 2006 the Alaska Historical Society recognized as two of the most important books ever written about the history of Alaska. His opinions are his own.

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