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With Joe Miller running, Alaska's US Senate race is even more topsy-turvy

Joe Miller's entry into the U.S. Senate race Tuesday came with a surprising twist: Instead of running as a Republican, as he did in his failed Senate bids in 2010 and 2014, he's running as a Libertarian.

But Miller is hardly the only candidate in this year's campaign to stray from his political roots — in fact, the race has already turned conventional party association on its head.

Murkowski, a moderate, has been branded by conservative critics as a RINO — a "Republican-in-name-only" — who too often sides with Democratic President Barack Obama.

The Democrat in the race, Ray Metcalfe, is a former Republican state legislator who founded his own party — the Republican Moderates — before becoming a Sen. Bernie Sanders booster at odds with state Democratic leaders.

Meanwhile Democratic leaders tried to place Margaret Stock, once a Republican but now an independent U.S. Senate candidate, on their primary ballot. That effort failed, but Stock is now part of the Democrats' "coordinated campaign," which gives her access to the party's voter data and staff. And Republicans accuse her of "charading" as an independent and "hiding" her true affiliation with Democrats.

As for Miller? His own positions favoring restrictions on abortion and same-sex marriage are at odds with national Libertarians' — though he's running on that party's ticket.

Murkowski's challengers include Miller, Metcalfe, Stock and two other independents, Breck Craig and Ted Gianoutsos.

While often far apart in beliefs, they all share one: the party system is battered and broken.

Stock has proudly renounced partisan affiliations and labels herself a "party crasher."

"I think it's exciting," Stock said Wednesday about Miller's announcement, adding his move "fundamentally changed" the campaign.

"It's good for me," she said. "It's shaking things up in terms of letting people know that there's a race."

The fact that Miller is a recent Libertarian convert just bolsters her argument for an independent, Stock said.

Miller, known as a social and political conservative, doesn't appear to fit elements of the national Libertarian party platform, which includes equal rights and protection for gay, lesbian and transgendered individuals, open access to abortion and repeal of all drug laws.

Miller calls himself a "federal Libertarian" who supports states' rights and says he was a "perfect fit" to accept the party's nomination after the candidate who won the Libertarian primary, Cean Stevens, quietly dropped out.

"I've represented and consistently campaigned on what are considered to be federal libertarian principles from Day One," he said in an interview late Tuesday. "It is consistent with my political ideology."

Miller told KTUU he doesn't plan to vote for the Libertarian Party's nominee, Gary Johnson. He told Alaska Dispatch News he has publicly committed to voting for Donald Trump.

Independents Stock and Craig have both declined to say who they're voting for in the presidential election, but they aren't supporting Trump or Clinton.

Murkowski said she has not decided who to vote for in the presidential race; she is still undecided about Trump, but does not plan to vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton.

All this party swapping could drive interest and boost turnout — there's a little something (or someone) for everyone.

As the incumbent — one who took home 70-plus percent of her primary last month — Murkowski has the clearest path to victory in November.

But the climb just became much steeper. The majority of Alaska voters are not aligned with any particular party.

While Murkowski pulled support from more traditionally Democratic voters in her 2010 write-in campaign, she may lose some to Metcalfe and the independent candidates. And she may lose conservative Republican votes to Miller.

"I think his entry makes my candidacy viable, because he will split the Republican vote down the middle," Metcalfe said. "And if he does that, I have a very real possibility of getting more votes than he or Lisa."

For all of the candidates, the race has become more of a free-for-all.

Stock said during her daily visits to the Alaska State Fair, she heard an "overwhelming emphasis" from people who were tired of things-as-usual in Washington, with Alaskans repeatedly telling her they felt Murkowski is "buying an election" with big-money donations.

"People are telling me they're tired of career politicians," Stock said.

Stock, a military veteran and immigration attorney, has donated to Democrats and Republicans, though not very much or very often, and only to people she knew personally. She gave to former West Point colleagues and Jeb Bush in his failed presidential run last year.

Stock is anti-Trump, but hasn't said who she will vote for in November.

Metcalfe considers himself a Sanders-style Democrat — backing the independent Vermont senator who sought the party's endorsement in a campaign that shook things up.

Metcalfe argues Alaska Democratic leaders are "totally out of step with the rank and file."

"I was never in their club," he said of the party leaders. And he was unhappy they considered endorsing Stock.

"They want a pretend Democrat that's not a real Democrat," he said.

Stock questions the seriousness of Metcalfe's campaign, noting his minimal fundraising and lack of visible campaigning.

But Metcalfe and Stock made their own bid toward a friendly relationship: Last week, Metcalfe took Stock on his regular "Anchorage corruption tour" — a three-hour drive around the city, she said.

Kay Brown, the Alaska Democrats' executive director, and Casey Steinau, the party's chair, didn't respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

But Larry Murakami, the party's vice chair, said Alaska Democrats had already offered some support to Stock — allowing her to join the party's coordinated campaign, which comes with access to Democratic staff and voter data.

Alaska Democrats are currently discussing how much leeway their party rules give them to support an independent candidate over a Democrat in the general election, Murakami said.

"I don't know about what his campaign is actually doing," Murakami said. He added: "I know he hasn't asked me for any money."

Murkowski has a $2.5 million campaign war chest that would be difficult for the other candidates to match. She got a head start as an incumbent and an influx of cash with her role as chair of the Senate energy committee.

All of her challengers are hopeful, however, that a grass-roots campaign can match it — and that voter discontent is more powerful than major party backing.

Nathaniel Herz reported from Anchorage and Erica Martinson reported from Washington, D.C.

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