The state that brought gold miners, ice road truckers, crab fisherman and Sarah Palin to the world via reality television is gearing up to give Alaska-philes a summer-view of the Last Frontier. The cruise season is nearly upon us, and this year it will deliver to our shores people of faith in search of fellowship, as well as patriots seeking political inspiration, with the tea party among those groups who plan to use a trip to Alaska to float its platform.
There's no word yet on whether Sarah Palin or Joe Miller, Alaska's homegrown, tea party favorites, will make appearances on the ships or at any ports of call, but if they don't it would be a missed opportunity to get their message out to a favorable audience.
"Calling all patriots!" harkens the advertising cry from World Net Daily for its August "Tea Party at Sea" cruise, which will take passengers on a seven-day trip from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Seward as it makes its way through the state's southeast waters and sea-side communities. "Join your faithful like-minded partners at The WND Tea Party at Sea this August 26th to September 2nd as we sharpen and edify one another during 7 incredible days of sailing the pristine and majestic Alaska coastline."
Earlier in the summer, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee will also head to the Last Frontier as he hosts "The Alaska Freedom Cruise," which is billing itself as "hands down the best Christian-based Alaska cruise for the 2011 season."
While there are a wealth of Christian-based cruises to choose from, Huckabee's is the only one that appears to offer both faith and politics as its primary draw, luring guests with the promise of an opportunity to "get up close and personal with one of the front runners of conservative politics" and at the same time "enjoy great Gospel music."
As for offering a little Southern hospitality to Alaska notables, it may be that Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, will need to tread lightly as he navigates Alaska's waterways. Like Palin, he too had aspirations for the White House in 2008. He bowed out of the race when it became clear he would lose the Republican presidential nomination to McCain. A second blow to Huckabee's 2008 political hopes came when McCain picked Palin as his running-mate.
A little more than two years later, though, Huckabee and Palin continue to travel a similar path. He's a show host for FOX News, where she's a paid contributor. Both have a strong base of supporters who'd like them to run against President Barack Obama in 2012. Both have remained coy about whether they intend to take the plunge.
But perhaps more than Huckabee, Palin, through her political action committee SarahPAC, has become a clear voice of influence among tea-party minded conservatives. While Huckabee is said to be "seriously considering" a second run at the presidency, he hasn't said whether he'll actually do it. Sarah Palin has also not said whether she will run for president.
A national poll released Thursday shows voters think Huckabee has a much better chance of giving Obama some real competition, although according to the numbers from Public Policy Polling the president would still win out over all current contenders in the Republican field. According to the poll, Huckabee would trail by five points (43-48) in a match up with Obama, while Palin would lag by 18 points (36-54).
Meanhile, the most recent Gallup poll reflects Huckabee as the frontrunner among the GOP's list of potential candidates, with Palin's status slipping. But if Huckabee were to stay out of the race, Palin's chances get better, positioning her at a near tie with Mitt Romney.
When you're a Southern gentleman making a trip to Palin's home turf who also is eyeing the very job she herself may want, what's the mannerly thing to do? Invite her to lunch or pretend she's not there?
Palin's profile elevated by conservative cruise
In 2007, back when Palin was Alaska's newly elected governor, back before she got a taste for the national stage only to later decide to abandon her post, Palin treated a special boatload of conservative cruise ship passengers to a salmon and halibut lunch at the governor's mansion in Juneau. Her guests featured prominent staff from the publications Weekly Standard and National Review. But the taste Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol developed then for Palin's bright political promise has since grown stale. Where at first he thought she was a great choice to run alongside McCain, last month he said "she probably shouldn't be the Republican nominee for president," noting that he didn't fully understand why she left her job as governor or why she didn't do more to groom herself for a presidential bid once freed from the burden of running the state.
The "Tea Party at Sea" cruise is described as the third voyage of its kind, although the August trip will be the WND's first foray into Alaska with the event. It will feature well-known, far-right conservative speakers, including the group's founder, Joseph Farah, and Alan Keyes, a Reagan-era U.S. ambassador and a former candidate for the U.S. Senate and the presidency. Also on board will be Floyd Brown, a political activist who may be most noteworthy for crafting the "Willie Horton" ad during the presidential race between George W. Bush and Michael Dukakis.
More recently Brown surfaced in U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller's pitched battle against incumbent Lisa Murkowski last fall. Brown joined the fight in an attempt to find evidence of voter fraud, launching a call-in hotline where people could report voting-related concerns. The effort went nowhere and Murkowski won. Because Murkowski lost to Miller in the Republican primary her name did not appear on the ballot and the only way for her to retain her candidacy was to launch a write-in campaign.
As recently as a few weeks ago, Brown has continued to use the Miller-Murkowski race as evidence that "election fraud is ruining America," and abolishing write-in votes altogether is now one of the reforms he's calling for.
Whether Joe Miller will join the ranks of the speakers of August cruise isn't clear. A staff member reached at WND operations in Portland said people are being added to the roster all the time, but that she didn't have any specific information about whether cruise organizers had reached out to Alaskans directly. A spokesperson for the Nevada-based Western Representation Political Action Committee, where Miller now works, said Miller wasn't signed up for the event specifically, but added the group wouldn't necessarily shy away from an appearance if asked.
Alaska a 'natural' tea party destination
Working alongside Miller at WRPAC is Bryan Shroyer, who left his job as political strategist for the Tea Party Express to become executive director for WRPAC. In an interview Thursday, he said that organizing a cruise in Alaska is a good strategy. He sees the floating trips as a "unique take" on conventions organized early on by Tea Party Nation, but which were expensive and didn't offer a lot in return for the money.
Synthesizing political will with a longing for adventure allows people to "know their destination, know what they're doing, and to be doing it with like-minded people," Shroyer said. "I think it's a lot more value for a $700 ticket. It's a significantly better offer."
But $700 only represents the low end of cabin price options for the summer cruises. Others can cost upward of $4,500.
Adding to Alaska's mystique, Shroyer said, is the plethora of reality television shows hitting the airwaves. "The History Channel is now almost like the Alaska Channel," he said. "If you have an opportunity to pull back some of the mystery and experience that for yourself, I think people are interested in that."
Couple the state's mystique with the political attitudes in Alaska -- which Shroyer summed up as "liberty," "leave me alone" and "sovereignty" -- and it only makes the destination better for tea-party types, he said. The fact that passengers might have a chance, however fleeting, to rub elbows with Sarah Palin and Joe Miller, political figures that "people look up to" in the movement, "definitely contributes to people's desire to be there," he said.
Even a chance to simply see them from afar, in passing, may be enough to further add to the temptation to witness Alaska's glaciers, wildlife and villages first-hand, Shroyer said.
But Michael O'Fallon, the CEO of Sovereign Cruises and Events, the tour company organizing WND's "Tea Party at Sea," says choosing an Alaska destination had more to do with the splendor of Alaska than the tenor of its political landscape. Instead of the "booze and cruise" trips that head off to warmer, more exotic climes, Alaska offers the opportunity to host a more family-friendly event that better lends itself to inner reflection. Once in Alaska waters, the cruise ship's casinos shut down. The view is stunning. And visitors can walk in comfort through the various ports without feeling harangued by peddlers or worrying about crime.
"The beauty of Alaska itself hits people at a deeper spot inside," O'Fallon said. "The scene that is set has so much grandeur to it, it's like you feel small," an experience that lends itself well to the faith-based community more so than say, insurance salesmen, he said.
Will Alaska's current governor, Sean Parnell, extend his own brand of Alaskan hospitality to the state's high profile visitors, as his predecessor did back in 2007? His schedulers couldn't immediately say. But spokesperson Sharon Leighow said no tea party groups, whether local or national, have asked to meet or speak with him.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com