The Alaska politician famous for presumptively winning and then unbelievably losing a U.S. Senate seat in 2010 is back in the race against an old foe.
Say hello to former Republican Joe Miller, now the Libertarian Party candidate for the job held by his original adversary, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
In the 2010 Republic primary, the little-known Miller staged a shocker by besting Murkowski, an establishment incumbent appointed to the Senate in 2002 by her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski.
Chaos ensued. Lisa Murkoswski, backed heavily by Alaska Native corporations, launched a write-in campaign while Miller flamed out in the 40-watt beam of the 49th state’s media spotlight.
It was just bright enough to sink him after one of his security detail – who later turned out to be an undercover operative spying on Alaska militias for the Federal Bureau of Investigation – handcuffed Alaska Dispatch News editor Tony Hopfinger for candidate stalking in the hallway of an Anchorage school after a Miller town hall meeting.
The Miller campaign went downhill from there. Hopfinger’s boss, Dispatch owner Alice Rogoff, sued to obtain Fairbanks North Star Borough records detailing why Miller left his job as a part-time attorney for the borough. Miller announced he would no longer talk to the Alaska media.
The Fairbanks records eventually revealed Miller had used computers of co-workers to try to stack the votes in a Republican online poll. In the wake of all of this, Rogoff won notice as a champion of open government. Murkowski won re-election as a write-in candidate, an Alaska first. And Miller, a West Point graduate and former tank commander, watched certain victory turn into ignoble defeat.
A lot has changed since then.
Miller is older and politically wiser. Murkowski has built a better machine. And Rogoff has largely taken over the media; she spent $34 million to buy the Anchorage Daily News from The McClatchy Company in California and combined it with the Dispatch to form the Alaska Dispatch News.
She has been losing money ever since in her effort to expand influence in the 49th state, but she is now in charge of what is by far the dominant force in Alaska internet news, and she is a friend to Murkowski.
But Alaska politics, always something of an alder-tangle, might be even more of a thicket these days than they were six years ago.
Rogoff’s control of the media looks better on paper, a disappearing commodity, than it is in the chaotic reality of the cyber world. Sullivan banked (and spent) heavily on TV to beat Miller and Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell in 2014.
Both of the latter significantly out spent Miller, but he had strong grass-roots support pushing him to a second-place finish. He easily bested Treadwell, a longtime party stalwart, but ran second to Sullivan, a former Attorney General, former Commissioner of Natural Resources and Marine Corps Reserve lieutenant colonel who won the GOP race with but 40 percent of vote.
Sullivan went on to squeak out a win over incumbent Democrat Sen. Mark Begich. Treadwell went off to work with Rogoff at PT Capital, a private equity firm she started. And Miller went back to Fairbanks where he’d been running a conservative website of news and commentary, “Restoring Liberty.”
Some expected him to challenge Murkowski in the 2016 Alaska Republican primary.
Republican Party turmoil
“It’s as open a secret as anything in the state that hard-core conservatives don’t want, won’t let, absolutely can’t have Murkowski go unchallenged for re-election,” Casey Reynolds wrote at The Midnight Sun in May. “But as of yet, no champion for their cause has emerged. So all eyes fall back to Joe Miller.”
Old Miller sidekick Randy DeSoto was at the time Tweeting that “Rematch 6 yrs in the making may be about to happen in #Alaska: Murkowski v. Miller” but the June filing deadline for the Republican primary came and went, and Miller never filed.
Meanwhile, the Republican party was about to blow up nationally in the struggle between the old guard and showman Donald Trump, now the party’s Presidential nominee. Trump disgruntlement (Trumpgruntlement?) helped stir new interest in the Libertarians, a once small and idealistic party pushing a position of minimal government.
With a majority of voters saying they dislike both Trump and Democrat nominee Hilary Clinton, the New York Times is reporting Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, is polling near 10 percent nationally.
The national race has lifted the Libertarian party across the board, but the little party in favor of little government always had a strong toehold and some history Alaska. There were once two Libertarians in the Alaska Legislature – Reps. Dick Randolph and Ken Fanning, both from Fairbanks.
Both were fiscal conservatives. Randolph played a key role in helping kill the Alaska income tax. Miller is from a similar mold. He beat Murkowski six years ago running as a staunch conservative, and he came out swinging the same club Tuesday.
“The choice between a Democrat, a Democrat-backed independent, and a Republican-In-Name-Only – who has been one of Barack Obama’s chief enablers – is no choice at all,” he said. The last reference was to Murkowski, who faces Democrat Ray Metcalfe and independent candidate Margaret Stock in the general election.
Neither of the latter were given much of a chance of winning, but things could get truly truly strange in a four-way race in a state where politics are in turmoil.
Trump voters would appear to lean toward Miller, a former Tea Party leader endorsed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, an early Trump backer. Turnout in the Alaska primary election was a shockingly low 15 percent. It is certain to be higher in the general election, but by how much is anyone’s guess.
A race that looks close in early results in the Lower 48 could bring a big turnout out in traditionally conservative Alaska. That might help Miller.
A race called early could kill interest in Alaska and significantly depress turnout. Who knows what that might mean.
Miller collected 35,904 votes in the 2014 Republican primary when he ran second against two well-known, well-financed opponents. Murkowski was about 800 short of that number in this year’s primary running against three unknown, unfinanced opponents.
Turnout could prove to be a very big deal come the November election.