First nobody wanted to take on incumbent Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and now one big-name player is firmly in the Senate race with another making noises about running a write-in campaign in the style of the victorious Murkowski 2010.
What is going on here?
The obvious. The sharks smell blood in the water, and they’re circling.
Twenty-ten Senate primary winner and then two-time loser Joe Miller, the former Republican, has formally joined the hunt, and winner, winner, winner and then loser Mark Begich, the former Anchorage mayor and former Democrat U.S. senator from Alaska, is finning nearby and suggesting Alaskans get ready to sharpen their write-in pens.
The rap on Murkowski before the Republican primary was that she wasn’t conservative enough for the conservative Republican base in Alaska. Anchorage attorney and Alaska historian Don Mitchell sums all of the arguments for this view in a Huffington Post story titled “Rematch in Alaska: Daddy’s Girl vs. Sarah Palin’s Boy.”
Daddy’s Girl would be Murkowski, whose father Frank was Alaska’s junior senator until he was elected Alaska’s governor and gave up the Senate seat to which he then appointed his somewhat more liberal daughter.
If you want the key nitty-gritty on Lisa’s record since, it’s all in the Huff-Po story. But suffice to say, ideologically she is probably a better fit with the Libertarian party than with the conservative wing of today’s Republican Party. So, of course, it makes perfect sense that she’s now locked in a race on the right with Miller, a newly minted Libertarian who stepped in for a Libertarian candidate who bailed out.
Miller beat Lisa in the GOP primary six years ago only to stumble his way to defeat against a Lisa write-in campaign in the general election. He’s running now as the only “true conservative” in the race.
Some Republicans have already abandoned the party to back him. The party is so far making nice and suggesting people vote their consciences.
This fight on the right has opened room on the left now occupied by Democrat candidate Ray Metcalfe, the former Alaska Rep. “Disco Ray” who is on the outs with much of the Democrat party in Alaska, and Democrat-leaning independent Margaret Stork, a former Republican who might have more support from the Democrat party but almost no name recognition.
Oh wait; it’s Margaret Stock, not Stork. Hopefully she doesn’t take offense at the typing error meant to point out what Casey Reynolds at The Midnight Sun pointed out earlier this year: Give her 5 or 10 percent of the vote, maybe.
That leaves a big pie for other candidates to fight over in a state where party organization is giving way to personal organizations. Miller, a conservative, has one. So, too, former Sen. Begich, the liberal and The Heir.
His father was popular Alaska Rep. Nick Begich, who disappeared in 1972 on a plane flight from Anchorage to Juneau with Rep. Hale Boggs, D-La. Boggs was then the House Majority leader and the presumptive next Speaker of the House. The plane has never been found., and the cause of the crash has never been determined.
Various stories have surfaced over the years suggesting the plane might have been sabotaged, though most believe bad weather to blame.
Fatherless since the age of 10, Mark built his own political career from the ground up as an Anchorage assemblyman, then two-term mayor and finally Senator in a narrow victory over Republican Ted Stevens, an Alaska institution, in 2008. Stevens was at the time facing corruption charges which would eventually turn out to have been brought by corrupt federal prosecutors.
Mark Begich’s victory made him the first Democrat Senator from Alaska since 1981, but he lasted only one term. Former Alaska Attorney General and Commissioner of Natural Resources Dan Sullivan, a Marine and a Republican, squeaked out a 6,000 vote win over the incumbent in 2014.
Still, Begich polled 129,000 votes in that election, about 28,000 more than Lisa Murkowski pulled four years earlier. The key question about Begich is the one Suzanne Downing asks at MustReadAK.com. Is there fire beneath the new Begich smoke or is this write-in talk just the former Senator making a “plea for attention.”
The limelight can be a hard thing to let go as the last Alaska Democrat Senator before Begich – Mike Gravel – has clearly shown. Gravel left Alaska long ago, but he has periodically surfaced on the national scene. He ran a rather odd Presidential campaign in 2008, one of the equally odd commercials for which is now featured at the Tang Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College in Saratoga, N.Y.
The method of Lisa Murkowski’s appointment to the Senate remains baggage on both sides of the political aisle. As Alaska governor, her father to got to pick his own replacement to the Senate, and his choice of one of his four daughters is still viewed by some as too close to home.
The choice angered no one more than a certain former mayor from Wasilla named Sarah Palin who harbored big political ambitions. She was interviewed for the senator’s job and rejected. She took it personally.
Four years later, she unseated Frank as governor, and not long after managed to maneuver her way onto the Republican Presidential ticket as VP. Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Palin lost the election to Democrats Barack Obama and Joe Biden, but Palin’s national political career was just getting started.
In the post-election aftermath, Palin resigned as Alaska governor and went rogue as her best-selling book described it. The move turned out to be a huge political success, and by the time the 2010 Alaska Senate races rolled around Palin was a national political force.
She backed an unknown Miller in the Republican primary against Lisa. He won. An Alaska political establishment well aware the state gets back about three dollars for every one Alaskans contribute to the federal treasury was horrified at the GOP winner’s ranting about cutting federal spending.
Backed heavily by Alaska Native corporation money, Lisa was soon back in the Senate race as a write-in candidate and with Miller bumbling his way toward the general election she managed to win by about 10,000 votes in a three-way race that saw about 23 percent of the ballots siphoned off by Democrat also-ran Scott McAdams, the little known mayor of Sitka.
Lisa was on her way to another term in the Senate where she was heralded as a potentially powerful new moderate.
“Murkowski’s willingness to defy Republican top brass after a bitter fight to keep her seat may mark a pivotal point in her career as she emerges as a real maverick foil to Sarah Palin, the conservative idol who put Alaska politics on the national map,” Meredith Shiner wrote at Politico. “And while conservatives who helped oust Murkowski from the GOP ticket in Alaska may howl about her being a ‘Republican In Name Only,’ Murkowski could enjoy a powerful perch as a much-sought-after moderate in an almost evenly divided Senate.”
She built enough of a power base that although a bunch of Alaska politicians, including Miller, explored the idea of challenging her in this year’s Republican primary, none of them entered the race. Instead, Lisa had an easy go against three no-names.
She needed only 40,000 votes to claim more than 70 percent of Republican support in an election with the lowest turnout in Alaska history. That 40,000 might look tiny, but the two contestants in the Democrat primary collected only about 25,000 votes combined. Metcalfe won with but 15,000.
After the primary, political analysts rated the Lisa Murkowski Senate seat safe for Republicans. It’s not so safe now, though Lisa remains a strong favorite. That said, both Miller and Begich have strong political bases, and there is a possibility for national election results to sway the Alaska vote in any number of ways.
Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump are generally thought to align with Miller supporters. A Trump victory or a close race that made it look like Alaska’s late-arriving electoral votes might for once matter could spark a heavy turnout beneficial to Miller. Almost exactly the same scenario presents itself for Begich and Democrat presidential candidate Hilary Clinton if, of course, Begich does enter the race.
A lot of people have been busy polling trying to sort out the likelihood of voter movement.
Lisa’s main support came from moderates six years ago. How many moderates are left in these hugely partisan times is hard to say. But most of the Republican party, still the best organized political entity in the state, is standing firm with her.
The question for November is a simple one: Will that be enough?