Miller edges closer to defeating Murkowski in Alaska, and credits Palin for success

Jon Ward Contributor
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Republican challenger Joe Miller edged closer to an upset of Alaska’s incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Wednesday morning, holding a 2,000 vote advantage with 98 percent of the vote ounted.

Reports from the Anchorage Daily News indicate that the final result in such a close election won’t be known for a week because about half of the 16,000 absentee ballots requested have not yet been returned or counted. Phone calls and e-mails to Alaska Elections officials have not yet been returned.

No matter the final outcome, however, it is stunning that Miller is so close to unseating Murkowski. And no matter how neatly the facts fit the narrative, Miller’s win or strong showing will be interpreted as a demonstration of political strength by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who threw her support to Miller in June, and by the Tea Party Express, one of several national Tea Party groups, which spent $560,000 to help Miller compete with the far more cash-strong Murkowski.

Miller himself credited Palin on Tuesday night with helping him come from behind to lead the incumbent daughter of the state’s former senator and then governor, Frank Murkowski.

“I’m absolutely certain that was pivotal,” Miller told the Daily News, speaking of Palin’s support.

But as late as Monday of this week, Palin aides were discouraging the idea that Miller’s challenge to Murkowski should be seen as any kind of test of Palin’s clout.

“I don’t believe it’s fair to describe any of her endorsements in that manner,” said Rebecca Mansour, a communications aide and adviser to Palin. “The media and Beltway politicos see Governor Palin’s endorsements in terms of ‘tests of influence’ and ‘power,’ but she sees them in terms of first principles.”

“Alaskans deserve to have a real choice in this primary, and that’s what they got with Joe Miller,” Mansour said by e-mail. “We’re all grateful that he has gained momentum despite the odds and that he has used his candidacy to articulated a constitutional conservative message that Alaska and America needs to hear.”

Yet on Wednesday, Mansour was touting, via her Twitter feed, comments by conservative commentator Kathryn Lopez of National Review that viewed the Alaska race through the prism of influence and power.

“If miller wins, everyone who was counting out palin’s influence in the world — nevermind alaska — may have to eat crow,” Lopez wrote in a tweet that was retweeted by Mansour.

Mansour’s comments before the election reflected the politically cautious nature with which Palin approached the race in Alaska. There was reason for both herself and for Miller for Palin to carefully calibrate her support. For Palin, stumping across the state and putting her name on the line for Miller was seen at least by outside observers as too high a risk, since he trailed in many polls by nearly 30 points.

And polls show that Palin’s popularity has fallen to around 50 percent from her halcyon days as governor, when her approval was in the 70s and 80s. So there may have been considerations in the Miller camp that too much Palin exposure could be counterproductive.

So in the end, Palin recorded robocalls that went to 60,000 likely voters the day before election day, (about 89,000 votes have been counted in the Senate race) but she did not appear in person at a rally for Miller. Instead, husband Todd Palin was the more prominent face, campaigning in person at Miller events.

The more powerful flex may have been that of the Tea Party Express, which spent $560,000 on two TV ads for Miller and on direct mail. If Miller is the ultimate winner, it will be the second time the TPE has pushed a primary Republican candidate through to the general election. In Nevada, the TPE helped transform Sharron Angle from a nobody to the primary winner.

In addition, a ballot measure on whether to require parental notification for teens seeking an abortion likely boosted turnout for more conservative voters who would have voted for Miller.

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