As Miller takes on water, Florida-style legal fight looms in Alaska

Jon Ward Contributor
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Republican Joe Miller is in real trouble in Alaska’s Senate race, after a series of missteps has opened the door for a write-in challenge from Sen. Lisa Murkowski and maybe even Democrat Scott McAdams.

Miller rallied supporters Thursday night in Anchorage at a rally with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and her husband Todd, seeking to reenergize his campaign. Palin called Murkowski an “out of touch liberal” and said the Republican’s questioning of Miller’s qualifications was “beyond shameful.”

But a poll out Thursday showed Murkowski ahead of Miller 34 to 23 percent, with the Democrat McAdams at 29 percent. A second poll released by a political action committee supporting Murkowski showed her up 43 to 29 percent over Miller.

“Our campaign is not concerned with the polls,” Miller spokesman Randy DeSoto told TheDC. “The dynamics of this election are very unique so you’ve seen some pretty wild variations on the data. Regardless of the polling, we’re running the campaign the way we need to in order to win.”

Miller supporters dismissed the poll as unreliable, and Nate Silver of the New York Times agreed that a union-sponsored poll could not be viewed as dependable.

The Murkowski campaign also agreed that polling can be erratic in Alaska, though they and others pointed out that most polling does not usually survey the state’s many rural villages, which are made up mostly of Alaska Native Eskimos and Native Americans, are strongly supporting Murkowski.

Nonetheless, in conversations with several people in Alaska and in Washington, it was clear there has been a dramatic turnaround from earlier this fall, when Miller was thought by most to be a lock for the next senator from Alaska. But in the last few weeks, he has been badly damaged by a string of mishaps and disclosures.

A story about Miller’s use of several colleagues computers for political purposes two years ago when he was an attorney for the Fairbanks North Star Borough local government was kept alive by the candidate’s refusal to produce documents detailing the incident. When media organizations obtained the documents through a court order, they showed Miller’s actions at the time to have been, in his own words, “beyond stupid.”

Miller drew national news attention earlier this month when private security guards he had hired handcuffed a reporter – Miller’s campaign called him an “irrational blogger” – who asked him questions about the Borough computer incident.

And Miller has also admitted recently that his wife collected unemployment benefits a few years ago. Miller has said during the campaign that federal unemployment benefits are unconstitutional. And it has also come out that Miller, who has campaigned on ending Alaska’s reliance on federal dollars, received federal subsidies for land he once owned in Kansas.

Meghan Stapleton, a former spokesman for Palin who is now independent of any campaign or candidate, told TheDC that the view on the ground in Alaska clearly pointed to momentum for Murkowski.

“If Murkowski didn’t have the write in aspect I would say she leads hands down. Because of the write-in I’d say they’re tied with Miller losing a few points this week,” Stapleton said.

Political operatives in Washington from both parties labeled Miller’s campaign as a sinking ship. One Republican said that Murkowski, who was surprised in the primary at the strength of Miller’s challenge, has been “running the type of campaign she should have run in the primary.”

Carl Shepro, a political science professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said that Murkowski was a good bet to win from the minute she announced her write-in candidacy in September.

“I’ve been thinking that she probably had a very good chance of winning from the beginning because of the bipartisan group that was supporting her and encouraging her to run,” he said.

The developments around the write-in aspect of Murkowski’s campaign have been fast and furious.

The state supreme court ruled Wednesday that a list of write-in candidates could be provided to voters who ask at the polls. Voters are not allowed to bring in any campaign literature or signs, or anything visible with a candidate’s name that could be counted as electioneering. The Murkowski campaign has handed out and mailed bracelets with the senator’s name on them to voters.

“It’s cold in Alaska and people are going to be wearing jackets,” Murkowski spokesman Steve Wackowski said Thursday, explaining that the bracelets will not be visible.

But late Thursday, more than 50 people registered with the state elections commission to run as write-in candidates, in what Palin supporters said was an intentional effort to complicate matters for Murkowski and those who want to vote for her. Conservatives4Palin.com, a website supporting the former governor, dubbed the effort “Operation Alaska Chaos,” and encouraged Alaskans on Thursday to add their names as candidates.

The results of the bitter contest between Miller and Murkowski will almost certainly not be known for several days, if not weeks, after Tuesday. If the elections commission determines that a write-in candidate is in the lead or within a percentage point of the lead, according to Murkowski’s campaign, they will send the ballots to Juneau for a hand count.

But the hand count won’t begin for several days since ballots that are mailed in can be postmarked as late as Tuesday.

Then, once the counting begins, the expectation is that Miller’s campaign would contest many of the ballots, since the state has not been crystal clear about how well voters have to spell Murkowski’s name for the vote to count.

Elections division spokeswoman Gail Fenumiai said in an e-mail to TheDC that Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell, who administers elections, has told the Associated Press that “if there’s a minor misspelling of, say, Murkowski, that those ballots will be counted for her.”

“But he says the farther a ballot gets from including either her last name or Lisa Murkowski, the more difficult it will be for ballot counters to determine voter intent — and the more likely it will be for those ballots to be challenged, particularly if the race is tight,” Fenumiai’s e-mail said.

Miller’s campaign said that they did not believe legal challenges would be necessary.

“We are confident that we’re not going to need those kinds of legal challenges after Tuesday,” DeSoto said.

But Stapleton said that “both sides already have attorneys up here preparing to fight in Florida fashion,” in a reference to the disputed 2000 presidential election fight.

“I think they’re already gearing up for two to three weeks of, ‘Is that an o here?’ or, ‘Is that a w there?’” Stapleton said.

All of this may end up, in the end, benefiting the Democratic candidate, Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams, whose biggest challenges are that he is still unknown to many voters and that his experience in government is limited.

But McAdams spokeswoman Heather Handyside said that the Democrat, who has run a few clever TV ads, “has been able to intro himself to Alaska voters.”

“People like what they see,” she said, arguing that McAdams is picking up support from liberal and moderate voters who were “voting their fears, concerned that Joe Miller would be representing us in the Senate and hedging their bets by supporting Lisa Murkowski because she’s a known variable.”

McAdams’ challenge is in convincing voters that he can advance state interests, if that’s defined as defined as obtaining federal money, more ably than Murkowski, who has been a senior member of the Republican caucus.

James Muller, a professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, remained doubtful that McAdams would be able to get enough votes.

“Anything’s possible but I still think it’s pretty unlikely that McAdams will come close to the other two,” he said.

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