Joe Miller Remains Wild Card in Alaska Senate Race

Joe Miller Remains Wild Card in Alaska Senate Race

By Scott Conroy - July 3, 2014

In 2010, Fairbanks attorney and Tea Party firebrand Joe Miller pulled off one of the biggest upsets in recent political history by defeating Alaska’s incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary. 

Perhaps just as surprisingly, Murkowski was able to hold onto her seat less than three months later when she won a general election write-in campaign, taking advantage of Miller’s growing reputation as a loose cannon to defeat him and a Democratic challenger. 

Four years later, Miller is again a candidate in the GOP Senate primary (set for Aug. 19), this time vying for the right to take on Democratic incumbent Mark Begich in a key general election matchup that will help determine control of the Senate. 

Though he is polling in third place in the three-way race, Miller actually appears to be in far better position than he was four years ago.  A survey conducted around this time in 2010 showed Miller trailing Murkowski by 32 points -- before a late endorsement from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin helped put him over the top.   

According to the latest RealClearPolitics average of polls, Miller (at 14.5 percent) now trails both former Alaska Attorney General Dan Sullivan (36 percent) and Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell (24.5 percent) by more manageable margins -- on paper, at least.  

Though Sullivan has a massive financial advantage over his two opponents, most Alaska political watchers agree that the primary race remains fluid.  

Whether it is indeed winnable for Miller, however, is open to dispute.  

Alaska Democrats, who see him as by far the weakest potential Republican nominee, make the case that he is very much capable of pulling off another upset. 

“For folks on the ground in Alaska, Miller is actually running a lot better campaign than last time,” said Alaska Democratic Party Communications Director Zack Fields. “And I would say, based on what we know of the unreliable polling in Alaska, he has a very clear chance to win.” 

Miller has largely avoided the kinds of glaring public relations nightmares that plagued him the last time around, such as the bizarre incident that made headlines when members of his private security team handcuffed a reporter to a chair after a town-hall meeting at an Anchorage middle school.  

On Monday, Alaska’s largest Tea Party organization -- Conservative Patriots Group -- announced its endorsement of Miller, and he previously earned the backing of other grassroots conservative groups, including Gun Owners of America and Alaska Right to Life.

Miller also has drawn relatively large crowds for an Alaska politician in his public events around the state -- a sign that his supporters remain dedicated.

"All this indicates to me, that our campaign has grassroots support," Miller spokesperson Randy DeSoto said in an email. "The next weeks will be filled with Joe traveling the state to participate in campaign events, parades, festivals, and debates/forums, making the case why he is the only true conservative in the race."   

Alaska remains a notoriously difficult state to poll accurately, and many of the libertarian-leaning GOP primary voters who compose Miller’s base live in some of the more remote enclaves of the state, where they can be difficult for pollsters to reach.  

In recent campaign appearances, the challenger has cited Dave Brat’s stunning defeat of Eric Cantor in Virginia’s 7th District GOP primary last month as reason to believe that the polls and national pundits once again have his race all wrong.   

And he has is unwavering in presenting himself as the most hardline option available to the deeply conservative Alaska Republican primary electorate. 

“Obamacare is not a compromise issue,” Miller said at a recent town-hall meeting, according to the Homer News. “Sarah Palin said death panels will become a reality. That’s a fact. Your treatment is going to be decided by the government -- you’re going to lose treatment options.” 

Miller’s mentioning of Palin and death panels may sound like an outdated throwback to his last campaign, but he is clearly cognizant that the woman who helped push him over the top in the 2010 primary still has the potential to move some conservative votes in 2014.  

But Palin has stayed out of her home state’s marquee primary race, focusing instead on trying to boost other Tea Party-aligned candidates in the Lower 48. “She has bigger fish to fry,” one source close to Palin said when asked if the former vice presidential candidate intended to get involved in the Alaska primary this year. 

And Palin isn’t the only prominent former Miller-backer who has thus far sat this race out.  

In 2010, the Tea Party Express was the most significant source of outside funding for Miller’s successful primary bid, spending almost $600,000 to keep a supportive message on the state’s airwaves.  

But in an interview with the Associated Press this week, Sal Russo -- the group’s co-founder and chief strategist -- noted that the ideological differences between the three candidates in this year’s primary are “not as dramatic” as they were in the Miller/Murkowski bout. 

“They’re all pretty much running on a conservative platform,” Russo said, according to the AP.  

Though they have generally been careful not to disparage him in public remarks, national Republicans have insisted that Miller’s consistently low unfavorability ratings mean that he has lost his ability to play the spoiler role. 

“He’s an afterthought,” one Washington-based Republican operative said of the challenger. 

In Alaska, however, the Yale Law School graduate and Gulf War combat veteran is being taken more seriously.  

He recently participated in his first full debate with Sullivan and Treadwell in Anchorage, during which he lambasted “the corrupt power within the Republican Party,” according to the Anchorage Daily News. Such proclamations generated a strong reaction from his dedicated supporters.  

No one disputes the continued intensity of Miller’s following within the state party, and the unpredictability of a three-way contest remains clear. However, evidence that Miller has expanded his appeal is less clear, so sneaking up on the frontrunners this time around is likely to be a far more difficult task.

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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