Alaska 2016: Comeback Kid vs. Most Liberal Republican in the Senate
In 2010, incumbent and write-in candidate Lisa Murkowski defeated the Republican nominee for Senate, Joe Miller, with 40% of the vote (100,000 votes) to Miller's 35% (90,000 votes) and Democrat Scott McAdams's 25% (60,000 votes). The poor showing of McAdams was a result of underfunding ($100,000 total) and a realization by Alaskan Democrats, led by Democratic U.S. senator Mark Begich, that the race was really between Miller and Murkowski. For his own purposes, principally his chances of winning re-election in 2014, Begich preferred Murkowski to Miller. He had served with her in the Senate for two years and had developed a mutually beneficial relationship with her. As a liberal Republican, she was close to Begich, a moderate Democrat, ideologically, and they shared many common political interests in Alaska. When he ran for re-election in 2014, Begich touted their close working relationship to such an extent that Murkowski was forced to publicly distance herself from him. In 2010, Murkowski was able to assemble 40% of the electorate because of an ad hoc coalition with the Democratic Party, or at least the Begich wing of that party.
Recreating that coalition is her path to victory again in 2016, but Begich Democrats now prefer Miller. Begich wants to return to the Senate, as evidenced by his flirtation with the idea of running as a write-in this year. Two years ago, as an incumbent, he lost to Dan Sullivan, and if he challenges him in 2020, the situation will be reversed. He will be the challenger, Sullivan, a savvy politician, the incumbent. But if Miller is elected, he'll be up for re-election in 2022. This is a much more winnable race in Begich's eyes. He thinks Miller is a wild-eyed extremist who will embarrass himself in office. Begich will run against him, and also arrange for an independent candidacy to draw moderate Republican support away from Miller. In 2022, Begich will be a vigorous 60 years old, with an empty nest and a burning desire to redeem himself and the Begich brand. He wants Miller, not Murkowski, as his opponent.
The Begich wing of the Alaska Democratic Party is supporting the independent candidacy of political newcomer Margaret Stock, an idealistic environmentalist, a woman who believes, with a good showing, that she has a future in Alaska politics. She has reportedly assembled a war chest of $250,000 and has the resources to conduct a serious campaign. She will attend all of the debates, including Kodiak on October 12 and Barrow on October 26. She's a good government mainstream liberal Democrat and a far superior candidate to the 2010 Democratic nominee, Scott McAdams, who was a sacrificial lamb. She could easily exceed the 25% of the vote gathered by McAdams, except for the wild card in this Senate race, the Democratic nominee, former Republican state legislator Ray Metcalfe.
Metcalfe founded the Republican Moderate Party of Alaska in 1986, and in the 1998 governor's race he won 13,000 votes, 6% of the total, as its candidate. He's a reform candidate and has attempted for years to expose the corruption of the Ted Stevens political machine, which included not only Frank and Lisa Murkowski, but Stevens's son, former State Senate president Ben Stevens. Metcalfe's Alaska Public Offices Commission complaint against Ben Stevens led to a raid on Stevens's offices by the FBI and his abandonment of a career in politics. In Metcalfe's mind, and in truth, Lisa Murkowski is the illegitimate heiress of the corrupt Stevens organization. The political power of Stevens, and now Lisa Murkowski, depended on "Stevens money" – as much as $1 billion and more in federal pork projects each year. That money is no longer available, and thus the glue that held the Stevens machine together no longer exists.
After many years in the political wilderness, Metcalfe has now found a home, and a mission, as the leader of the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party of Alaska. He wants the Sanders faction to gain permanent control over the Alaska Democratic Party and will use his candidacy for the Senate to promote that agenda. At the same time, he will do all he can to expose the corruption of the Stevens-Murkowski political dynasty. Miller won't need to attack Murkowski. Metcalfe, and to a certain extent the independent Margaret Stock, will do it for him. The fact that this may not only defeat Murkowski, but elect Miller is a feature, not a bug. Miller can be taken out after one term.
Between them, Sanders Democrat Metcalfe and independent (and mainstream Democrat) Stock will far exceed the 25% of the vote that Democrat McAdams won in 2010. And virtually none of these votes will be at Miller's expense. They will all be subtracted from the 40% share of the vote won by Murkowski in 2010.
The fact that Miller is running on the Libertarian ticket in this race is an advantage in 2016. The Republicans in the state legislature were badly outmaneuvered by "independent" Governor Bill Walker in this year's legislative session. Rather than cut the bloated operating budget, Walker cut the 2016 Permanent Fund Dividend in half, and feckless Republicans in the legislature failed to prevent it. Right now this has soiled the Republican brand in Alaska, which has, in the past, always benefited by defending the Permanent Fund and the dividend. On October 6, the PFDs were distributed, and every Alaskan will soon realize that half the money he was expecting has been taken by the governor, with the acquiescence of the Republican legislature.
This will not be a good year for Republican incumbents in Alaska. In addition, there has always been an unusually strong Libertarian Party of Alaska, and all of it has enthusiastically embraced Miller. If he wins, he will be the first member of the Libertarian Party in history elected to statewide office.
The Murkowski brand in Alaska politics is an anchor. When then-senator Frank Murkowski ran for governor in 2002, he assured a number of people, including former state senator Johne Binkley of Fairbanks, that they would be seriously considered as potential replacements for him in the Senate. As governor, he would be free to appoint any eligible Alaskan to the last two years of his term in the Senate and, in part, on this basis was able to win the governorship. A list of ten names was assembled, all experienced and intelligent Republicans hoping for appointment to the Senate. He personally interviewed a number of them and then announced his decision. After giving it a lot of thought, it turned out that the best person for the job wasn't anybody on the list. It was his daughter, Lisa!
This blatant lie caught up to Frank Murkowski when he sought the Republican nomination for a second term as governor. He got 19% of the vote, the most resounding rejection of a sitting governor in American history. He came in third, behind Johne Binkley and, with 50% of the vote, Sarah Palin. Everyone in Alaska knows he lied about why Lisa was appointed to his seat. It was a large part of her loss to Miller in the 2010 Republican primary. It is a lie that still haunts her today. She is manifestly unqualified to serve in the United Sates Senate, and the whole state knows it.
538.com has Trump winning Alaska by 10 points. Miller is an enthusiastic Trump supporter, Murkowski is still noncommittal, and any Alaskan who goes to the polls to vote for Trump will be inclined to vote for Miller. The small Clinton vote will be divided three ways, with little of it going to Murkowski.
Murkowski has already agreed to four candidate debates, culminating in the statewide broadcast of the Public Television debate on November 3. These debates pose a great peril for her, since she has little to brag about other than some pork she helped secure from the federal government. She has been a spectacularly unaccomplished senator, with almost nothing of substance to show for her 14 years in the Senate. The other principal candidates, Stock, Metcalfe, and Miller, will attack her in turns, and she is incapable intellectually of defending herself.
Constitutional conservatives across the country should rally in support of Miller. There is no danger in electing either the unhinged Democrat, Metcalfe, or the unknown independent, Stock. It's either Miller or Murkowski, and knocking off the most liberal Republican in the Senate is an opportunity that should not be lost.
Rather than attack Murkowski and her record, or lack thereof, Miller can run a positive campaign, focusing on developing Alaska's bountiful natural resources, beginning with the opening of ANWR to oil drilling and extraction. The Alaska Pipeline is running at 25% of capacity, the State of Alaska is funding three quarters of its fat operating budget on cash reserves, and the economy of Alaska is in deep trouble. Never in Alaska's short political history have conditions been as favorable to a candidacy such as Joe Miller's as in 2016.