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Lisa Murkowski loses, do Democrats sense opportunity?

1. Alaska attorney Joe Miller's (R) primary victory over Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) was confirmed late last night when the incumbent conceded the race -- the third Senator to lose a bid for re-nomination this year.

"We know that we have outstanding votes to count in the primary but based on where we are right now I don't see a scenario where the primary will turn out in my favor," Murkowski said in a press conference Tuesday night.

Murkowski's concession came after a day in which nearly 15,000 absentee and challenged ballots were counted and one full week after she trailed Miller 51 percent to 49 percent in the Alaska Republican primary on Aug. 24. The newly-counted ballots had little effect on the overall margin, however, as Murkowski still trailed Miller by 1,630 votes. Another 10,000 (or so) ballots are to be counted later this month.

Miller's victory is rightly regarded as the biggest upset of the 2010 election -- a cycle that has, to date, been filled with unexpected twists and turns. (Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Bob Bennett of Utah also lost intraparty squabbles this year.) As we wrote in awarding Murkowski our "Worst Week in Washington" award, her defeat appears to have been avoidable had she been willing to follow the basic rules of politics.

Despite the fact that Miller was running a credible campaign -- with the backing of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin no less -- Murkowski refused the advice of national party strategists to go negative and sat on nearly $2 million in campaign cash that could have been used to attack Miller.

Democrats nationally will use Murkowski's defeat as yet more evidence of the tea party movement's growing power within the GOP. (Miller ran with the backing of national tea party groups.)

It remains to be seen, however, whether the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee will spend anything more than rhetorical fire on the Alaska race this fall.

Little known Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams won the Democratic nod and was immediately engulfed in speculation that he could drop out of the race and be replaced by a more highly regarded candidate. (He is staying in the contest.)

And, the National Republican Senatorial Committee released a poll Monday showing Miller with a 16 point edge over McAdams -- a warning shot meant to make clear to Democrats (and the national media) that this race isn't a toss up.

Will the DSCC say (or, more importantly, do) anything over the next few days that signals a genuine plan to get involved in the race? Remember that Democrats are faced with a broad playing field where they are largely on the defensive this fall. Spending money in GOP-friendly Alaska may not be the best investment given that reality.

2. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee will spend four days stumping for Republican candidates in the Midwest later this month, the latest sign that the 2008 presidential candidate is working to broaden his geographic appeal in advance of a potential 2012 bid.

On Sept. 11, Huckabee will be in Indiana to raise cash for state Rep. Jackie Walorski (R) who is running against 2nd district Rep. Joe Donnelly (D).

Two days later Huckabee will do events for former Ohio Rep. Rob Portman, who is running to replace retiring Sen. George Voinovich (R), and former Rep. Steve Chabot, who is trying to reclaim the Cincinnati-area seat he lost in 2008.

Huckabee will wind up the trip on Sept. 14 in Illinois where he will lend his help to state Sen. Bill Brady, the Republican nominee against Gov. Pat Quinn (D).

Huckabee's Midwestern swing comes on the heels of recent victories in Alaska (Huckabee, like Palin, had endorsed Joe Miller) and Georgia (Huckabee was behind former Rep. Nathan Deal's gubernatorial candidacy) for the former Arkansas governor.

Huckabee has openly speculated about whether he will run again in 2012 and polling in Iowa, where he won the caucuses in 2008, suggests he would start as the frontrunner in that critical state if he decided to make a bid.

It appears as though Huckabee's travel this month is aimed at the perception within the political chattering class that his appeal is generally limited to the south and to social conservatives. The more Huckabee can show his effectiveness as a surrogate in races across the country, the easier it is for him to make the case that he could be the party's standard-bearer against President Obama in 2012.

3. Former Rep. Rob Portman (R) is up with his fourth TV ad of the Ohio Senate race, a positive spot that features his family and highlights his jobs plan.

"Our unemployment rate in Ohio is now over 10 percent," Portman says in the ad. "We've got to figure this out, and figure it out quickly. I mean, we've still got the best workforce in the world. And part of the Portman plan for jobs that we've laid out is to provide some hope, to let people know there is an alternative."

Portman, who served as budget director and U.S. Trade Representative for President George W. Bush, is battling Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher (D) in the race to succeed retiring Sen. George Voinovich (R). Fisher has trailed in fundraising and is also up against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is spending big on TV ads on behalf of Portman.

Democrats have sought to use Portman's Bush ties against him, but it appears the message has failed to resonate with voters thus far. A Reuters/Ipsos poll earlier this month showed Portman and Fisher in a statistical tie among registered voters, with Portman at 41 percent and Fisher at 37 percent.

That gap widens, however, when likely voters are sampled: Portman leads 43 percent to Fisher's 36 percent, evidence that Democrats face an enthusiasm gap this fall.

4. Former Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) has opened up a double-digit lead over Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) in the open-seat race for the seat of Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), according to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll.

Toomey leads by ten points -- 47 percent to 37 percent -- among likely voters surveyed. When the sample is broadened to include registered voters, Toomey and Sestak are in a statistical tie.

The poll shows Toomey winning 40 percent of registered independents and Sestak taking only 5 percent, which seems oddly low. But a sizable number of independents - 38 percent - remain undecided.

Those independents will be crucial in the fall, and both Sestak and Toomey have been making a play for them (Sestak recently touted the endorsement of former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel (Neb.) while Toomey has been casting Sestak as out-of-touch on the economy.)

The poll comes as the war on the airwaves is beginning to pick up steam. Yesterday, Sestak announced that he is launching his first TV ad against Toomey. The 30-second spot hammers Toomey, a former president of the anti-tax Club for Growth, for saying that he'd like to "eliminate corporate taxes altogether." The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has also gone up with ads slamming Toomey for his time on Wall Street.

The Club, meanwhile, is up with its own ad hitting Sestak on the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), cap-and-trade and the Administration's economic stimulus package. Also in Toomey's corner is Crossroads GPS (a sister organization of the conservative
American Crossroads), which is running an ad charging that Sestak "voted to gut Medicare."

Toomey held a significant fundraising edge over Sestak at the end of the second quarter, but with the DSCC planning to spend as much as $4.4 million on ads in the race, expect things to get heated this fall.

5. Republican state Rep. Tom Emmer has pulled even with former Sen. Mark Dayton (D) in the latest polling on the Minnesota governor's race.

The Minnesota Public Radio/Humphrey Institute poll shows both Emmer and Dayton at 34 percent, while Independence Party candidate Tom Horner takes 13 percent.

The poll comes on the heels of two other polls showing Dayton with double-digit leads. A SurveyUSA poll and a Minneapolis Star Tribune poll conducted before Dayton's primary victory in early August showed Dayton leading Emmer by 14 points and 10 points, respectively.

There are still some good signs for Dayton in the new poll, though. He leads Emmer 23 percent to 13 percent among independents. Horner takes another 26 percent, while 38 percent of independents are undecided.

At the same time, Horner is taking slightly more Democrats (15 percent) than Republicans (9 percent), which could be bad for Dayton if Horner's campaign catches fire or even gets a little bit hot. Third-party candidates have a history of doing well in Minnesota -- hello Gov. Jesse Ventura! -- and both parties are keeping an eye on Horner.

The poll was conducted between Aug. 25 and 29 among 750 likely voters. The margin of error is plus or minus 5.3 percent.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) is not running for reelection.

With Aaron Blake and Felicia Sonmez

By Chris Cillizza  | September 1, 2010; 7:37 AM ET
Categories:  Morning Fix  
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