Lisa Murkowski gives tea party another opening, but can it cash in?
Tea Party activists have played a central role in nominating their preferred candidates in the Senate races in Kentucky, Nevada and Utah so far this year. Their next target: Alaska.
On the surface, Sen. Lisa Murkowski -- a pro-abortion rights, member of GOP leadership and supporter of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) is an obvious target.
But, beating an incumbent -- even in a tumultuous election cycle like this one -- is never as easy proposition and, unlike some of her other colleagues, Murkowski is clearly paying attention to the challenge before her on Aug. 24.
To wit: Murkowski launched her first radio ad this week. The ad preemptively battles back on her TARP vote, noting she voted against the stimulus and has been "fighting against government overreach and out-of-control spending."
And, attorney Joe Miller -- the man taking on Murkowski -- is a decidedly untested candidate for the tea party nationally (and potentially other groups like the Club for Growth) to get behind. With so many successes under their collective belts already this election cycle, it's not clear that the tea party will want to roll the dice for Miller.
So, will Miller be the next Rand Paul or the next Patrick Hughes? (Hughes was the tea party candidate whose Senate primary challenge to Illinois Republican Rep. Mark Kirk fizzled earlier this year.)
Here's a look at both sides of the coin:
Why Miller Could Win
1. Votes : Murkowski has enough baggage in the eyes of conservatives to fill several 30-second ad. In other words, this race won't just be about TARP and abortion. Murkowski has recently become an active advocate for repealing the health care bil, but in March she was against repeal (and there's video of it!).
2. Speaking : Miller is a polished speaker and seems to have the personal skills required to persuade voters in a small, retail-politics state like Alaska. While observers see him as a somewhat aloof, they acknowledge he's got the populist rhetoric that appeals to the tea party crowd down pat.
3. The ballot: Alongside the Senate race will be a ballot issue on requiring minors seeking abortions to obtain parental consent -- exactly the kind of thing that could drive social conservatives to the polls. And if they're voting on social issues, there's a good chance they're not voting for Murkowski.
4. The Murkowski name: Voters were more than happy to toss Murkowski's father, former Gov. Frank Murkowski (R), out of office in a 2006 primary. (He won just 19 percent in the 2006 GOP primary, a race won by a little known, small town mayor named Sarah Palin.) To be sure, Lisa Murkowski has nowhere near the electoral liabilities her father carried but internecine GOP battles in Alaska are a well-worn pursuit that has often led to competitive races. (See the Palin family backing Miller in the primary.)
Why Miller Won't Win
1. Experience : Miller has little of the political kind, and he lost a state House race earlier this decade -- not exactly a good warmup for beating an incumbent senator. Murkowski, meanwhile, withstood a primary and well-funded general election opponent in 2004. (She won the primary with 58 percent and the general with 49 percent.) She can also point to the fact that, if the GOP retakes the majority, she would chair the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, a hugely important post for the Last Frontier.
2. Money: Murkowski had $2.1 million in the bank as of March 31. Miller said in an interview that he has raised "tens of thousands" of dollars since entering the race two months ago. Um, ok. As for self-funding, he said he will be "putting everything into it that I can" and "using everything I have access to." But he will almost surely be heavily outspent. Said Alaska GOP consultant Art Hackney: "It gets back to money nine times out of 10. But as Palin showed, it can be about a weird wildfire that brushes across the state."
3. Outside influence: Miller is likely to get some help in the money chase thanks to third-party groups like the Tea Party Express and, potentially, the Club for Growth, which has said publicly they are considering getting involved in the race but have made no final pronouncement. But while Alaska is a cheap state to advertise in, locals don't take kindly to outside groups telling them how to vote. The Club backed now-Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell's 2008 GOP primary challenge to Rep. Don Young but came up short, even though Young trailed
at one point by 20 points and was battling ethics allegations throughout the campaign.
4. Primary format : Unlike some states where only registered Republicans can vote in the GOP primary, Alaska allows independent voters to take part as well. That likely means a larger and more moderate electorate, which should accrue to Murkowski's benefit.
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