The defeat of Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski by an upstart fiscal conservative in Alaska's GOP primary could mark a significant shift for a state that has so long relied on federal pork to survive. The outcome was also an unexpected blow to the seniority Alaska has enjoyed in the Senate.
Even as the far northern state stubbornly adheres to its reputation for independence, it relies more heavily on federal spending than any other state, thanks largely to congressional powerhouses such as the late Republican Sen. Ted Stevens.
But a shift in that approach could come in the form of Joe Miller, who defeated Murkowski with the strong backing of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express as he campaigned against runaway government spending.
Noting that Alaska has long depended on federal largesse, Miller says the state could work toward self-reliance with more control of its own resources and a reduction in federal regulatory burdens.
He is favored to win in November over Democrat Scott McAdams, a little-known mayor of the southeast Alaska town of Sitka.
But Stevens, who was killed in a plane crash last month, brought home billions from Washington to fund highways, pipelines, ports. Alaska lost his formidable seniority and some power to capture a huge share of federal money when he was defeated by Democratic Sen. Mark Begich in 2008 following a corruption conviction that was later dropped.
For many longtime political observers in Alaska, Murkowski's defeat continues a trend of losing Senate seniority and influence – key elements in the state capturing hundreds of millions of federal dollars each year.
Without Murkowski and with Begich still building tenure, Alaska has virtually no pull in the Senate, said University of Alaska Fairbanks political science professor Jerry McBeath. "And the Senate has served Alaska marvelously over the 50-year period of statehood," he said.
University of Alaska Anchorage political science professor Carl Shepro noted that in post-victory interviews, Miller has toned down his anti-spending stance a bit, probably to appeal to less conservative Republicans.
"So this is not a Joe Miller comes to D.C. and Social Security is gone, Medicare is gone," he said. "But what Joe Miller does do, and what those that I think are joining in this message do is get this government back from the fiscal brink, back from bankruptcy so that we can ensure that the contracts that we've made with our seniors, that we can honor those."
Still, Shepro believes Miller means to sharply cut the flow of federal money coming to Alaska. Shepro expects there would be plenty of senators more than happy to accommodate such a freshman.
Many Alaskans just don't realize how significant the federal government is to the state, where federal government bashing is a state pastime, said Clive Thomas, a political science professor at the University of Alaska Southeast.
"I think what people want is, they don't want the regulation, but they want the money," he said. "But you've got to walk a fine line and Ted Stevens realized that."
The importance of the federal government is recognized by many in Alaska's interior, where Stevens and Young have been revered for years by many, including Alaska Natives living in remote locations.
Tanana, a largely Athabascan community of 300, relies on federal funding for as much as 75 percent of the its economy, said Bear Ketzler, its city administrator. Ketzler, a Murkowski supporter, said it's too soon to feel the repercussions of losing Stevens. He fears Murkowski's loss will only add to an expected cut in federal aid.
"In the short term, we're going to be OK," he said. "In the long term, our future in Alaska looks very, very bleak."
Patti Higgins, state chair of the Alaska Democratic Party, said she disagrees. If Democrats retain their Senate majority, Alaskans would be better off to elect a second Democrat to the Senate, she said.
"With the Democrats in power, I think we're sitting pretty."