Where GOP's Lisa Murkowski went wrong and John McCain went right

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska didn't open her war chest in time, and it may have cost her the GOP primary. Arizona's Sen. John McCain, by contrast, spent early and often.

Mark Thiessen/AP
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska, right, joins volunteers to wave to motorists on Monday, in Anchorage, Alaska.
Matt York/AP
Sen. John McCain (R) of Aizonia leaves his polling station Tuesday, in Phoenix after casting his vote in the Arizona primary election.

If anything has been learned so far from the 2010 primary election cycle, it may be that the candidate who hesitates is lost.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska did not open her war chest in time, for instance, and that may have cost her Tuesday’s GOP primary. Yes, Murkowski’s opponent, attorney Joe Miller, got a big boost from his Sarah Palin endorsement. Yes, Murkowski’s vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bank bailout and her past moderation on abortion may have left her vulnerable.

But Murkowski was sitting on $2 million in campaign cash when August began, and in politics money unspent is no advantage. By then, Mr. Miller was broadcasting ads around the state hitting her as too liberal for the Big Frontier. Murkowski did not respond with her own tougher spots until days before the vote, and by then it may have been too late, points out one well-known US political expert.

“If you have superior resources, you use them to define your opponent in a way that makes him or her unacceptable to voters,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Right now, Murkowki trails by Miller by about 2,000 votes, with some 16,000 absentee ballots yet to be counted. The race remains too close to call.

In contrast, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a hardened veteran of war and politics, did not make Murkowski’s mistake. He recognized early that this is an election year of turmoil when even the most recent Republican presidential candidate might lose to an aggressive underdog. So he brought in Sarah Palin to help him campaign, raised lots of cash, and did all he could to shape the image of his opponent, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, for Arizona voters.

One particularly tough McCain ad highlighted Mr. Hayworth’s appearance on an infomercial sponsored by a firm that promised to link customers up with government benefits. The McCain spot showed Hayworth’s smiling face, then overlaid, in huge letters, the phrase “ripping them off,” followed by the single word “huckster.”

Another McCain spot, titled “An Officer and a . . . Lobbyist?,” contrasted Senator McCain’s military service with Hayworth’s stint as a registered Washington lobbyist, and pointed out that when in Congress Hayworth was once named one of America’s “Ten Dumbest Congressmen” by a snarky online magazine.

Did these ads, and others like them, mean McCain conducted something of a negative campaign? Probably. But many campaign pros say negative political campaigns are so prevalent for the simple reason that they work.

And 2010, a year in which many voters remain angry at Washington about the state of the economy and government bailouts of bankers, auto firms, and other big industries, may represent an election cycle in which negative ads have particular resonance.

“When voters are in a surly mood, as they clearly are in 2010, a candidate can be harsher than usual on his or her opponent and probably get away with it,” says Mr. Sabato of the University of Virginia.

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