Is Joe Miller too 'tea party' for Alaska?

Joe Miller, the 'tea party'-backed Republican candidate for Senate in Alaska, is trying to turn traditional Alaska politics on its head. It might not work.

Bill Roth/Anchorage Daily News/AP
US Senate candidate Joe Miller chats amicably with Fox News Channel's Greta Van Susteren after the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce candidate forum on Monday. He had fewer words for the local press.

By the calculus of traditional Alaska politics, Joe Miller did something odd at the conclusion of a debate hosted by the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce Monday.

The "tea party" favorite, a Fairbanks attorney who upset incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the GOP primary in August, Mr. Miller was all smiles as he talked in the back of the convention hall with Fox News's Greta Van Susteren. But when that pleasant chat on national television was over, Miller walked into the hallway and, after avoiding eye contact with local reporters, lectured them about their perceived shortcomings and then abruptly left.

The local reporters had wanted to ask pointed questions: Did a series of embarrassing revelations, including details about a falling-out with his last employer, mean he isn't who he portrays himself to be? He took no questions, however, and announced: “We’ve drawn a line in the sand. You can ask me about background, you can ask about personal issues – I’m not going to answer.” Then he ducked into a nearby stairwell.

To some, the exchange was the latest example of Miller thumbing his nose at the way politics in Alaska is conducted – a decision that could cost him on Election Day.

Longtime Alaska political journalist Michael Carey quips: "Joe Miller can go on Fox News all he wants. What he has to do is convince people in Shishmaref." Yet Miller has largely done the opposite – schmoozing with Fox News and national radio talk show hosts regularly while avoiding many of Alaska's hinterland villages and many traditional voting blocs.

The late Sen. Ted Stevens became the gold standard in Alaska politics by bringing federal money back home – helping the sparsely populated state deal with enormous challenges of infrastructure, cultural survival, and basic services. Yet Miller, who moved to the state in 1995, has built his campaign on an antigovernment message and on severing Alaska from that largess.

Critics say he has run a "tea party" campaign tailored to the Lower 48, and in the process has shown a lack of understanding of the unique issues Alaska faces. To Miller's supporters, though, that is precisely his Palin-esque charm: a man on a mission to shake up Alaska politics-as-usual.

Alaska split into thirds

Polls show that he retains the cast-iron support of about one-third of Alaskans – the conservative wing of the Republican Party that was inspired by tea party energy and money in the Republican primary and pushed him past Senator Murkowski.

But his insistence on tilting at traditional Alaska politics has partly prevented him from expanding his support beyond that base. An Oct. 13 poll by Rasmussen Reports puts the race almost dead even: 35 percent for Miller, 34 for Murkowski (who has mounted a write-in campaign), and 27 for Democrat Scott McAdams.

That gives him little leeway for weathering charges of a rocky professional past and a personal history at odds with his antigovernment rhetoric.

The issue at hand at Monday’s no-questions news conference was a report that Miller violated ethics rules while he was a part-time attorney with the Fairbanks North Star Borough – one of Alaska's county-like political subdivisions. The borough's former mayor said Miller used borough computers, equipment, and time to conduct an unsuccessful campaign to oust the chairman of the state Republican Party. His actions violated the ban on using public resources to conduct partisan political activity, and he was officially reprimanded, the former mayor said.

The mayor claims that Miller was forced to resign due to insubordination after he insisted on ditching work duties to go on a hunting trip.

Those accusations followed others that indicate that Miller – who has railed against a national “entitlement mentality” and proclaimed many benefit programs to be unconstitutional – has availed himself of various public-assistance programs. These include Medicaid-funded health care, farming subsidies, and even special “indigent” hunting and fishing permits the state provides to residents who are deep in poverty.

Miller has acknowledged his use of such programs and defended it.

“I wasn’t born with a silver spoon,” he told reporters after a previous debate. “I have had the same sort of struggles in my past that other people have had.”

Supporters have no problem with the apparent paradox.

“He’s a real person with real blood in his veins,” one sign-holding supporter told another at Monday’s Chamber of Commerce debate.

Voting against Miller?

In many ways, the election has become a referendum on Miller. Some Democrats, including state senator and Alaska Federation of Natives co-chairman Al Kooksh, are bypassing McAdams and backing Murkowski, in an effort to prevent Miller from winning.

Alaska Natives and the state’s labor unions are normally strong supporters of Democratic candidates. But fearing that Miller’s approach to Alaska’s relationship with the federal government could be ruinous, many have have rallied to support Murkowski’s unorthodox write-in campaign.

Alaska needs a senator “focused on Alaska’s interest,” said Will Anderson, president and chief executive of Koniag Inc., which manages the land and financial assets of about 3,400 Alutiiq Natives.

“Joe Miller would really be more focused on the tea party or the national interests outside the state," says Mr. Anderson, who also heads a new bipartisan political group called Alaskans Standing Together, which is supporting Murkowski. "We just can’t afford to have somebody of that mindset in such a key role."

Meanwhile, Murkowski retains the backing of numerous establishment Republicans, though the party is officially supporting Miller. A handful of elected Republican officials have officially endorsed Miller, but the vast majority of Republican lawmakers and many Republican mayors have endorsed Murkowski.

According to recent polls, Miller's support is equivalent to the current Alaska approval rating for former Gov. Sarah Palin, the conservative celebrity whose pre-primary endorsement of Miller propelled him out of obscurity and attracted about $600,000 from the California-based Tea Party Express. More support and money from national conservative groups have rolled in since the primary.

Staunch Miller supporters include Jessie Chilstrom, a young mother from Palmer who attended an earlier debate. She said she considers Miller to be the most inspiring candidate she’s ever seen – even more inspiring than former Governor Palin.

“If she wouldn’t have endorsed him, I wouldn’t have been happy with her,” Ms. Chilstrom said.

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