When Joe Miller was in Washington being feted last month at Republican fundraisers as a rising conservative star, he was so confident of winning election as Alaska’s next US senator that he tweeted that it might be time to “do some house hunting” in the capital city.
Three weeks later, Mr. Miller is mired in controversy back home. That tweet sent by the "tea party" endorsed candidate was only one in a series of missteps that threaten to erase the slim lead he held over his two rivals in recent polls.
• After persistent questioning, Miller has admitted that he was disciplined for ethics breaches when he was an attorney employed by the Fairbanks North Star Borough. Former Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Jim Whitaker said last week that Miller inappropriately used borough computers for partisan political purposes in 2008.
• Miller skipped a debate Monday and has refused to answer any questions about his personal or professional background.
• Financial disclosure forms submitted six months late present a portrait of someone mired in debt – a jarring note in a campaign that has railed against the federal debt.
• Most infamously, a longtime local journalist who tried to question Miller about the ethics breaches was handcuffed by Miller campaign security guards. Anchorage law enforcement said Monday that no charges would be filed against the journalist or the guards.
The incident – in which beefy, buzz-cut bodyguards dressed like Secret Service agents shackled Alaska Dispatch editor Tony Hopfinger and threatened to do the same to other journalists – was captured on video.
It has shocked a state where the population is small, politics is extremely local, and citizens are accustomed to having unfettered access to their elected leaders.
A journalist in handcuffs: the fallout
Miller points to the confrontation as a sign that he is standing up to liberals and the mainstream media – a strategy that could win him support among his loyal core of support.
“My basic feeling is people who like Joe would say it’s just fine. People who don’t would say it’s another example of how he’s too extreme. The question is: How will it affect people in the middle?” says Dave Dittman, a conservative pollster and political consultant.
The incident might not hurt Miller, considering that journalists are generally unpopular, says Mr. Dittman. It is understandable that Miller would be annoyed by persistent questioning and by having a camera put in his face Michael Moore-style, he adds.
Yet other Alaska political observers disagree. The confrontation caused “unbelievable damage” to Miller’s chances and shows that he is “just out of control,” says Ivan Moore, an Anchorage political consultant who normally works for Democrats.
“Maybe his gung-ho, machine-gun-toting right-wing supporters love it,” Moore said. “The rest of us are saying, ‘Oh my God.’ ”
For Jay Ramras, a Republican state legislator from Miller’s hometown of Fairbanks, who knows Miller well and has clashed with him – and the tea party – repeatedly this election cycle, the actions go beyond bad campaign tactics.
“He is showing dangerous characteristics that the electorate should be paying attention to," says Mr. Ramras. "To call it dumb excuses the behavior.”
Miller said the response of his hired security guards was justified. He accused Mr. Hopfinger with threatening behavior.
“While I’ve gotten used to the blog Alaska Dispatch’s assault on me and my family, I never thought that it would lead to a physical assault. It’s too bad that this blogger would take advantage of a 'Town Hall’ meeting to create a publicity stunt just two weeks before the election,” Miller said in a statement.
The empty chair
On Monday, Miller skipped a freewheeling but friendly debate hosted by the Alaska Dispatch, the news organization where Hopfinger is an editor.
Incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who is waging a write-in campaign after being edged by Miller in the GOP primary, and Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams, sat at a front table in a popular Anchorage restaurant, exchanging questions and sometimes humorous banter across the empty chair that stood between them.
Milller could not attend the debate because he had a scheduling conflict on the Kenai Peninsula, spokesman Randy DeSoto said. But Miller wound up canceling the event and the trip to the Kenai Peninsula, according to local media accounts.
Not showing was a mistake, says Dittman. “I personally think that it would be better if Joe went to the Dispatch (debate) and handled it in a humorous way,” Dittman said before the debate. “I don’t think Joe has anything to lose from that Dispatch forum.”
But Miller did not appear interested in mending fences. Late Monday, he sent out a fundraising appeal that focused on the confrontation and was titled “When Liberals Attack.”
“We’ve got the liberal media and their establishment cronies on the ropes. With only two weeks left in this fight, please take a few minutes today to help us finish strong,” said the fundraising e-mail.