Are tea party candidates helped or hurt by three-way races?

Three-way races are dynamic and hard to predict. This is true in Senate races in Alaska and Florida, though with different results for tea party candidates Joe Miller and Marco Rubio.

Rob Stapleton/AP
Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin shakes hands with Kathleen Miller, wife of Republican US Senate candidate Joe Miller, during a rally for Miller in Anchorage, Alaska on Thursday Oct. 28. Tea party favorite Miller appears to be running behind incumbent Lisa Murkowski, now running as a write-in candidate.

Three-way races usually have a political dynamic that far exceeds the sum of their parts, and this is true – maybe even more true – as the tea party insurgency drives many of this year’s elections.

Consider two closely-watched US Senate races at diagonally opposite corners of the country: Alaska and Florida, where the presence of a third candidate has had very different results on the apparent fortunes of the tea party favorite.

In Alaska, incumbent GOP Senator Lisa Murkowski did not go quietly into the night when Joe Miller – who’d gotten more than $600,000 from the Tea Party Express funding organization, plus the backing of Sarah Palin – beat her in the Republican primary. Instead, Ms. Murkowski declared herself a write-in candidate – a very long-shot attempt at vindication. (The last one to successfully do so was Strom Thurmond in 1954.)

Democrats thought for sure that this would split the Republican vote, giving victory to their candidate, Scott McAdams, the mayor of Sitka.

But things haven’t turned out that way. Instead, it became a horserace between Mr. Miller and Murkowski with Mr. McAdams lagging in the rear.

And now, with Miller admitting that he “lied about what I was doing” in inappropriately using government computers when he worked as a part-time lawyer in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, Murkowski apparently leads both her rivals. (A new poll of 500 likely voters has Miller running third at 23 percent with 29 percent for McAdams and 34 percent for "write in candidate" – presumably Murkowski.)

In Florida, meanwhile, Republican Governor Charlie Crist (a moderate favored by the establishment GOP) pulled out of the US Senate primary rather than lose to tea party favorite Marco Rubio, the attractive young Cuban-American conservative who’d been Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.

As their nominee, Democrats chose someone who appeared to be an equally strong candidate: Kendrick Meek – a former state trooper (the first African-American to reach the rank of captain), serving as US Representative for Florida’s 17th Congressional District.

But Gov. Crist has stayed in the race as an independent, figuring his previous statewide election success would overcome his lack of party organization support and put him in the lead.

Things haven’t turned out that way. While the race may have tightened as Election Day draws near, Rubio maintains a fairly comfortable lead over Crist with Democrat Meek lagging in the rear.

Although it’s impossible to know where things would stand if Crist hadn’t stayed in the race, it’s apparent that his presence has changed the campaign’s dynamic in a way that helps Rubio.

If anything, Crist’s warning against “extremism … the road Sarah Palin, the tea party, and Marco Rubio want to take us down” has solidified tea party support for the front-runner. So much so that in a last-minute attempt to turn the tide, former President Bill Clinton reportedly has urged Democrat Meek to drop out of the race and endorse Crist.

Does that make Crist a spoiler? Would the Democratic Party have put more effort into Meek’s campaign if he’d only had Rubio to run against? Again, impossible to know.

One thing is obvious, though. In both Alaska and Florida, the Democrat in these three-way races is not doing well.

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