(Update: On Tuesday, August 31, Lisa Murkowski conceded to Joe Miller following the counting of most absentee ballots.)
In what's shaping up to be the most stunning upset of the 2010 primary season, incumbent GOP senator Lisa Murkowski is trailing political newcomer Joe Miller by 1,668 votes (47,027 to 45,359), with 100 percent of precincts reporting. If Miller can hold on to his lead, as about 8,000 absentee ballots are counted in the next week or two, he'll be in prime position to win the general election and become Alaska's next U.S. senator. So who is Joe Miller? And how did he do it?
For starters, the 43 year-old Fairbanks lawyer, a father of eight and non-denominational Christian, has a sterling résumé. After graduating from West Point, Miller earned a Bronze Star fighting in the first Gulf War. He later earned his law degree from Yale and a master's degree in economics from the University of Alaska. Miller went on to serve as both a state magistrate and then a U.S. magistrate judge before stepping down from the bench to run, unsuccessfully, for state representative in 2004.
Based on merit alone, Miller was easily the superior candidate to Murkowski--whose 2002 appointment to the Senate by her father, then-governor Frank Murkowski, was met with cries of nepotism. Murkowski won her first general election to the Senate in 2004 with only 49 percent of the vote.
Of course, it takes more than superior credentials to defeat a well-funded incumbent senator. The strong backing of Sarah Palin was certainly crucial for Miller. Palin had knocked Frank Murkowski out of the gubernatorial primary in 2006 and sought to do the same to his daughter this year in the Senate primary.
Of equal or greater importance, Miller was able to show a clear ideological contrast between himself and Murkowski. As Miller told National Review's Robert Costa last night, Murkowski "granted us only one debate — and we made it matter."
In the debate (you can watch it here), Miller landed at least a couple solid blows on Murkowski. First, he pointed out that she initially said that repealing Obamacare "is not the answer." Miller alleged that Murkowski only later, out of fear of losing the primary, co-sponsored the bill to repeal Obamacare.
Second, Miller asked Murkowski a simple question: Have you ever voted for a bill that was unconstitutional? After Murkowski replied she had not, Miller asked Murkowski to "tell Alaskans then where in the constitution is Roe v. Wade authorized"--as well as where TARP, cap-and-trade, and federal funding for embryonic-destructive research are authorized by the Constitution. Murkowski's response was weak: The constitution authorizes an Army and a Navy but not the Air Force, so constitutional issues aren't as "black and white" as Miller claims.
Murkowski's pro-choice record on abortion may have especially hurt her at the polls. As Robert Stacy McCain points out at the America Spectator, many suggest that "an amendment on Tuesday's ballot -- requiring parental notification before a minor can get an abortion -- helped boost pro-life Miller against Murkowski. The measure passed with 55% of the vote."
If you add it all up, it shouldn't be surprising that a more qualified and more conservative Sarah Palin-backed candidate could beat Murkowski. The Tea Party Express spent about $500,000 on the race--enough, apparently, to help Miller get his message out. But most people (including me) missed signs that Miller could come from behind to win. According to an article at Slate on Monday:
With a long, lean face, and stubble closer to 10 o'clock than 5, [Miller] could almost pass for Chuck Norris.
Unfortunately for him, not even Chuck Norris in his most bad-ass role—which is, of course, Chuck Norris in real life—could rescue the Miller campaign. Always a long shot, Miller lags behind Murkowski, the heir to one of Alaska's political dynasties, by double digits.
But as the Wall Street Journal's John Fund pointed out on Tuesday, although Murkowski maintained a 12-point lead in a new poll, she was under 50 percent--"below the level of support where an incumbent can be considered safe."
And Red State's Erick Erickson noted:
Polling, however, in Alaska can be problematic and there is a troubling sign for Lisa Murkowski – with Palin, the Tea Party Express, and others on the ground driving up turn out, the higher the turn out the worse it is for her.
The odds are in Murkowski’s favor today, but we shouldn’t count out Joe Miller just yet. This could be fun.
For Joe Miller, the fun may have only just begun.