There will be two names on the ballot in the Alaska race for U.S. Senate this November: Joe Miller and Scott McAdams. But in events today for both those candidates the 800-pound gorilla in the room was incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski, who announced Friday she will seek a write in bid to keep her seat after losing the GOP primary to Miller last month.
Democrat McAdams’s press conference to unveil his five-point education plan on Monday was aimed at leaching teacher support from Murkowski. The National Education Association early on endorsed Murkowski and the group on Friday reaffirmed their endorsement of her candidacy, even as a write in. But McAdams, who has the support of the AFL-CIO, believes that rank-and-file teachers will come his way when they realize what a long shot Murkowski’s candidacy is. “I have a natural connection with teachers,” says McAdams, who got his start in politics petitioning the school board that he would eventually sit on to allow him to form a football team. “And I believe in the hearts and minds to teachers they will recognize that I am the true school advocate in this race.”
The Sitka mayor — the fifth largest town in Alaska, McAdams was quick to point out, right behind Wasilla — seemed nervous in my interview with him, though that may be due to his lack of experience with national reporters and issues. He has good reason to be nervous. Murkowski poses as much, if not a greater threat to him than she does to Miller. McAdams has yet to prove himself as a viable candidate to the powers that be in Washington and, though he’s raised $300,000 in the last three weeks, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has yet to invest in his campaign beyond dispatching a few staffers. There were also some prominent Democrats at Murkowski’s Friday night rally, leading to local speculation the Dems might be flirting with Murkowski in case she actually wins.
Amidst the yoga balls and organic snacks that fill McAdams’ campaign offices, I watched a McAdams staffer this morning brief volunteers on talking points for a call banking session to infrequent voting Democrats. The themes all revolved around Murkowski: her voting record (against the Obama agenda), her lack of seniority (Mitch McConnell said if she wins he wouldn’t give her committee leadership positions in punishment for challenging a GOP primary winner). “If Murkowski appeals heavily to organized labor she’ll take a lot of votes from McAdams,” says Randy Ruedrich, chairman of the Alaska Republican Party, which is supporting Miller. “If she runs as a social liberal, she’ll take even more votes from McAdams.” Part of what got Murkowski into trouble with GOP primary voters is her pro-choice, socially moderate stances. In a state where registered Republicans nearly double the number of registered Democrats, McAdams can’t afford to lose any of his base.
Miller’s challenge, says Ruedrich, is to “to respond to Democratic accusations that he’s an extremist. In the general election, Miller’s campaign needs to ramp up a message that can be clearly understood by all Alaskans.”
But it’s not just Dems making that case. “What I look at is, do you represent the values of the state of Alaska? Do you represent the people here in terms of what it is that they need, they hope for, what they hope for their future?” Murkowski told CNN on Sunday. “And Joe Miller simply does not represent that. He is suggesting to us, in my opinion, and in the opinion of many, many Alaskans, some pretty radical things.” Miller, on CNN on Monday swung back calling Murkowski “hypocritical” and accused her of “breaking her word” to support the GOP nominee whomever he or she is.
Waiting in Joe Miller’s cramped Wasilla offices – ironically, one floor below a branch of Murkowski’s official senate offices — for the candidate to arrive this evening, I watched his campaign manager hash out the race with some volunteers. Over McDonald’s fries, cookies and chips and salsa, Robert Campbell said dubbing his boss extreme “is an insult to all Republican primary voters and we saw massive turnout, record turnout in this race.” Campbell said the campaign is seeking a debate with Murkowski. “I would love for there to be a debate tomorrow and from every day on,” he said. “I couldn’t want my candidate out in front of Senator Murkowski talking to the public more, I’d want that every single day.”
When Miller arrived, he too focused his fire on Murkowski. “This is not in the bag by any means,” he told the two dozen or so supporters who came out to hear him. “Any time that you’re dealing with an opponent that, by some reports, has $1.8 million in the bank; that she’s announced she’s going to have a mudfest; that she’s announced she’s taking the gloves off; we know we can’t take it for granted and what that means is we’ve got to fight even all the more harder to get the message out.”
A write in candidacy is incredibly difficult and has never been done successfully in Alaska. The last person to try was former Gov. Wally Hickel — whom I interviewed last year for my Palin story but, I’m sorry to say, passed away in May — in 1978. He got 26.4% of the vote and that was using stickers that voters could affix to the ballots – a practice banned by Alaska a decade ago. Murkowski, thanks to her famous (for Alaska) family, enjoys a high degree of name recognition – though how many people can actually spell Murkowski remains to be seen (the Alaska Division of Elections says they’ll try to honor voter intent as best they can, but where does one draw the line? L. Mszciki?). A poll done by Dittman Research & Communications, a GOP firm, Aug. 28-Sept. 1 has Murkowski leading in a three-way race 37% to Miller’s 31% to McAdams’ 24%. So, despite the logistical hurdles, clearly the gorilla has some heft, or McAdams and Miller wouldn’t be focusing so much of their fire on her.