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It’s official: Alaska primary gives GOP insurgents a reason to cheer.
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — David Cuddy showed up at Joe Miller’s campaign headquarters Tuesday evening about an hour after Sen. Lisa Murkowski conceded defeat in the Republican primary. He was greeted warmly by Miller volunteers who had gathered to celebrate in the second-floor office next to an insurance agency after a day of fretfully watching the count of absentee ballots.
Two years ago, Cuddy was one of six GOP primary challengers to Sen. Ted Stevens, and finished second, with 28 percent of the vote. Stevens went on to lose the November 2008 general election to Democrat Mark Begich by a margin of fewer than 4,000 votes. The winning campaign Joe Miller ran against Murkowski was in large measure a vindication of Cuddy’s anti-establishment challenge to Stevens. As Cuddy congratulated Miller’s team Tuesday night, he laughed: “Alaska Republicans don’t like big government — who ever dreamed of that?”
Miller’s victory was a vindication for a lot of people who have grown tired of seeing the GOP act as accomplices to the remorseless expansion of federal power. The campaign succeeded in large measure because the Tea Party movement has turned long-simmering conservative discontent with big-government Republicanism into an organized national force. Ever since the 2008 TARP bailout of Wall Street — for which Murkowski voted — more and more GOP voters have joined the insurgency that helped fuel the Miller campaign in accomplishing a rare thing: The defeat of an incumbent senator in a Republican primary.
The crowd gathered in Miller HQ Tuesday could not recall a recent precedent. True, Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett was ousted by his own party earlier this year, but that was a caucus/convention process, not a primary election. And Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter quit the GOP months before he could face conservative primary challenger Pat Toomey.
Many have credited Sarah Palin’s early endorsement with boosting Miller in their home state, and certainly she helped call national attention to the anti-establishment candidate. The leaders of the Tea Party Express say that it was Palin who prompted them to take a second look at Miller, for whom they spent $500,000 for campaign ads in the closing weeks of the primary.
Ultimately, however, the key factor in Miller’s victory was the candidate himself. A West Point graduate and veteran of the 1991 Gulf War with a Yale Law degree and a master’s degree in economics, Miller persuasively argued the case against a continuation of the GOP establishment’s “go along to get along” posture. Tuesday evening, after Murkowski had called it quits, Miller campaign manager Robert Campbell recalled how he first met the candidate at a fundraising event.
“I asked him, what do you see as your first responsibility as a senator?” Campbell said. “And [Miller] said, to determine if any of the bills in front of me are constitutional.”
It was that sort of plain-spoken conservatism that persuaded Campbell to join the campaign — he’d never held such a position before — and inspired scores of volunteers who served as the foot soldiers of Miller’s victorious army. One of those volunteer soldiers, a mother of three named Regina, festooned her four-wheel-drive truck with large Miller-for-Senate signs and dubbed it the “Joemobile.” Tuesday night, Regina was celebrating with other volunteers at an Anchorage pizza shop called the Moose’s Tooth Pub.
“It’s loud here,” she shouted into her cell phone. “It’s totally Miller time!”