Joe Miller's ascent to political stardom has been astonishingly sudden. When I first interviewed Miller in early July, he was "Joe Who?" After last Tuesday's stunning upset -- defeating Sen. Lisa Murkowski by 1,668 votes in the Alaska Republican primary -- he has become a hero to grassroots conservatives nationwide.
That Miller has beaten Murkowski is something the incumbent has not acknowledged. After coming up short on Tuesday night, the senator said she would not concede until the absentee ballots had been counted and then held a Wednesday press conference where she declared, "It ain't over."
The senator's non-concession has forced reporters to spend the past several days contorting their stories into euphemistic pretzels with talk of Miller "leading" Murkowski, as if it were still an active campaign. In fact, the campaign is over and Miller is the winner, pending a count of those remaining ballots that will likely only confirm what a majority of Alaska's 92,000 Republican primary voters decided on Tuesday: They're sick and tired of the GOP establishment.
That establishment is nevertheless still powerful, even in (apparent) defeat. Conservatives could only shake their heads and curse in impotent frustration last week when it was reported that the National Republican Senatorial Committee had flown its top lawyer Sean Cairncross to Anchorage to advise Murkowski's campaign in what may turn into an ugly fight over the absentee ballots.
The actual number of those ballots has been a moving target. On the night of the primary, it was reported that there were 8,000 absentees, but this was only the number of such ballots received by Election Day. While absentee ballots must be postmarked no later than Aug. 24 to be valid, the deadline for receiving ballots mailed within the U.S. is not until Sept. 3 and overseas ballots may qualify if received as late as Sept. 8. And by late Saturday, the Anchorage Daily News reported, the total number of uncounted ballots received by the Alaska Division of Elections had swollen to 23,472, including 9,069 "questioned" ballots cast on Election Day. By the time they start counting the ballots tomorrow, the number will likely increase by a few hundred more, and the more ballots, the greater the possibility for the kind of vote-counting shenanigans Americans have come to expect in close elections since the Florida presidential deadlock of 2000.
Miller's supporters were therefore dismayed to learn over the weekend that Murkowski -- who still has more than a million dollars in her campaign fund -- had retained the services of Mike Roman, a key player for Republican Norm Coleman's team in the nightmarish 2008 Minnesota recount that eventually produced five of the most dreaded words in the English language: United States Senator Al Franken.
Murkowski's campaign is "bringing in the big shots," Miller campaign spokesman Randy DeSoto said in a telephone interview late Sunday. Meanwhile, voters who cast absentee ballots were reporting that they had gotten calls asking how they'd voted -- the names of absentee voters are a matter of public record in Alaska -- and when Miller's campaign suggested this was evidence of mischief by the senator's team, Murkowski accused Miller of being "paranoid."
Of course, it's not paranoia if they really are out to get you, and Miller's supporters already had solid reasons to suspect that Murkowski would stop at nothing to retain her Senate seat. Chief among these reasons was the fact that Anchorage political consultant Andrew Halcro placed a call first thing Wednesday morning to Scott Kohlhaas, chairman of the Alaska Libertarian Party. Halcro was asking whether the Libertarians would be open to having Murkowski replace their Senate nominee, Dave Haase. Halcro is a former Republican state legislator best known for his boundless hatred of Sarah Palin. After Palin won the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2006, Halcro waged a third-party campaign aimed principally at attacking the Republican and earned him the nickname Mr. Nine Percent, that being his share of the vote. Since being chosen as John McCain's running mate two years ago, of course, Palin has become world-famous and Halcro's bitterness toward her has only increased.
It was Palin's early endorsement of Joe Miller that was widely credited with launching the underdog to victory, and thus the intrusion of ex-Republican Halcro into the post-primary phase of the Senate campaign is scarcely surprising. Certainly Miller's supporters could be forgiven for wondering if Halcro would be reaching out to the Libertarians on Murkowski's behalf without the senator's permission, especially after he disclosed to the Anchorage Daily News that he had spoken by phone with Murkowski.
For their part, Alaska LP officials initially said they were receptive to Murkowski's interest and seemed dazzled by their newfound status as potential kingmakers (or at least, senator-makers) in what had suddenly become the hottest political story of the summer. Yet Halcro's attempts to play matchmaker were clearly hampered by the vast difference between Murkowski's big-government Republicanism and the anti-statist ideology of the Libertarians. Harley Brown, vice chairman of the Alaska LP, told me Saturday that his feeling was "99 percent… no way" that his party would replace Haase with Murkowski. The top leadership of the LP held a two-hour meeting Sunday to discuss the idea and have scheduled a press conference for today. If, as seems likely, the Libertarians say they won't take Murkowski as their nominee, that will end all talk of the senator seeking re-election as a third-party candidate.
That would leave those 23,472 remaining uncounted ballots as the only obstacle between Joe Miller and one of the most surprising upsets of what has already become a banner year for political surprises. His conservative supporters view Murkowski as a RINO (Republican In Name Only), a breed they're determined to hunt to extinction. Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter and Utah Sen. Robert Bennett have already been bagged, and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is now pursuing dwindling third-party hopes of being elected to the Senate. If Miller can hold on to defeat Murkowski, the RINO species will become more endangered than ever.
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