Joe Miller was on the phone from Alaska, explaining the difficulties of running for Senate in America's largest state.
"Campaigning statewide is exhausting," the Fairbanks lawyer said of his journeys across a state that has barely more people (about 700,000) than it has square miles. "A lot of flying on small airplanes -- it requires a lot of travel."
The size of the state may be exceeded by the size of the task Miller has taken on in mounting a primary challenge to Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski. The incumbent is the daughter of Frank Murkowski, whose influence in the Alaska GOP was once so powerful that he was able to appoint Lisa to fill the remainder of his Senate term after he was elected governor in 2002. Re-elected in 2004, she ended the first quarter of 2010 with more than $2 million campaign cash on hand -- a huge sum in Alaska politics, especially for an incumbent who can rely on her father's formidable connections inside the Republican establishment.
Any disinterested political observer would be tempted to rate Murkowski a lead-pipe cinch for re-election. The incumbent has only one major problem, and that problem can be summed up in two words: Sarah Palin.
It was Palin, after all, who beat Frank Murkowski in the 2006 Republican gubernatorial primary. And if anyone doubted the sincerity of Palin's "maverick" stance, those doubts ought to have been erased last month when the former Alaska governor and 2008 GOP vice-presidential candidate endorsed Joe Miller. As is her habit, she made the endorsement via her Facebook page -- which has more than 1.7 million subscribers -- calling Miller "a true Commonsense Constitutional Conservative."
Palin's endorsement had the major immediate benefit of boosting Miller's fundraising. Campaign sources were unwilling to discuss the numbers (Federal Election Commission reports for the quarter that ended June 30 won't be published until July 15), but if past performance is any indicator, Palin's Facebook blessing probably generated more than a hundred thousand dollars in online campaign contributions for Miller in June. That's a drop in the bucket compared to Murkowski's millions, of course, but because Palin's grassroots supporters tend to be small donors -- giving in increments less than $200 -- the Miller campaign can tap into those contributors for additional cash down the road, soliciting an extra $20 or $50 from a list of hundreds of people who've already donated.
The secondary benefit of Palin's endorsement is that it gave Miller the kind of national recognition that every underdog candidate craves. Two weeks later, the Tea Party Express endorsed Miller and credited Palin for calling attention to Murkowski's Republican rival. "Maybe a lot of voters don't know who Joe Miller is and don't feel he can win," a Tea Party Express spokesman told the Associated Press. "We want voters to take a second look."
Miller's challenge also gives GOP voters in the Aug. 24 primary a chance to take a second look at the incumbent's record. Based on her ratings from the American Conservative Union, early last year Human Events ranked Murkowski fifth on its list of "Top 10 Senate RINOs" -- barely more conservative than another notorious "Republican In Name Only," Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, who switched to the Democrats shortly after the Human Events list was published.
The dreaded "RINO" tag can be the kiss of death in a Republican primary. Murkowski is pro-choice on abortion, while Miller has been praised as "a solid pro-life candidate" by the president of Alaska Right to Life. And Murkowski is particularly vulnerable this year because -- as Miller highlights on his campaign website -- she voted for numerous big-government measures hated by the Tea Party grassroots, including the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Plan (TARP) bailout and the bailouts of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the federally sponsored agencies implicated in the mortgage disaster. While there have been no public polls in the GOP primary, Miller said the Alaska voters he's talked to during the campaign are fed up with the bipartisan deficit-spending spree in Washington.
"Government is seen as the problem, not the solution," Miller said. "And Murkowski is part of the problem."
Miller brings a solid record of achievement to the Senate contest -- a graduate of West Point and Yale Law who earned the Bronze Star during the 1991 Gulf War and also holds a master's degree in economics from the University of Alaska.
In what is becoming a familiar theme in this year's Republican primaries, Miller is the grassroots-backed outsider taking on the GOP establishment and Palin's support clearly improves the odds for his underdog campaign. Just two weeks ago, Nikki Haley won the South Carolina gubernatorial nomination in a runoff, having surged ahead after being endorsed by Palin.
Miller may be understating Palin's influence among Republican voters when he says her endorsement "has been a significant benefit to us." Next month's Alaska primary could demonstrate exactly how significant that benefit can be.