The 43-year-old bearded Alaskan who is in position to shock the political world by defeating Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the state's Republican primary fashions himself as a rugged individualist who campaigned on weaning Alaska off its dependence on federal largesse.
The 43-year-old bearded Alaskan who is in position to shock the political world by defeating Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the state’s Republican primary fashions himself as a rugged individualist who campaigned on weaning Alaska off its dependence on federal largesse.
Results Wednesday night showed Joe Miller with a slim lead of 1,668 votes, but a winner might not be declared until election officials count as many as 10,000 absentee and provisional ballots, which could take several days.
At a news conference Wednesday in Anchorage, Murkowski mentioned that then-Sen. Ted Stevens in 2008 went to bed in the lead but eventually lost his Senate seat of 40 years to Democrat Mark Begich.
“It ain’t over yet, folks,” she said. “There is much, much yet to be counted.”
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If Miller pulls off the stunning upset, he will have carried the anti-spending furor of the tea-party movement to the most unlikely frontier: a state that has benefited far more from pork-barrel spending over the years than any state in the Lower 48.
Whereas Murkowski continued a long tradition of Alaska politicians touting their ability to steer an outsize proportion of federal dollars home, Miller campaigned on his belief that the investment had made Alaska a sort of “federal fiefdom.” Miller argued, apparently with success, that with the government effectively bankrupt, Alaska should assume responsibility for its destiny.
“He feels like that era is over because the federal government can’t afford it,” Randy DeSoto, Miller’s communications director, said Wednesday. “Joe’s basic belief is that the state is somewhat of a ‘federal fiefdom.’ … He would fight to retain more autonomy for Alaska.”
It was an unlikely political appeal, coming on the heels of the Aug. 9 death of Stevens, whose legacy was bringing home billions of federal dollars to build roads, bridges and airports to modernize Alaska — not only the nation’s physically largest state, but also its most undeveloped and one in which the federal government owns two-thirds of the land.
“It’s just time for a change — time that we stand on our own two feet and that the federal government allows us to develop our natural resources and not put so many restraints on us,” said Republican state Rep. Tammie Wilson, who endorsed Miller. “We’re going to have to build our own roads and support our own people and put them back to work rather than have them sit at home waiting for a check from the government.”
Miller quietly built momentum with this message of fiscal responsibility and government restraint, first with an endorsement from former Gov. Sarah Palin and later with support and $600,000 in donations from out-of-state tea-party activists and backing from such national conservative figures as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and talk-show hosts Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin.
“The tea-party movement and the social movement, really kind of the Reagan coalition, being rebuilt here in Alaska is what allowed him to get on top,” DeSoto said.
Miller attacked Murkowski for her votes supporting the 2008 Wall Street bailout and for opposing a repeal of President Obama’s health-care overhaul. Miller also attacked her for supporting a cap-and-trade energy tax (which he opposes) and for supporting abortion rights (which he opposes).
“We felt that the way the race would be won is if people knew where Murkowski stood on the issues, and they were comfortable that Joe was qualified and would represent them,” DeSoto said. “Most people assumed that since she’s a Republican, she’s basically a conservative Republican. But when we started pointing out all the times she voted against her party, through television and Joe saying it and social media, that played into the mix.”
Miller presented himself as a conservative, small-government Republican, sharing values with former President Reagan. A Kansas native, Miller is a West Point graduate, served as an officer in the Army and was awarded the Bronze Star during the first Gulf War.
He says he was drawn to Alaska 16 years ago because of his love for the outdoors. After graduating from Yale Law School, he accepted a job at an Anchorage law firm.
By age 30, he had been appointed a state magistrate and a Superior Court master for the 4th Judicial District, and eventually became U.S. Magistrate judge in Fairbanks, according to a biography on his campaign website.
Miller resigned from the bench in 2004 to run for state representative, but he narrowly lost in the general election. He since has been a private-practice lawyer in Fairbanks, where he lives with his wife, Kathleen, and their children.
Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.